Updated: Mar 9
To be or not to be: the age-old question which, thanks to the pandemic, can now be applied to the ever-polarising issue of being vaccinated. Though it may seem as though there are more anti-vaxxers than ever before, a refusal to be inoculated is by no means a new phenomenon – it’s merely the introduction of vaccine passports and subsequent moralisation of the issue that have made the debate so much more potent.
There’s an interesting assumption that anti-vax theorists are simultaneously unintelligent but extremely vocal, and the tendency is to completely dismiss their protestations as the malicious and deliberate spreading of false claims. This is, broadly speaking, not what anti-vaxxers are actually guilty of and it’s here that the differences between disinformation and misinformation become so important. Whereas Donald Trump’s many claims for curing coronavirus, such as an injection of disinfectant are self-evidently wrong and downright dangerous, many (though not all) of the anti-vax claims I’ve heard about the vaccines seem more to fit into the category of misinformation. That is to say, there is no malicious intent when spreading such theories, there is more often than not a lack of anything other than surface-level knowledge, and, of course, those disseminating such ideas genuinely believe what they are saying.
There is, of course, another issue. It seems to me that those in favour of getting the vaccine are at best totally ambivalent towards the matter – in other words, they are perfectly happy to get the jab and just move on with their lives. By contrast, anti-vaxxers firmly and ardently believe in their cause – just as any other activist believes in theirs. It’s like children who are scared of spiders, or the dark. No matter how many times you tell them that it’s not going to hurt them and there’s nothing to be scared of, that’s not going to help them. But you wouldn’t just tell them they were being stupid and to shut up, would you? They are not trying to be difficult, or different for the sake of it, there is a whole underlying belief system that cannot easily be dismantled – and denying them a platform is certainly not the way to go about it as that’s where we run into a whole host of problems surrounding free speech and freedom of expression.
Take, for example, the common objection to the newer form of vaccines (mRNA) which is that they are only newly available to the public, and thus (according to anti-vax logic) have skipped many important clinical trials making them potentially harmful to the population. Whilst it is true that some testing phases were more rushed than normal, these were not the ethical trials but the administrative ones – thus the speed at which the vaccines were produced, though at first glance a potentially valid concern, should not be (and is not) in reality an issue.
These biases towards anti-vaxxers – that they should immediately be dismissed and brushed under the rug can however be extremely damaging. For those who truly believe, for example, that the ongoing vaccine roll-out is an excuse for population-wide control, silencing them isn’t helping the matter. Instead, a refusal to allow them to air their concerns is merely perpetuating the myth that we are being coerced into something beyond our control. Surely it would be more productive to fact check these claims and attempt to fix anti-vax misunderstandings than just pretending they do not exist.
The recent controversy surrounding Joe Rogan and Spotify exemplifies this perfectly. Though the pandemic has pushed the need to be vaccinated to the forefront of everybody’s minds, at its core, it’s a matter of personal opinion. Spotify banning Joe Rogan’s podcast, though it may make the controversy go away in the short term, isn’t productive. Podcasts like Joe Rogan’s are designed to allow a variety of people a space to express their views - and it’s up to the audience to decide who they want to agree with. Similarly, the solution to the anti-vax movement as a whole isn’t to ban them from their Facebook groups, denying them a place to express their opinion and dismissing them as stupid, it’s to allow everyone else to weigh up the information given to them and make an informed decision.
Perhaps the best place to start is to try and understand where anti-vaxxers are coming from. You don’t have to agree with them, but listening to their views, trying to see things from their perspective and exchanging ideas in an open-ended conversation seems like a much more gentle and compassionate approach than an outright ban on their opinions.
Image: Unsplash, Daniel Schludi