Because I should talk about this, but I’m getting tired of the -gate snowclone.
So there’s been yet another big gathering of sciencey types which I’m disappointed not to be attending. This one’s called Skepticon.
And although I’m sure there were lots of exciting conversations and presentations that went on there, most of the gossip from the weekend that’s made it as far as my RSS feed and Twitter stream has been about this one ice cream store, and a sign that was put up there:
If you can’t see the image, it’s a sign in the window of Gelato Mio stating: “Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business“.
That’s a) illegal, and b) a real dick move. You really don’t get to flagrantly discriminate against any group of people like that, whether it’s Jews or blacks or Skepticon attendees.
So far, so uncontroversial. The guy’s a bigoted religious nut who’s so unable to handle having his beliefs questioned that he doesn’t mind breaking the law in his resulting childish tantrum. We’ve seen worse.
Then it started getting more complicated. He didn’t just stand by his raving intolerance and start shouting back at anyone who called him on his bullshit. His first apology was pretty thin, but he admits he was wrong, and acknowledges that many people from Skepticon had already been into his shop with no trouble.
Later, he offered a further apology, in a somewhat less boilerplate style. He says again that what he did was “inexcusable” and “completely wrong”, and that it was an impulsive action in a moment of poor judgment. He’d wandered down to visit the conference at some point, having genuinely no idea what it was about (he only seemed to connect the term “skeptics” with UFOs), and happened across a presentation somewhat more acutely critical of his religion than he was expecting. So he got angry and petulant and acted like kind of a dick.
This apology was thorough and unabashed. He did wrong, he’s sorry, he’s attempting to make amends.
So, skeptical community. Do we forgive him?
Jen says yes. Hemant says yes, even if the guy still has a problem with atheism. Buffy says yes, and that a sincere apology like this deserves credit, given how difficult they usually are. Ed Brayton says we should move on, and count the apology as a victory even if it was more of a PR move than anything else. SkepticMoney says yes. Hayley says yes, and has some harsh words for any supposedly compassionate humanist skeptics looking to “make an example” out of this local business owner.
Personally, I’m not finding it helpful to insist that everything rest on the question of whether he should be “forgiven”. I’m going to take a cue from the Eliezer Yudkowsky playbook (one of the Skepticon speakers and increasingly a hero of mine), and taboo the word “forgive” and its derivatives, as well as variants on the phrase “accept his apology”. Without getting bogged down by the language, then, what do I think?
Is Gelato-man an irredeemable jerk? No. He lashed out stupidly in a fit of anger, but he’s apologised and admitted wrongdoing, which was by no means inevitable.
Does he sincerely feel remorse for what he did? I think so. I find it hard to imagine him writing what he did if he didn’t feel bad and get why he was out of line.
Are we all going to be his friends? Well, probably not. The fact that he has the capacity for such spite toward non-Christians at all tells us something about his character, and I don’t think he really merits a heart-warming reconciliation scene. We’re not obliged to like him, or find him a charming fellow, or deny that what he did was obnoxious and unlawful, in order not to bear a grudge in perpetuity.
Shall we move on from this incident now? Seems like a good idea. There’s nothing else it’s worth demanding or expecting from him. I think it’s all been sufficiently resolved that, should we have occasion to think of him in the future, we’d remember him as “that gelato guy” before “that bigoted asshole”.
Is it worth even making a fuss about this kind of thing in the first place? I think it can be. Being deprived of the chance for some ice cream may not be a major human rights violation, but casual discrimination against non-Christians or the non-religious is a big deal in a lot of places, not least the USA. Many State Constitutions give a pro-religious bias, to the point of denying non-believers the right to hold public office. Almost half of the country would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and nearly as many deem atheism completely at odds with “American society”. The amount of abuse and death threats atheists face, simply as a result of existing and speaking their mind, emphasises how important it is to publicly oppose this kind of bigotry. I wouldn’t want to see recriminations taken any further in this case, but calling out this kind of prejudice is important.
Should we try harder not to upset other Christian shop-owners in future? Not really. The offense that made this guy fly off the handle wasn’t any kind of vitriol directed at him; it was a presentation intended for the skeptics who chose to attend, and which satirised some aspects of popular religion. It’s not like everyone was getting together to hate on religious people all weekend. There was an assortment of attractions, all of which sound worthwhile, and many of which would be bound to offend large swathes of people who aren’t good at dealing with contrary opinions. Satire and mockery are an important part of, well, just about everything. This guy’s not obliged to like that we made fun of his invisible friend, and he’s not obliged to like us for it. But that’s a thing we get to do, and we’re not obliged to care about his wounded pride if he’s really that threatened by alternative viewpoints. Which I think he gets now.
Have I asked myself enough rhetorical questions for one day? Yes. Yes, I have.