THE COMING ANTI-VAXXER CRUSADE
If a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, said the essayist Jonathan Swift. Writing in the early eighteenth century, he could not have imagined how quickly a lie leaks across the world at the start of the twenty-first.
The spread of falsehoods in 2020 has been described as an ‘infodemic’, feeding off the coronavirus pandemic, confusing and demoralising people. Conspiracy theories, already lurking in a networked world, have mainstreamed. Viruses have this effect. Fatuous claims about the 5G network have been followed by a blame game over the origin and spread of the virus.
When we can’t see our enemy and it does its work quietly and invisibly, people try to draw the dots between events. Some do this rationally, a few mendaciously. It allows the vindictive to stigmatise those they hate. Minorities are threatened. In this way, the virus unravels social cohesion as effectively as physical health.
At the heart of the infodemic is the assault upon science, which calls for wisdom and understanding. Scientists with a grasp of philosophy have always been careful with their truth claims. Hypotheses need to be tested and re-tested, examined by peers, held up to endless, critical scrutiny. This process has taken place away from the public eye until today. Now that science has mingled with politics, some have gleefully undermined the scientific endeavour as slippery and self-serving. This is a vulnerable moment in the quest for truth.
We each have a role to play – the first of which is not to be a source of misinformation. All those online have a public voice and much has been made of the citizen journalist. A serious journalist checks and re-checks their story and sources to make sure of the truth. In contrast, many of us simply forward news without any thought, especially if we love or hate what it says or it makes us look cool and on the money. We are prone to do this when afraid, too, as in a pandemic. But we need to wise up.
A briefing for the European Parliament in April described Russia and China as the source of parallel campaigns to suggest that ‘European citizens cannot trust their health systems, whereas their authoritarian systems can save the world’. Behind some of the misinformation we carelessly spread lie disinformation regimes designed to confuse, demoralise and undermine others. It would probably alarm us to know how often we have been subject to these without realising.
The second response is to be made further down the line. We hope, and some of us pray to God, that there will be a vaccine for this awful virus. To ensure it is contained, huge numbers of people will need to be vaccinated. But there is a strong anti-vaxxer movement already at work, and it is gearing up for this fight.
Its power lies in the unusual coincidence of hard right and hard left wing ideas, described as co-belligerence, when two cohorts that dislike each other find common ground in the fight against another enemy. The hard right distrusts government and views an injection into their bodies as an intrusion on freedom. But it can go even deeper than that. In Nazi Germany, untamed conspiracy theories presented vaccination programmes as a Jewish plot to subdue nations. Expect more of that in the year ahead of us, sadly.
On the hard left meanwhile, opposition to vaccines stems from a visceral distrust of big pharma, leading to claims the current pandemic has been engineered by profit-hungry unscrupulous capitalists.
If these views are remaindered at the margins, they will have little effect. However, the anti-vaxxer movement has found adherents among educated middle-class people, which in itself is an ever growing global cohort. The opinions of this group may influence other social media friends. It is uncertain how many would need to be immunised to destroy the virus – some suggestions hover around seventy percent – but we cannot assume there would be universal agreement to a programme, especially if it is mandated.
The retreat from the quest for objective truth may have begun in some fashionable university faculties, but it has spread with viral alacrity in a matter of decades. Finding the truth can be hard, painstaking work. We argue and disagree with one another, but we cannot let loud, bullying voices drag us to the extremes.
But there is a greater danger still, and it is growing in power. The 1990s conspiracy laden science fiction TV show The X Files claimed the truth is out there. Less than twenty years later, we are being told the truth is not out there. That truth is simply decided by those who have power. That there is some truth in that last point makes us more vulnerable still. Those who love Jesus, among many others, should not sit back when truth is treated so cynically. It dishonours him. And it eventually becomes a matter of life and death.
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