What a train wreck.
Harvard's Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein seems determined to take the worst possible approach in his response to the controversy he started. His decisions are like an object lesson in bad crisis management.
That controversy, to sum up: Epstein sent a press release to the media inviting them to do a story about a split within the freethought community, with humanists like Epstein on one side and "atheist 'fundamentalists'" like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins on the other.
Of course, Epstein doesn't actually believe that Harris and Dawkins deserve the appellation he used ("I absolutely do not think Dawkins, Harris, etc. are actual fundamentalists"). Which, to put it simply, makes his claim that they are "fundamentalists" an intentional false accusation.
I think it's safe to call using an intentional false accusation in the first sentence of a press release a really stupid thing to do. Especially to people you claim to want as allies. Especially if it's obvious that you did it to frame the argument in a way that favors you (My Reason vs. Their Dogma: discuss).
No matter how you slice it, what Epstein did was wrong and dumb. And he did it in public, which of course means that he needs to fix it in public.
If I were a crisis PR professional, and Greg Epstein asked me what is the best thing he could possibly do to fix his blunder, here's what I would tell him: Clearly admit doing what you so obviously did -- you tried to frame an argument using an accusation you believe to be false -- and apologize for it. Extend a meaningful olive branch by pledging that in the future, while you won't hold back on your opinions or your blunt expression of them, you will cease trying to smear your opponents with noxious ideas that you don't share.
In other words, demonstrate that you understand this: The accusation that blunt but reasoning atheists like Harris and Dawkins are equivalent to the dogmatic fundamentalists on the other side is false, quite dumb and constantly deployed by their enemies to derail useful conversation (see Austin Cline on that point here). And that is not something of which you want to be part.
On the other hand, if Epstein asked me what is the worst thing he could do, something that would only compound the original mistake and make him look disingenuous and petty, here's what I would tell him: Demonstrate that you completely misunderstand your original offense. Pretend this is about "harsh words" and hurt feelings -- not about your trumpeting an accusation you believe to be false. Imply that your opponents are babies who can dish it out but can't take it. Demand that they apologize for doing the same thing you did -- even though they didn't do the same thing (and Dawkins and Harris would no doubt quickly apologize for making any accusation or characterization that they couldn't back up).
Oh, and indicate that you plan to keep making this false and ridiculous accusation that you know you can't support.
Yes, I think that is just about the worst thing that Chaplain Epstein could do. And that's exactly what he's done.
In addition to this long but empty blog entry, Epstein writes to me via email with this perfectly clueless response:
I would absolutely be willing to consider apologizing for using harsh words in order to make my point (I think apologies are one of the most important things we can offer in life)-- but perhaps when Sam and others are willing to consider apologizing for doing the exact same thing. Until then, I am not going to allow them to call people stupid and ludicrous and obscene but accept the double standard that I have to be nice and friendly to them and I can't use any words that might make them a little bit mad.
Yep, I think that hits all the land mines:
1. Demonstrate that you completely misunderstand your original offense ("using harsh words"). Check.
2. Insist that your opponents, who are innocent of your particular offense, also apologize ("When Sam and others are willing to consider apologizing for doing the exact same thing"). Check.
3. Taunt your opponents and imply they are weak babies (really well done: "I have to be nice and friendly to them and I can't use any words that might make them a little bit mad"). Check.
4. Indicate that you plan to keep making your false and ridiculous accusation (clearly implied). Check.
So I'm at a bit of a loss. How do you deal with someone who refuses to apologize for making what he acknowledges is a false accusation, and who in fact seems to intend to keep making that false accusation? And who, bizarrely, says that he nonetheless wants to continue having a nice, civilized dialogue?
There really seems to be only one appropriate response.