What We Miss About Anti-Vaxxers

There’s an inordinate amount of talk about how to convince people to get vaccines and wear masks — and a lot of it misses a crucial point.

Let’s start with a story: I work at a welcome desk for a gym and one day a pizza delivery guy came in with an order for a member. He didn’t have a mask on. I repeatedly informed him that they were mandatory in the building. He refused to put one on and he refused to wait outside for the member. Short of physically throwing him out of the building, there was nothing I could do. We lapsed into awkward, aggrieved silence.

This is not a remarkable story. It has almost certainly been repeated thousands of times across the country. That’s why what the man said has stuck with me. He didn’t mention the effectiveness or harmfulness of masks. No, he said it was his constitutional right to not wear a mask. He made it into an issue of freedom. Or, to put it another way, to signify himself as a free man he could not wear a mask. It was an issue of identity rather than safety.

This is what the debate over vaccine refusal so often ignores. People talk about using facts to convince people to get vaccinated or wear masks. For many though, this completely misses the mark that the refusal to wear a mask or get a covid vaccine is about identity. In this circumstance logic is unpersuasive: to be truthful to how they see themselves, they cannot be vaccinated or wear a mask. To do so would be to lose their identity.

As many people have noted before me, we are essentially the stories we tell ourselves (I was particularly inspired by A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour by Hank Green here). If we lose those stories, we lose our sense of self. And that, to put it mildly, is very scary. (I have a more rigorous explanation here on how we’re simply not rational beings.)

Many people are not going to abandon their beliefs simply because they are factually wrong. (See above.) A wrong belief that gives you identity is something. Being told that your beliefs are wrong without a replacement narrative for an identity offers nothing as an alternative. It’s like being on a path and somebody tells you and shows you spikes are up ahead. A part of you, a part you may deny, knows you’re going to die if you proceed. However, the alternative, while not having spikes, is covered in fog. It could contain anything. There’s a very good chance you’re going to stay on the path simply because it is known and understandable.

The only way to convince many anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to change their ways is not through facts or logic but by replacing their identity narrative with something more compelling. Obviously, this is tremendously difficult, and I certainly do not possess any magical counter-narratives.

However, if we actually care about moving the conversation forward to improve uptake of vaccines and masking, this is absolutely where we should be headed. Many people (myself likely included) are simply not strong enough to create a new identity for themselves even if our current one is deeply flawed. Alternative narratives are needed if we are going to make headway.

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