The best way to win a debate is to present your facts in a clear, respectful way. When that doesn't work, another option is incessant ridicule. Here's why we have to use shame if we want to stop the anti-vaccine movement.
By now I'm sure you know the score. America's anti-vaccination movement has steamrolled its way across the country, leaving a trail of sick people in its wake. Measles is back. Whooping cough is back. And it's all because we spent the last decade watching people like Jenny McCarthy concoct a narrative that vaccines are unsafe. This is a public health crisis that's simply inexcusable.
Vaccines are safe, though I'm not here to convince you of that. Countless scientists and doctors have already presented evidence for over a century that vaccines work. They save the lives of kids, families, and whole communities. At this point no amount of logical argument or proof will convince McCarthy and her ilk that vaccines are safe. Studies show that confronting anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers with logic only makes them more defensive and thus more deeply entrenched in their positions. So why do we continue to use logic with the anti-vaccination movement? After all, the movement's modern founding text, a 1998 paper by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, was retracted and deemed fraudulent. Wakefield was even stripped of his medical license. But this has only strengthened the resolve of the anti-vaxxers in their belief that the medical establishment doesn't want people to know "the truth."
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.
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. It's fast becoming unacceptable to compare gay marriage with bestiality. Not simply because it's an absurd comparison but because doing so rightly opens one up to ridicule and shame.
When it comes to the unhinged advocacy of unscientific ideas that endanger public health, it's time to bring out the big guns. Ridicule and shame are here to help. And history provides a handy guide for how they can be used for good.
In the mid-1940s, an activist named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan to learn about the hate group's secret handshakes and code words. Kennedy passed on this information to the producers of "The Adventures of Superman," one of the most popular radio shows of the time, and the show serialized Superman's battles against the KKK. Over 16 glorious episodes the Klan was ridiculed nonstop for their ridiculous beliefs and silly practices. Virtually overnight, Klan recruitment slipped to zero.
White Americans of the 1940s didn't instantly become less racist. But joining the Klan was now something laughable — it was something you didn't admit to in public. Klansmen continued to exist and racism persisted, but Americans no longer wanted to be openly affiliated with an organization that dressed up in their bedsheets and whispered stupid codewords to each other. The introduction of ridicule to anyone who thought of joining the Klan had worked. Association with the Klan was now something to be ashamed of in mainstream American society after the KKK's brief (yet still terrifying) flirtation with respectability. What worked against the Klan can work for unscientific ideas, like the toxic meme that vaccines are causing more diseases than they're preventing.
The fact is, people don't like to feel dumb. Sure, some say that there's been a rise of anti-intellectualism in the United States. But that narrative (which, frankly, I think is a gross romanticization of a period in American history that never actually existed) isn't dependent upon our desire to not look foolish in front of our peers.
The anti-vaccination movement isn't exclusive to any particular ideology. So how is it possible that politicians like Rand Paul can respond to questions about the safety of vaccines with anything other than an unequivocal "use them because they're safe"? Because the anti-scientific alternative hasn't yet been made repugnant enough. Still, shame is making inroads: Paul would later get a booster vaccine after the media firestorm over his comments, proving that shame really does work.
When people complain that Americans have no shame these days, they're not altogether wrong. The United States is primarily a guilt-based culture. The dominant method of social control in this country involves teaching people to feel guilt about not living up to personal expectations. Contrast this with shame-based cultures like Japan. As researchers Ying Wong and Jeanne Tsai explain in their paper, Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt, shame is "associated with the fear of exposing one's defective self to others. Guilt, on the other hand, is associated with the fear of not living up to one's own standards." In this formulation, guilt is based on failing to achieve personal ideals; shame is based on social exposure.
The United States is a nation of guilt. We could use a bit more shame.
A high school student in Little Rock during integration attempts in 1957 proudly punches a dummy of a black student lynched, and later burned, in effigy (Associated Press)
The anti-vaccination movement, much like other poisonous elements of society, will still be there after the tide has turned. The goal is not to completely wipe out personal beliefs, but rather make them so unpopular that it's not longer acceptable to take pride in the anti-vaccination position in public. Real change in culture follows.
What happened to the racists standing in front of schools shouting that they didn't want racial integration during the 1950s and 60s? Did they just disappear? Nope. But over the next two decades it became increasingly inappropriate to spew racist bile in public. Their racism was no longer considered socially acceptable behavior by the culture at large. Joyously punching (and later burning) an effigy of a black student was no longer something that could be done in public, as it was in the photo above. Mainstream America came to see it as a shameful act. The social rules changed.
Let me be clear that I'm not advocating that individuals on street corners be shamed for not vaccinating their kids. Fundamentally, individuals choosing not to vaccinate are doing so largely out of misguided concern for the health of their children. I'm arguing that we need to do something much more radical and difficult: we need to support a culture that shames its members for not vaccinating their kids — and by extension, for endangering their communities. Vaccination is a social issue, and therefore shame should regulate it.
But changing our culture means taking aim at the powerful and those profiting from the anti-vaccination movement. And make no mistake that there are people getting rich from the anti-vaccine industry.
We also must draw a distinction between shame and humiliation. It is not our goal to humiliate. As William Ian Miller explains in his book Humiliation and Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence:
To shame is serious business. Shaming someone is usually understood to be more formal, more regularized, more directed to the maintenance of specific community norms than humiliating someone is. [...] Shaming operates by stripping someone of a status she had some right to before the particular failing, whereas humiliation destroys the illusion of having belonged at all.
I don't want to advocate humiliating or bullying individuals. Shame is about regulating social norms, not screaming at powerless people on Twitter.
As a society, we need to ridicule the anti-vaccination movement's appeals to science and reason. Because fundamentally, that's the problem. Anti-vaccine advocates believe that they have scientific backing on this one, and that's what gives them social legitimacy. But that legitimacy is a lie. It is a shameful and socially destructive lie.
There are some people with perfectly legitimate reasons not to vaccinate their kids. Allergies to vaccines are rare, but they exist. And that's all the more reason that establishing herd immunity through 90-95 percent vaccination rates is important. Ridicule of anti-vaxxers isn't targeted at people who are allergic, just as the ridicule of faddish gluten-free diets isn't aimed at people who are actually allergic to gluten.
The anti-vaccine movement is threatening everybody's health and safety. And for that, they should be ashamed of themselves. Ridicule and the resulting shame are not pleasant things to talk about or invoke. But it's time to stop pretending. Until we establish a culture of shame around anti-vaccine talking points, this problem will not go away.
Illustration by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty