We Got Your Disease

Forgive me for going off-topic -- I know, I know, what topics have I offered lately that would indicate that I'm going off-topic now? -- but I think it's probably important for my recuperation to write this all out and express myself.

Yes, I said "recuperation." If you haven't heard yet, my condition just got a diagnosis. That came a few seconds after I found out I had a condition. News flies fast and furious here. We have cable.

How about I quit talking in riddles? That sounds good. Here we go: Hey, everybody, there's at least a sporting chance that I'm mentally diseased! But not according to a doctor, or a psychologist, or any number of former associates (though I imagine some of them might concur with the diagnosis).

No, my status as a mentally diseased person was inferred by the religion I grew up in - the Jehovah's Witnesses, based in Brooklyn, although they're selling off a lot of their properties at the moment and moving, as so many New Yorkers do, upstate a ways.

I of course have a link, as my condition was rather insensitively made public. But in the U.K. I got some friends, or as they call them "blokes," who are even more ticked off than I am. Here's the gist:
Detectives are investigating whether (an) article, published in July’s edition of The Watchtower, is in breach of Britain’s religious hatred laws...

"Suppose that a doctor told you to avoid contact with someone who is infected with a contagious, deadly disease," part of the article stated.

"You would know what the doctor means, and you would strictly heed his warning. Well, apostates are 'mentally diseased', and they seek to infect others with their disloyal teachings."

A group of former Witnesses, based in Portsmouth, have made an official complaint to Hampshire Police about the article. Police have launched an investigation.
I wrangle with my newfound condition in true movie-of-the-week fashion after the jump.

A little context for the newsy bit: The reason British police are investigating this publication is speculation that The Watchtower may have run afoul of legislation, enacted in 2006, that addresses the use of religious "hate speech." This legislation sprung as a reaction against anti-Muslim hate speech. I don't know if it's ever been applied to speech against ex-members of a Christian-derived religion or non-believers, but it wouldn't surprise me if this is the first time.

Former Witnesses are all up in a dander about this. I can see why. "Mentally diseased" is the most pointed, emotionally loaded phrase The Watchtower has ever used to describe us. This isn't some mild epithet like "disfellowshipped persons," or a vague value judgment like "bad association." This is some House M.D. stuff. "Mentally diseased" connotes degradation, a worsening condition, a cerebral virus. I can picture Hugh Laurie belittling me right now before curing me with strategically-placed balloons and spilled cognac just before time fatally runs out. And then American Idol comes on.

(Wait, AmIdol doesn't follow House anymore, does it? It's local news or Cleveland Show reruns or something. Or did AmIdol ever follow House to begin with? See? I'm so mentally diseased, I can't even follow the lineup of a network that only broadcasts two hours a night.)

The point being, the strong language of the term "mentally diseased" opens up a new frontier for The Watchtower: It comes right out and says what they've been imploring their rank-and-file to believe for years without really saying specifically. If you didn't believe in "the truth" after being exposed to it so religiously (excuse me) and relentlessly for years, then something must have grabbed a hold of you and sickened your mind.

Before now this wasn't in any of their publications -- but it was all over, in implication, their shunning and disfellowshipment policies. A person who's changed their beliefs was kind of viewed as a leper: You feel bad for his condition and hope he eventually improves, but you better not bring him a covered dish.

While the use of such a potent phrase as "mentally diseased" is a little surprising, the fact that The Watchtower has to employ it now isn't surprising at all. That's because there was never an organized, accessible opposition to The Watchtower before the Internet went and screwed everything up.

In 1985, when you left JW's, information backing up your decision was extraordinarily difficult to come by. There were some ex-JW support groups, but finding them was not easy. I quit in 1983 when I was a teenager, and did not know about any such group until seven years later. That's when someone I knew who worked in the religion industry pointed me to a cult awareness network, who eventually led me to Witness Inc. I had to read a lot of books that were printed on paper back then. I saw documents, but couldn't take them from the premises. Additionally, the guy I talked to was, although not outright antagonistic, at least formidably pissed off. I entered his sanctum and immediately ingested a bunch of fear. It could have been the trepidation that comes when you are about to discover something that will alter the course of your life, but at the time it felt like he was just as liable to claw my eyes out. It made for an unsettling experience, but it was all we had at the time. The Watchtower could handle and contain that kind of movement back then.

It cannot now. Just as the Internet has fostered communities of people around the notions of self-help, political diatribe, Kardashians and a nearly Abyssinian worship of cute kittens, they have also banded together former Jehovah's Witnesses. And it's not good for The Watchtower's business. Now when one of them comes to your door and offers you a tract, you can thank them, wish them a good day, close the door, and head to your computer to look up "Jehovah's Witnesses" in your favorite search engine.

