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The Casual Bigotry of Facebook Messenger

So today Facebook decided to turn the camera icon in the user interface of its massively popular Messenger app into an Easter egg. Not a metaphorical hidden-feature Easter egg. An actual graphic of an Easter egg. To some of you I’m sure that sounds innocuous. Others of you were probably horrified when you opened the app and saw it there today, or are horrified reading about it even if you don’t use Messenger. Signed me up in the horrified camp. Here’s why…

Easter is not a secular holiday. That bears repeating so I’ll repeat it. Easter is not a secular holiday. It’s a Christian holiday. All day long, it is a religious holiday that pertains to one religion. And just like Christmas, no matter how many Christians celebrate the day in a completely secular manner, to non-Christians the day remains absolutely and unquestionably somebody else’s religious holiday.

So while I think Easter eggs are beautiful, and grew up Catholic before I converted to Judaism, and don’t keep kosher and can devour a ham with the best of them, I really don’t want the graphical interface of the apps that I use on my smart phone suddenly turning into Easter eggs, or Christmas trees, or any other symbols of somebody else’s religious holiday. Would you?

The Facebook Messenger Twitter account (talk about mixing metaphors) today crowed about the wonderful benefit of Messenger adopting an Easter look for the holiday. I asked them why the user interface, itself was changed, and why it was done unilaterally without an opt-out, instead of letting users who celebrated Easter opt-in, instead. I also asked why they thought non-Christian users would welcome having someone else’s religious iconography inserted into their smart phone apps without their consent.

So far, I haven’t gotten a reply.

You have to wonder, how widely was this rolled out? Only in the United States? In countries where there is a majority population celebrating Easter? I know it’s not just me, because when I complained about the change to Facebook friends, all of them who use Messenger confirmed the same change on their smart phones.

You also have to wonder, how on earth can a company with more than one billion users make such an incredibly religiously bigoted decision like that?

Don’t think it’s bigoted? Are you a Christian? How would you feel if without your consent Facebook decided to turn the user interface of apps on your smart phone into Muslim iconography? Or Jewish iconography? Or atheist iconography? All fine and respectable traditions, but not your traditions? If every time you took a photo in your Messenger app, you had to press a button that without your permission suddenly looked like a Jewish Star of David? Or an atheist Darwin Fish? In those terms, does it still not feel like a religiously bigoted thing for Facebook to do?

Oh, and you don’t get to change it back until that religious holiday belonging to someone else is over, either. And if you’re a Jew, then today you’re actually smack in the middle of your own major religious holidayPassover—so Facebook Messenger’s decision in your case actually reaches Sean Spicer-esque proportions.

This is why brands need to be very, very, very careful about any assumptions they make whatsoever regarding holidays. The moment that you deign to assume that a holiday is secular because that’s how you and everyone you may know have always celebrated it? That’s the moment, especially if you represent a brand, that you should immediately rethink and re-examine your assumptions.

I know this wasn’t a decision made to deliberately exclude non-Christians on Messenger’s part. But in a way it was something equally unfortunate, because the decision to change the user interface for Easter in this manner had to have been proposed, and vetted, and sent to higher ups for approvals. So the equally unfortunate thing here is that none of the people involved in this decision at Facebook Messenger considered at all that non-Christians could possibly experience Christian religious holidays any differently than Christians.

Hear me now. We do.

For that to happen on an app used by a billion people that’s part of an even larger company run by a non-Christian is an extraordinary thing. Don’t let that happen to your brand. The beloved community, whether of citizens or customers, is blessedly diverse.

Ignore that diversity at your own peril.

Categories: Interfaith

Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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4 replies

  1. You’re doing exactly what I wrote about. You’re telling me as a member of a religious minority that something that I find offensive couldn’t be offensive, because you as a member of the religious majority don’t find it offensive. That position of privilege is the entire problem. You finding it okay is irrelevant. Fact is, members of the majority do not get to “disagree” with or otherwise determine what members of a minority find objectionable. Fact also is, the more you try to justify your right to do so, the more you demonstrate bias. That’s how it works. It’s exactly the opposite of allyship.

    Your second point deserves particular attention. People who are not members of your religion have no responsibility to become familiar with its symbols. Suggesting that they do so does not make those symbols any less offensive when they are inserted into inappropriate situations, no matter how secular they may appear to you. In reality, a suggestion like that is not for my benefit at all. It is a common knee-jerk attempt by members of a majority to shut down unconfortable messages from members of a minority. The reality is in situations like this, the learning to be done is on the part of the majority. They are the ones who created the problem in the first place.

    Finally, if you don’t think your comment was biased, I must point out that you spoke not only on behalf of your religion, but on behalf of mine as well. I bet you didn’t even realize when you did it. And when you find it in your comments, I bet you won’t think it’s that big a deal.

    That’s every -ism in action, right there.

  2. Hello Michael,

    I understand what you have written here but I do disagree a few points.

    1. The easter egg is not inherently a Christian symbol. In fact, the name is easter itself is left over from an old pagan holiday (I’m sure you knew this already). Easter eggs are about as Christian to Easter as Santa Clause is to Christmas. I am sure many Christian believers would much prefer a title like “Resurrection Sunday” over Easter. I see the commercialism of Easter as more of an attempt to secularize Easter rather than push the beliefs of Christians concerning Easter. I have never heard of a Christian movement to save the Easter bunny or Easter eggs.

    2. Instead of not including Easter eggs in FB messenger, I would rather see more inclusion of other religions. I think one of the reasons people have such adverse fears of other religions is due to the lack of familiar symbols that people are able to use politely without denegrating the religion itself. My guess is most religions actually take offense to any sort of secularization of their holidays. If anything, the secularization of a religion simply lessons the impact of that religion. Do we really need to take offense to the secularization of other religions? You mention that there are no passover symbols available. My guess is, the inclusion of those would simply upset many jews who would see that as a desecration of the passover symbols – which is completely fair and understandable.

    3. I am never sure where people fall. I see Coexist stickers on many cars and I completely agree with the sentiment. In a society that values freedom of religion, I would rather see people accept others’ practices. Yes, Easter is a Christian holiday. However, we are seeing the lessening of the Easter weekend treated as national religious holiday. Schools used to get Good Friday off. Now, that is rarely seen, or seen much less than in the past. Yes, Easter is a holiday but it always falls on a Sunday. If companies or institutions recognize it as a holiday, it is usually treated as floating holiday. I have not gotten the Monday after easter off in quite a few years.

    I guess what I am saying is I respect your point of view, but I disagree with your main points. As a liberal Christian, I am all for not including the Easter egg as I think it simply secularizes the Easter holiday. However, as someone that would rather see everyone simply accept everyone else, I have no problem with the inclusion of an easter egg on FB messenger.

    Thanks for your forum. I always look forward to your posts.

    1. One more point – How should we define diversity? Is it the exclusion of religious displays or the the celebration of ALL religious displays? I think exclusion simply makes everyone feel neglected. I’d rather we celebrate everyone. I believe what we have here is exclusion through neglect. I’d rather we see more inclusion. I just don’t know that it is possible in this particular forum without some sense of secularization, therefore, the only “religion” that is celebrated here (FB Messenger) is the easter bunny/easter egg.

      1. You are speaking for non-Christians again. You should stop doing that. As a Jew, I don’t feel neglected by not having Jewish religious symbols forced onto all other Messenger users without their consent. I feel neglected by having symbols of other religions forced onto me without my consent. The solution is not to force everyone’s symbols on everyone else. The solution is to seek consent first, or at the very least offer an opt-out feature.

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