The Strange Case of the Anti-Anti-Anti-Vaxxers

Opinions Differ On the Approach to "Vaccine Hesitancy."

When the COVID-19 pandemic first threw life into disarray last year, people searched for silver linings. Perhaps everyone would come together and unite in our common humanity, eschewing partisan or tribal divides, some mused. People would spend more time with their families or cohabitants — that would be a good thing, right? Surely, at the very least, the pandemic would reduce anti-vaccine sentiment. Surely!

You have to chuckle at how wildly naïve these hopes now sound. A year and a half later, COVID is still with us and cases are on the rise again. We detest each other more than ever, and polarization keeps reaching new modern heights. It turns out, spending more time with someone and being cooped up with them aren’t exactly the same, as society’s collective mental health nosedive can attest to. And anti-vaccine sentiment, amid the biggest global pandemic in a century — through hyper-partisanship, online conspiracism, and the collapse of institutional trust — has increased! It was commonly believed that a big component of anti-vax was the fact that whole generations have grown up in a post-vaccine world, and never saw firsthand the devastating effects of what contagions can do unchecked. Had they lived through a serious pandemic, we reasoned, they would not be so quick to reject vaccines. Well, so much for that.

Anti’s All the Way Down

The resulting political, media, and online food fights have been predictable. The moment the vaccine came out, there were the pro-vaxxers, then the anti-vaxxers. (As an aside, it’s amusing (and frightening) that so many newly-minted anti-vaxxers — predominantly Trump supporters — were all rah-rah pompoms out when the vaccine was being developed in record time, so long as Donald Trump was president and they could give him the credit. Then Trump lost, and they did an about-face, suddenly claiming the vaccine was a plot by Big Pharma, Bill Gates, and Joe Biden to kill you.) Most pro-vaxxers became anti-anti-vaxxers — people not merely pro-vaccine, but vocally critical of anti-vaxxers. Then, most recently, came the rise of the anti-anti-anti-vaxxers. These are people who are critical of the critics of anti-vax. It’s at this point we approach the event horizon of infinite regress into madness. Let’s see if we can avoid being sucked into the vortex. No promises.

The logic of this regress is rather unorthodox. Being anti-anti-anti-vax doesn’t necessarily make one anti-vax, but the concentric circle of the latter is entirely subsumed in the former. It is however perfectly possible to be pro-vaccine, to be vaccinated oneself, and to be critical of the anti-anti-vaxxers to the virtual exclusion of all else in vaccine discourse.

Rich Meanies are Mean

The primary objection lodged against the critics of anti-vax is that they’re snooty elitists — too harsh, too insulting, too demeaning, too condescending, and emphatically too accusatory in their condemnation of anti-vaxxers. This critique is best exemplified in Matt Taibbi’s recent article The Vaccine Aristocrats (slightly longer paywalled version here). I love Taibbi, but this anti-anti-anti-vax argument he advances is substance-free. Strip away the rhetorical flourishes and amusing metaphors and you’re left with naught but some finger-wagging about how wealthy elites are stuck-up meanies whose scolding won’t convince the unvaccinated. But this presupposes that anti-vaxxers or the “vaccine hesitant” are reachable by means of persuasion, or that the words of wealthy political or institutional elites would carry weight if only they were nicer about it. That’s not the world we’re living in. Affluent snobs bitching on Twitter or in the mainstream press that the 100 million plus unvaccinated people are responsible for the persistence and now resurgence of COVID-19 may seem galling if viewed through the prism of your populist class warfare hobby horse. But in a country that has not made vaccination compulsory, and where the government has ensured that vaccines are ubiquitously available and free of charge, you’ve got your work cut out for you arguing that the unvaccinated bear no responsibility for how things have gone. The only other thing Uncle Sam could do short of a mandate is to start paying people straight cash to get vaccinated, which I fully support. You could probably get a chunk of anti-vaxxers to ditch their asininity if there were a crisp C-note in it for them.

There’s Blame to Go Around

It’s not exclusively on the unvaccinated, though. Trust in the press and our institutions is lower than ever, and much of the blame for that can be laid at their own feet. The politicization and double standards have crippled our institutions’ credibility with some of the demographics that have the highest levels of anti-vax sentiment. On the other end of the media spectrum are outlets like Fox News. Their cast of infotainment performers who play journalists on television are, virtually to an individual, fully vaccinated, yet they spent months stoking anti-vax filth on air because it drove ratings. Then, when the delta variant presented enough of a threat to begin rocking the financial markets, Fox, realizing that it was now more lucrative to go with the vaccine instead of against it, has begun to change their tune. Better late than never, of course, but it’s difficult to put into words just what a pack cynical, despicable frauds they are.

Then you have congenital contrarians like Bret Weinstein, whose podcasts, YouTube videos, and social media posts reach tens of millions of people, sowing doubt about the efficacy and safety of the COVID vaccines. Weinstein’s an interesting guy with some interesting thoughts, but he, along with his brother Eric and many of their ilk, have such a dearth of institutional trust, paired with titanic self-confidence in their own pet theories to a point that seems to verge on mental illness.

“The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” — Carl Sagan

What’s the Magic Word? No Really, What Is It?

Most of the unvaccinated can be roughly lumped into three varieties. There’s the “wait and see” types who are waiting for enough people to have been vaccinated for long enough to convince them that it’s safe and effective. Then there’s good old-fashioned lazy folks, who either plan to get vaccinated but just haven’t gotten around to it, or are ambivalent, but will do it if forced. Finally there’s the anti-vax/vaccine hesitant crowd. The former two groups are actively getting their shots in dribs and drabs, and are on pace to eventually be mostly vaccinated. The anti-vaxxers, however, are not. By now, if anti-vaxxers have not been convinced, there’s little reason to suppose that some new argument might magically win them over.

It seems unlikely that we will reach herd immunity any time soon, unless or until some new variant comes along that makes delta look like the sniffles, and scares enough vaccine stragglers to their local pharmacy or clinic. While making the vaccine compulsory may be politically impossible, there are things the government can do, such as paying people, or even threatening a mandate without following through, which proved useful in France. But this still likely wouldn’t get us across the finish line, at least not anytime soon. Realistically, we should mentally prepare ourselves for COVID to be with us for quite some time. And yes, the unvaccinated are one of the main reasons for that.

Being mean to anti-vaxxers won’t convince them to get the vaccine, it’s true. Neither will being nice to them. Pretending that their decision to refuse the shot is reasonable out of fear that we might offend them and hope that we might still persuade them serves no purpose. Their decision is not reasonable. Should we go out of our way to lampoon the “vaccine hesitant” as dribbling imbeciles, or berate them as recalcitrant scumbags? No. But when the subject of conversation turns their way, we also shouldn’t treat them with kid gloves. That’s condescending — the soft bigotry of low expectations. I expect from my fellow citizens the same as I would expect from myself. And I spare them no criticism when they behave like fools. I suppose this makes me an anti-anti-anti-anti-vaxxer. And there we go, into the vortex after all.

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