Spoiler alert: Not all results will paint them in a positive light. You'll encounter some rebuttals, some of them quite spirited, complete with sarcastic JPGs (most of them featuring cats, of course).

So the best The Watchtower could do was control what they already had. Well, that's not true - the best they could do is embrace or at least allow some sort of reformation. But they have this problem with admitting they were wrong. It's very similar to George W. Bush's and the Tea Party's problem with the same thing. If you admit you're wrong, you imply some sort of weakness, and once you've done that there's no telling how much milk you'll spoil. In lieu of that, then, The Watchtower Society started imposing more limits and restrictions, which to be fair is the thing they're best at.

I've noticed some JW friends' (yes, I have some) Facebook profiles have completely vanished in the last six months. This has to come from some admonishment about the dangers of social media. They have already (in the same article quoted above) told members not to comment on the blogs of apostates. Since social media is quite popular these days, The Watchtower had to come up with a designation that states, once and for all, that any apostates JW's might come across on the World Wide Web must be avoided - not just for convenience's sake, but for the survival and extended health of all its members in the near and distant future. (Which is kind of strange, since they preach that Armageddeon is only a few heartbeats away. Nothing messes up a health kick like the threat of an apocalypse.)

Ergo - "mentally diseased." In quotation marks, so they can always fall back on the idea that they never came right out and were literal about the mental disease. They were air-quoting "mentally diseased," which effectively reduces the phrase from a diagnosis to a metaphor.

Which is how I think they're going to skirt the British investigation. And to be honest, I'm not sure I think they ran afoul of hate-speech laws myself. I mean, personally, in my perfect world, every time some crazy person says things like "homosexuality is a disease" or "KISS stands for 'Kids In Satan's Service," that person would be rigorously humiliated. But they aren't, and there's always some twist of vernacular that proves their speech is not hateful, and we have this little freedom-of-speech thing that occasionally irks us, but that we must always defend. Like that cousin of ours who doesn't bathe enough, collects too many figurines and still thinks Obama was born in Kenya -- but who really hasn't done anything terribly illegal. Yet.

About the most we Americans can do is say this kind of speech is really, really, really stupid. Then we have to leave it. I'm not from England, so I don't know what the culture over there thinks about this kind of speech. But since we're somewhat close kin to the English culture and world view, I'm going to guess that the investigation will amount to nothing, and The Watchtower will be cleared of all charges, as they usually, frustratingly are, without having to go through the mortification of a public apology.

Would I like to see that? Would I procure some enjoyment out of seeing officials from The Watchtower Society being forced to squirm and take something back? Would I laugh? Would I snicker? Would I express some jubilation? Would I cackle and point my fingers at the sky and say "Yes! Yes! Whoooo-hoo!"

Of course I would. But with dignity. Always dignity.

As for my condition, though? Well, looking back over the description, I'm not what you'd call a real hardcore apostate. In fact, technically speaking, I was never a Jehovah's Witness since I was not baptized. I was just raised around it day after day for the first 15 years of my life. Members of my family are still Jehovah's Witnesses. They do not shun me. Quite the opposite. We all get along great. They love the fact that I have a beautiful family, seemed to be somewhat gainfully employed and didn't sell all my teeth for crack. They treat me well.

I also don't like bashing Jehovah's Witnesses. I love bashing the organization that rules over them, but not the everyday JW who's been told not to question the organization. I don't even care about their doctrine, just their management. I have no particular response to their belief system. Most of it seems based on faulty arithmetic and failed predictions, but I do both of those all the time. They believe what they want and that's everybody's right. I'm no longer interested in debating the particulars of the theology. I'm kind of exhausted with all theologies, to be frank.

Realizing that right to your own belief was the first thing that led me out of Jehovah's Witnesses, actually. What made them so different? What's so great about their exclusivity? Isn't the arrogance of certainty, at compassion's expense, exactly what all those New Testament writers were aligned against? Would you mind checking with those writers before you lay down your edicts? Their being dead for 2,000 years is no excuse. It's just a logistical challenge.

I don't care what you believe as long as you don't call for the destruction or degradation of someone who's not you. "Mentally diseased" is the closest The Watchtower has ever come to that kind of statement, and it's revealing. It indicates things are not going well internally. They're playing with house money. Skepticism is up. You can now Google things. Armageddeon's not a marketable product anymore -- at least not the Judeo-Christian kind, we outsourced it to the Mayans. And, well, there's this other scandal that sort of came up a few years ago, which couldn't have helped.

But am I shocked? Not really. The Watchtower Society's been heading toward this sweeping, disparaging, even more dictatorial way for awhile. It certainly doesn't mean ex-JW's like myself are mentally diseased whatsoever. Which is a shame, 'cause I was looking forward to the disability checks from the state.
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