Ex-Members, Bigotry and Lazy Journalism
I read a recent article based on interviews with ex-members of a UK Jehovah’s Witness group and it sounded frustratingly familiar.
There seems to be some unwritten rule in the media that interviewing former members of a group is the way to get the most accurate and “unbiased” view of its motives and what the group experience is really like.
These ex-members are most often pitched as victims who have been taken advantage of and deserve a platform to share their stories. It’s as if, in a cynical world, the only legitimate viewpoint about something is the most critical and negative one you can find.
I have no doubt that in some cases the alleged negative experiences of ex-members are at least partially true. But what about when they aren’t?
I have no idea what really happened with that specific group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What I do know is that relying on the testimony of excommunicated members as gospel truth is no way to arrive at any sort of objective conclusion.
Think about it. Let’s take a family as an example. You have two parents and a son in his early twenties. The parents both work full time jobs and the son spent a lot of his childhood as a latchkey kid, taking care of himself and not seeing his parents as much as he would have liked.
In his late teens, he falls in with a bad crowd, gets into heavy, addictive drugs and starts stealing from his parents and making their lives a living hell. They get him into multiple rehab programs but he relapses again and again. They forgive him and take him in only to have him steal from them and disappear overnight.
Eventually the parents, heartbroken and hopeless, decide that a “tough love, zero tolerance” policy is the only choice they have left and they refuse to let their son even enter their house or speak to them until he makes amends and can prove he’s sober and stable. He’s now been “excommunicated” from the family, but only after every other possible remedy was exhausted.
At this point, if you asked this son about his parents, it might sound something like this:
“They never really loved me. I was basically abandoned as a child. My dad never even played a game of catch with me. And when I needed them the most they completely shut me out of their lives and won’t even have any contact with me. They’re the worst parents ever.”
The thing is, there’s some truth in what he’s saying. His parents probably could and should have found a way to spend more time with him as a child. It’s very possible that he turned to drugs later in life to numb the hurt feelings that resulted from their lack of attention.
But if you look at it from the parent’s perspective, they probably felt they were doing the best they could. They didn’t have a lot of money and they both had to work full-time just to make ends meet. And maybe they even came from households with overbearing, overly strict parents and felt that giving their son his freedom was the best thing for him.
Circling back around to the original article I mentioned, I have no idea what really happened with that specific group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What I do know is that relying on the testimony of excommunicated members as gospel truth is no way to arrive at any sort of objective conclusion. And for a young religion, often misunderstood by outsiders, this kind of article is little more than a hit piece, aimed at stirring up controversy and selling ad space. It’s not even a half-hearted attempt to get at the truth. There was no effort made to cover how being a Jehovah’s Witness might be a positive force in people’s lives. It’s a lazy, paint-by-numbers narrative that’s been told again and again. And it’s fundamentally unfair to everyone involved.
In the family analogy above, anyone agreeing with the son about his “horrible” parents is allowing him to justify all the ways he’s handled his problems, which have only brought devastation to himself and his family.
There are people who make their living attacking groups to which they once pledged their devotion and they are often presented in the media as if they are providing some sort of service to the community rather than what they are actually doing: carrying out the basic human need to justify their behavior and make themselves right, even when they’re not.
The bottom line is: if you’re a member of a group and you have a problem with the way that group operates, then the responsible thing to do is to fix it—to handle it within the group. To abandon the group and its principles and then attack the group from the outside and invite agreement from others about how terrible it is is not only unconstructive, it’s wrong. If you have been excommunicated from a group whose principles and faith you subscribed to, the first thing you should probably do is take a hard look at your own behavior and see if there’s anything worth addressing there.
The fundamental flaw of the article I read, like so many before it, is that its author never asks the hard questions of the person being interviewed. “What exactly did you do that caused this to happen?” “What is your responsibility in how things went?” and “If you could do anything differently, would you?”
Asking those questions and including their honest answers would go a long way toward achieving the kind of balance I have never before seen on the subject of religion in the mainstream media. And you won’t find me holding my breath waiting for it.