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The Anti-Vaxxer Debate: How Fear Creates Villains

by Nate St. Pierre on February 9, 2015

Forget what you know (or think you know) about the merits and concerns on both sides of the vaccination debate. That’s not what this article is about.

This article is about taking a closer look at the way the debate is playing out in the public sphere, especially online. The last few years have seen us quickly advancing to the point we’re at right now, where any major ideological disagreement pushes us into all-out Internet Armageddon. We’re losing our humanity, and I’m not saying that in a hyperbolic sense. We are literally losing the human connection that enables us to be empathetic and kind to one another even in the midst of a disagreement.

To illustrate the problem, I will simply point to this article and its comments:

shameworks

This is not a sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek statement – the author is literally saying that we should shame into submission those people who disagree with a complete vaccination schedule. There are thousands of comments on the post, the vast majority of which support this course of action.

(To be fair I will say that this is an article on Gizmodo, which is owned by Gawker Media, which has no problem throwing out antagonistic content in the almighty pursuit of clicks, but nevertheless, there are many other articles like this floating around the web right now.)

Here’s the fourth paragraph from the article:

“I’m here to convince you that the best way to deal with anti-vaxxers is to ridicule their position so much that it’s no longer acceptable to say in polite company that vaccines cause autism. Ridicule is our best option to help stem the tide of dangerous superstition washing over this beautiful, measles-infested country of ours. Because shaming works.”

And when the point of every article on the pro-vaccination side implicitly or explicitly reiterates the message that OMG YOU ARE A HORRIBLE PARENT IF YOU DON’T VACCINATE YOUR KIDS, it’s just one small step from that point of view to comments like this:

fbquote

Or language like this, pulled from the Gizmodo article above:

“Shame is one of the most potent forces in American society. And just like any tool of socialization and conformity, it can be used for both good and evil. Shame is currently winning the battle for marriage equality. We’re seeing the battle play out in real time, and the bigots are losing because they’re being ridiculed for articulating hateful beliefs.”

My liberal friends should understand the immense danger here, because they talk about it all the time: When you label someone, you marginalize them. When you put them into the box of “ignorant | selfish | hateful | bigot” you no longer have to acknowledge their humanity. You don’t have to try to put yourself in their shoes and understand that they may be honestly grappling with the dogma of their ancient faith, and working out what that means for them and for their community in the midst of rapid and frightening change.

So when you label someone an “anti-vaxxer,” you’re no longer talking to a parent who loves their child, you’re talking to a “dangerous moron,” and it gives you license to think or say or do anything you want to them, without having to bother with honestly trying to understand them.

The “let’s shame the anti-vaxxer” crowd isn’t allowing themselves to understand that the people (the parents) they’re fighting against are not stupid or selfish or uncaring . . . they are AFRAID. They are more afraid of injecting their little ones with a barrage of drug-delivered viruses than of the potentially deadly effects of a number of diseases that they have never seen (most likely because of the success of vaccination programs over the past decades). This fear for their children drives them to extremes, and so they create in doctors and corporations and government a villain that they can attack without guilt.

The pro-vaccine crowd is not meeting them at their level, however, because whether they know it or not, they too are acting out of fear. They are AFRAID that their children are going to live in a country full of deadly diseases because other people choose not to join them in their push for herd immunity. This fear for their own children drives them to extremes, and so they create in other parents a villain that they can attack without guilt.

Neither side sees the truth: that everyone here is on the same team: caring parents who passionately love their children and will do anything to protect their little lives. This is a logical viewpoint, and a very good starting point to enter into a dialogue and try to get to a place where true progress can be made. But virtually no one looks at the logic of a situation when fear is clouding their judgment. Instead, they lash out . . . and the internet makes it so much easier than it’s ever been to attack, hurt, and destroy anyone who happens to disagree with you.

Not to get all bubble-gum zen on you guys, but seriously:

yoda

One of the biggest takeaways from this debate is that, perhaps at first in the interest of brevity, the Internet is very quick to slap a label on a group of people. But once that’s done, the opportunity to engage in honest, rational discussion with said group has passed, and we move into ad hominem attack territory.

For all the internet has given us over the years, this is one of the areas where it is creating in our society something truly dangerous – a loss of real (not digital) connection with each other. The modern internet right now has both the attention span and the personality of a three-year-old in the middle of an angry tantrum, and that should be something deeply concerning for all of us.

I’ve been helping to code and build the web for 20 years now, almost as long as this iteration has been in existence, and for the first time ever I’m starting to think that it’s actually hurting us significantly. Instead of bringing us together, it’s making it far too easy to physically and intellectually distance us from each other, and that is a very dangerous path.

It doesn’t have to be left vs. right or science vs. religion – people just have to talk to one another and try to understand each other.

And right now, sadly, they aren’t.

– Nate

P.S. I have two suggestions to help improve these discussions:

1) Know and understand the people you’re (personally) talking to on the subject
2) Don’t listen to the hyperbole and scare tactics the internet and media try to sell both sides. Do your own research. Look at real numbers. Formulate your own opinion. If you don’t know where to start, here’s an article from someone who did a balanced dig into arguments on both sides: A Closer Look At Pro/Anti Vaccine Arguments

P.P.S. Regarding the “hyperbole and scare tactics” comment above, here’s some more reading on that subject (Disclaimer: they’re biased towards my own viewpoint, because I wrote them):

  • All good points. The anti vax crowd is operating out of fear of factoids they’ve picked up along the way & the pro science folks (I include myself there) were at first annoyed but now that people around us are getting sick quickly we are afraid and we’re afraid of them the way we’re afraid of criminals and would prefer that they’re shamed and locked up (not literally – but maybe quarantined) because their children dangerous to our own and to me personally.

    I tried meeting them at their level, whatever that was, and it’s tiresome. It’s like trying to say, “No, Zeus does not live on top of a mountain & he won’t punish you.” A million times over. Right about now we just need to legislate it as it’s a public health issue, and not a small one.

  • Brad S.

    Great article, Nate; I appreciate you bringing this to light. I’m sharing this in hopes that, one by one, we can help the internet understand that being objective and hearing other viewpoints is not a shameful activity. God Bless.

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