Have you seen this meme? Or posted it?
In addition to the hateful, sneering tone that makes it clear to me that I would never want to be in the same room as the writer, it captures two points of view I’ve been seeing a lot of, both of which are problematic.
First of all it presents a caricature of the opposition to the dominant covid narrative, rather than even remotely capturing the diverse reality of people who don’t want to vaccinate, don’t want to force everyone else to vaccinate, or believe there are better ways to handle the pandemic generally than we’ve seen in some or many respects. Obviously, characterizing all opposition to the dominant narrative as ideas that are, at least to most, utterly outlandish, held only by those who believe everything they see, read or hear, totally prejudices the audience towards both the ideas and more importantly, the people who hold them. It should be obvious that this kind of polarization does not provide a healthy climate for debate of important issues but rather will shut down those in the minority, regardless of their credentials or ideas. Furthermore, our country is more polarized now than ever before, at a time when we are faced with multiple, existential crises. Lambasting what we imagine to be the “other side” may feel good in the moment as we solidify our in-group status with our friends, but in the long run it solidifies an “us” versus “them” mentality. Polarization not only makes it much harder to productively address problems but also contributes to the scapegoating that aids exploitation.
While I shouldn’t have to say this, the caricature of “covid denying anti-vaxxers” being stupid, lazy, and uneducated is utterly false, as well as mean. Case in point is this recent study from Carnegie Mellon University and The University of Pittsburgh that found that the largest demographic who doesn’t want to vaccinate is people with Ph.Ds.
This paper from MIT researchers on “antimasker” influencers in social media (before most were all censored off) is also an important read to gain perspective on diverse viewpoints about covid.
The researchers acknowledged the data-literacy, integrity, and expertise of the group they studied, while simultaneously failing to explain how the influencers could correctly use valid data to conclude the opposite of the “public health experts.” Here is the researchers tacit acknowledgement that the mainstream narrative is no more correct than the alternative, at best, but rather different conclusions stem from different underlying motives or ideologies:
“As science and technology studies scholars have shown, data is not a neutral substrate that can be used for good or for ill. Indeed, anti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries, who espouse naive realism about the “objective” truth of public health data. Quantitative data is culturally and historically situated; the manner in which it is collected, analyzed, and interpreted reflects a deeper narrative that is bolstered by the collective effervescence found within social media communities. Put differently, there is no such thing as dispassionate or objective data analysis.”
The meme also pushes a second, more subtle and even more destructive, point of view. By mocking the idea that ordinary people can research topics of importance in a meaningful way and shaming anyone who tries to as an arrogant idiot, the meme strongly discourages people from thinking for themselves. Even though people may, perhaps even often, make mistakes when they try to educate themselves or think critically, engaging with material is critical to receive the feedback that leads to being better informed. There are few things I can think of that are worse for understanding anything than an apriori assumption that better comprehension is impossible.
The meme also frames unquestioning obedience to authority as a virtue, as that is, after all, the only other way to gain information – believe someone who tells you so. In disempowering people from educating themselves, the meme advances the idea that most of us should leave important decisions that impact our lives up to the experts. This view, technocracy, has been gaining considerable ground since the pandemic started, although it is not new.
The researchers from the paper I posted above that studied the “anti-mask” social media influencers concluded that “anti-maskers” have a fundamentally different view of democracy – one in which power belongs to the people, not rarefied experts. Did you realize that democracy as opposed to technocracy is a “heterodox,” as they called it, view?
I used to take it as a matter of course that most people would agree with the statement, “Science can give us facts about reality, but it can’t tell us what we should do,” but now I’m not so sure. I am sure, though, that blurring the lines between science and policy and between technocracy and democracy is fundamentally an anti-human, anti-life enterprise, as doing so elevates control over freedom, reductionism over holism, and materialism over spirituality.