When I was seven or eight, my teacher told my class that cigarettes cause cancer. My dad was a chainsmoker–a pack a day, sometimes more–so that evening, just before dinner, I told him what I’d learned. He thought for a moment, then nodded and said, “Well, then I just won’t smoke the bad ones.”
That was enough to set a seven- or eight-year-old boy’s mind at rest, but it doesn’t actually work that way. No single cigarette kills you; instead, each one ever-so-slightly increases the odds that something’s going to go wrong, that some cell will decide to grow and grow until you’re short of breath and the doctor has to have a conversation with you about options and tradeoffs.
No single post on a bulletin board makes a young man believe that race war is both necessary and inevitable. No single thread on 4chan or reddit makes him decide to commit murder, but each one ever-so-slightly increases the odds that he’ll drive a car into a crowd of protestors, open fire at a mosque in Quebec City, or plow through pedestrians on a sidewalk in Toronto.
That’s why I resigned from Shopify last year after working there for only a week. Donald Trump had just been inaugurated, and company after company was pulling its ads from Breitbart News, the alt-right “news” site that Steve Bannon used to inflame the white hate that helped propel Trump into the White House. Shopify, though, had decided to keep hosting Breitbart’s online store. Management said it was about supporting free speech: after all, they weren’t going to be the ones selling brain cigarettes to kids. They were just going to be the ones packaging them and delivering them to stores.
After a week of onboarding in Ottawa, I went out to BC to spend some time with my mother. She was settling into a new home, but here and there, among the books and blankets and odds and ends, I could still catch a whiff of my father and his cigarettes. That’s when I discovered that it’s really hard to win an argument with a dead man. No matter how often I said, “But free speech!” he didn’t answer; eventually, his silence wore me down and I emailed in my resignation.
And then Heather Heyer died and I realized that doing the right thing in silence isn’t enough, so for nine months I’ve been reminding people on Twitter that Shopify is still helping merchants of hate stay in business, and asking well-intentioned groups who take money from Shopify how they square that with their ideals. It turns out that it’s a lot easier to retweet one of Sarah Kendzior’s biting attacks on the current president than it is to ask people close to home to make hard choices, but I don’t think I get to do the former if I’m not willing to do the latter.
I’ve also discovered that trying to hold people accountable close to home gives me hope in a way that righteous rage against distant monsters does not. Just as no single cigarette will give someone cancer, no single hard question will make them decide to live up to their principles, but each one might improve the odds, and believing that is important right now. I know some people find my stridency awkward, but I’d rather make them uncomfortable than lose another argument with my dad.