Interview with a principled anti-vaxxer

I had a conversation with a covid anti-vaxxer recently. It was an intense and, for me, clarifying experience.

It was my first such conversation—we don’t run into many anti-vaxxers in this neck of the woods. Everybody I know has been long and happily vaxxed, believing ourselves to be not only safer personally but part of the herd immunity solution.

I had only read about such contrary creatures, usually characterized as politically misled, probably a denizen of a red state, and otherwise benighted. (“How can they be so stupid?” Is a typical frustrated response.) But X is an an old friend , a fellow iconoclast, very smart and well-read about issues, a guy I had always regarded as sharing liberal or progressive views.

Nevertheless, my old friend was, about this anyway, the enemy. He hated being thought of that way. He and his wife were very hurt that just about everyone they knew was very upset with their stance.

Obligatory social pleasantries out of the way, I plunged right in: So, X, why are you taking this renegade outlier stance?

And he explained, at some length . Basically, he said, you have to look beyond mainstream sources to other sources he’d found. There’s a whole world out there, he said, of smart people who aren’t biassed, don’t have ulterior motives for espousing the prevailing understanding of the pandemic and the social distancing/lockdown/ vaccination approach to it, the whole bill of goods we have been sold by what he more than once dismissed as the “corporate media.” He named a couple of professors and others who have informed his vaccination stance.

Basically, he said, you got vaccinated because you’ve been reading the wrong stuff.

X’s challenge forced me to think about why I had read and taken direction from the sources I had. It was a challenge to my view of myself. The fact is that, though voraciously curious myself about almost everything, my reading about the pandemic had for the most part been limited to sources most of which would be considered “mainstream”such as The New York Times, the New Yorker, MSNBC, CNN and the like–”corporate media” indeed, in that they take the form of companies, as does almost everything in a capitalist economy

Why, though of a skeptical and contrarian disposition myself, had I tended to trust these standard sources that X had brushed aside? Well, for one thing, they are trusted widely among people I know and respect. And, though corporately owned, they are hardly monolithic in a Big Brother sort of way. Just trying in, say, the New York Times, to heed the oft-heard sane advice to “follow the science” has been the cause of intellectual whiplash.

Following the science has meant following the disagreements among epidemiologists, the many arguments over public policy, the self-reverses of the CDC Following the science has meant vicariously experiencing the humbling of science. .All of this duly reported on in the mainstream media.

And, I realized, a large factor in my trust in the vaccination effort is that the path taken by government in this case is consistent with received wisdom, what we all learned when young, that such scourges as smallpox and polio were stopped and stopped only, by a mass vaccination effort. And the logic of that is that enough people have to be part of that effort for it to work. If that logic has been refuted, I haven’t heard about it.

Aside from some discussion of the crucial trust issue, my main response to X was to point out that there was another idea he might want to think about: that his personal anti-vax convictions on this subject didn’t at this point in the pandemic matter. I admit that it sounded strange coming out of my mouth: forget about the courage of your convictions.

I don’t remember ever saying that to anyone before, but in this current life-and-death struggle with the pandemic, where there is a widely accepted solution, approved of in the highest places , and though the solution carries no 100% guarantees, and even though still debated by some experts, there comes a time for the personal doubts and convictions to give way to the general effort. Think World War Two. Not for the personal to get lost or swamped, but rather persuaded, or at least comforted, if only by sheer numbers of fellow humans. To join the herd in search of immunity.

Yes, this is unfair, getting in the last word this way, especially in this way. But I imagine this is not the end of the discussion with X.

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