Bigotry, Brandon Eich, and keeping one's mouth shut. April 3rd, 2014
Update (September 9th, 2017): When I wrote this article I believed myself to be a cisgender heterosexual male. Since then I have come to realize that I am none of those things, and I understand better now why Eich’s actions were so painful for queer members of the tech community. Today I recognize that the following was written from a place of privilege that I was blind to, but I still stand by these words. I do not agree with Eich, but this year we have seen the face of true hatred, a rebirth of real nazis, and in comparison his actions seem as mere misguidance.
I have a bit of a story before I get to my point, so please hang with me here.
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. My parents, my grandmother, one of my uncles, and all of my cousins are JWs. While I was never “active” in the faith, I continued involvement and attendance until I was 23 years old, when I moved out of my mother’s house. Since I had continued attending the congregation so long, I had established many friendships with people in the local congregation.
If you ever come across a thread on Reddit or other discussion boards where former JWs are describing their experiences, you find a common theme. Many, upon announcing that they don’t want any further involvement with the church, become ostracized from their families and friends. If the person was baptized, this may be the result of the person being “dis-fellowshipped”, essentially a congregation level policy of not engaging with that individual on a personal level (meaning casual association).
Dis-fellowshipping is not shunning or banishment, the person is simply recognized as not being a good associate and should not be engaged in conversation about things related to religion. This isn’t something that happens lightly, and usually doesn’t happen quickly. No one ever becomes dis-fellowshipped for simply not attending services, they have to knowingly and deliberately demonstrate that they are opposed to the beliefs and will not follow them, essentially rejecting the vow that they made when they were baptized. JW baptism is a willing and conscious commitment with a lot of requirements and not something taken lightly (infants are NEVER baptized). If the person is not baptized, there is no official process, the person is just socially recognized as not being interested in the faith. I was never baptized.
The reason so many of these people become ostracized is not because they stopped believing, but because they directly and clearly rejecting the principles of the faith. Like Amish teenagers on Rumspringa, people raised in the JW faith who choose to rebel tend to rebel hard, hitting all the vices that they can and quite vocally announcing their distaste for the religion and its members. Unsurprisingly, when this happens, the much more forceful severance of the person occurs. Family members will avoid them, friends will stop returning their calls, and in general the person really is shunned…
Not because the person violated their rules, but rather because everyone is sick of their shit. No one wants to hang out with someone who regularly puts down their beliefs and lives their life in a way that flies directly in their face.
It has been over ten years since I attended a normal JW service. In 2009 I married an atheist who had been living with me for six months prior. I celebrate Christmas with my family and we held a birthday party for my daughter. I curse frequently, I watch porn fairly often, and I have no problems with nudity or pre-marital sex. I believe in gay and transgender rights. These are all things that are in violation of JW beliefs, yet I still have all of my Witness friends and am in communication with all of my family members. Many of both groups attended our wedding.
Why wasn’t I ostracized by the church? Because I don’t fucking talk about my beliefs in their presence. If biblical topics come up, I stay out of the conversation. If they ask my opinion outright, I dodge the question and change the topic. I know that, in that audience, my opinions are not shared and will be viewed negatively, so I keep my damn mouth shut, and I continue to maintain otherwise wonderful friendships. Nothing can be gained by my informing them.
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.
This does not mean that I do not do the things that they dislike, but I also don’t bring it up in conversation. Some people might call this dishonesty, I call it pragmatism.
Silence is the virtue of those who are not wise
Silence is wisdom and gets a man friends
Silence is wisdom when speaking is folly
You see, I learned something a long time ago. For the vast majority of people, personal opinions on religion and politics are completely irrelevant. It’s only when you start announcing those opinions and trying to change others that people take offense. (Incidentally, proselytizing was my biggest complaint about the JW faith, and why I never pursed baptism).
Silence is golden
Brandon Eich knows this too. Every interview and response that he has made since his Prop 8 contribution came to light has clearly demonstrated it. He holds an opinion, whatever it may be, and he knows that something about that opinion is not popular, so he keeps that opinion completely to himself even when pressed to reveal it.
If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.
But silence does not preclude action. Just because his opinion is his own, does not mean that he must never react on that opinion. Clearly he felt that his contribution was in his best interests, but he also felt that it was not something to inform others about. I dare say every person alive has spent money on something they do not want others to know about. Four years went by before someone found an account of his donation, and still he remained silent on the matter. Whether he feels pride or shame for that donation remains his own council, and that is his right as a human being to keep it that way.
I have seen people say some horrible things about Eich on Twitter. The man has been equated to KKK members, supremacists, and even Hitler himself. He’s been called a bigot, a hate monger, and a fascist. For what? Because six years ago he gave money to an organization and then didn’t tell anyone about it? Why the hell does that deserve such veracity of spite? There are so many people in the world who actively and quite vocally commit much more drastic and direct offenses against gay people. Some of them even get paid to do so! When Prop 8 was on the ballot there were people on a street corner a block from my house shouting truly hateful things in support of it. Brandon’s donation seems half-hearted, by comparison.
The volume of hatred that has been directed at Eich over the past week has FAR exceeded the tiny amount of potential bigotry that he demonstrated in that private donation.
I am ashamed to read some of the things that people I follow on Twitter have said this past week, people who I previously held in well regard. Bigotry flows both ways, hateful speech is hateful speech no matter which side you are on, and a lot more people should really learn to keep their opinions to themselves.