The Anti-Vaccine Movement Should Be Ridiculed, Because Shame Works

The Anti-Vaccine Movement Should Be Ridiculed, Because Shame Works

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 After all, the movement's modern founding text, a 1998 paper by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, was retracted and deemed fraudulent.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 licence. 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 socialisation 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.

Shaming the KKK

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 serialised 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 organisation 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 romanticisation 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.

Shame vs Guilt

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.

The Anti-Vaccine Movement Should Be Ridiculed, Because Shame Works

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 behaviour 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.

Shaming a Movement, Not Humiliating People

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 also 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 Honour, 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 per cent 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.

Pictures: Jim Cooke, Getty

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    But we can't go around making vaccines mandatory, because where does it end? Any new rubbish jab for anything that comes along (not specifically a virus) would get tacked onto the then-existing mandatory jab list since everyone would've already been lulled into accepting countless vaccines. And in an era where 'vaccine' will have become an everyday word, people will be taking so many that it won't be long until an 'accident' happens that kills a good million or 10, you can't fight the law of averages. And human error thrown in for a giggle.

    A world where we force everyone to be vaccinated against a ton of things is one where the human race has declared they are no longer human, nor interested in being human. Then what have we become? The vaccine movement seems to be trying to create a master race...
    Viruses will always eventually overcome vaccines anyway so stop moaning.
    Those who continually try to drag everyone else down with them into the rabbit hole of stupidity called 'progress' are all partially to blame for the world's problems.

    Also note that mandatory vaccinations will also be part of a system of total human registration, treating people like cattle from the moment they're born and splitting the world into 2 types, vaccinated and non-vaccinated. That's not the kind of world we want to leave for future generations.

    In b4 tin foil hat comment by a member of the very dumb collective that we're trying to save.

      And here, we have the kind of person this article is aimed at. Just saying 'inb4' doesn't absolve you of being an idiot spreading baseless, idiotic conspiracy theories...

      Last edited 07/02/15 6:05 pm

        As a father, I had to consider the TL;DR conspiracy stories, just in case,
        but I came to a logical question

        The known risk of harm from not vaccinating kids vs the known risk of not having kids vaccinated

        If we waste our time on every single 'what if?' we won't have time to see the real problems

      Oh please. You seriously believe that. How do you think we managed to make it to the point where some diseases were almost irradicated. It because responsible parents vaccinated their children.

      eradicated not Irradicated.

      Oh wow. Such ignorance. This is about being healthy and preventing illness and disease, not some way to control herds of cattle

      Edit: reread your comment, not ignorance but utter stupidity. Sorry, i need to laugh at you.

      Last edited 07/02/15 8:17 pm

      Another coward posting anon.

      Ignore them. They don't have the conviction to stand by their words.

      You sir, have absolutely no idea what you are talking about and deserve to be shamed and ridiculed for spreading such dangerous misinformation.

      A world where we force everyone to be vaccinated against a ton of things " much smart, very science

    Great article, hit it right on the head. The best way to make something unappealing and unattractive, is to make it socially unacceptable and shameful. Gonna share this around on FB :)

      I wan't to downvote you but this is a serious issue so I'll call a temporary truce. ;)

        he does have a point - Is it ok to shame if its bad?
        Who gets to decide whats bad?

    Unfortunately I think the answer is going to actually be when kids start dying of completely preventable causes because of their parents arrogance and ignorance.

    The thing that gets me though is quite rightly most schools and kindies don't allow kids to bring anything containing peanuts to school due the risk of allergic kids having a terrible reaction and dying.

    So why then are un-vaccinated kids allowed at the same kindies risking other kids who for various legitimate medical reason can't be vaccinated and are instead relying on herd immunity.

    Final thing about this that pisses me off the most. These people believe in antibiotics like penicillin etc and other medical treatments, all of which carry the well understood small probability of a bad reaction and serious side effects but for some reason they have decided that with vaccines they 'don't believe the science'.

    As far as I'm concerned if you don't believe the science of vaccines then you should piss off and never take your kid to a hospital because the treatments they will receive there are all the results of scientific endeavor and just as legitimately proven as vaccines. {% endrant %}

      I agree with you 100%, if parents do not want to accept the science associated with vaccinating their kids, why are they prepared to accept the science when it comes to treating their children for other ailments, it really is quite contradictory on their behalf. These parents need to look to parts of the world where vaccinations are not readily accessible and see how the children suffer when they end up with some of the terrible illnesses that had almost been eradicated in places like the UK, USA and Australia.

      Unfortunately I don't think even kids dying will stop it.

      These people have invested so much of themselves in the conspiracy theories, and bashing the medical professionals, and are so egotistical, they wouldn't be able to stand acknowledging that they were wrong.

      When we do start seeing the masses of kids, and adults being killed by their own ignorance, the mantra will be "At least they didn't die autistic".

    Might want to check your facts on that Wakefield article… He was FORCED to retract it and it has now been um… “unretracted" and countless other scientists have since come out in his defence… just saying…!

      Show us these countless scientists coming and defending the guy?

      He was forced to retract cause it was full of shit.

      Just one. Show us just one peer reviewed published article supporting Wakefield's tripe and we won't point and laugh.

      Wakefield was 'forced' to retract because it was undeniably proved that he falsified his data. The data is still false so the paper remains retracted. Nor did anyone give back his medical licence. The man is a fraud, the claim is a lie and you are a fool.

    Telling people to shame people is just going to cause anger.

      True, but anger can also be caused by burying children from totally preventable problems...

      Last edited 08/02/15 6:21 pm

    You MUST ask yourself this no matter what side you fall: "Whether you're pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine, or fall somewhere in the middle, the questions you need to ask yourselves are as follows:

    Do you want to live in a world, where you cannot freely refuse a medical procedure that carries risk of injury or death? I'm not questioning your comfort level with today's vaccine schedule, because today's vaccine schedule will change. New vaccines and additional doses are added all the time. children today receive as many as 49 doses of 14 vaccines before they reach age six, which is roughly 12 times higher than the number of vaccines administered to children back in 1940. With more than 220 new vaccines in the developmental pipeline for children and adults...and no end in sight..the question you must ask yourself is ARE YOU CERTAIN you will be 100% comfortable with vaccines that are added to the mandated list in the future? If you say that yes, you're comfortable, then you're either a) not expecting to be a parent or grandparent, b) don't have to worry about it because your kids are grown and out of the house, or c) lying to prove a point. No critical thinker, no honest person, would ever sign off on the sight-unseen vaccine schedule of the future. And yet that's what you're doing when you condemn the people who are fighting for your right to refuse. YOU have the right to refuse, should you ever choose to use it, because the very "anti-vaccine" people you demonize have been fighting for us all.
    Right now, the burden of "herd immunity" falls on small children, but that is changing. Vaccine manufacturers see an untapped market in adult vaccines and are coming for you next. What will you do if your state, your employer, or your insurance company forces you to get a vaccine that you simply don't want? It hasn't happened to you yet, but if the right to refuse is eroded, it will happen to you sooner than you might think. Who then will you turn to? Your legislators who get campaign donations from pharmaceutical companies? The CDC that has former pharma executives sitting on the board? Who will you turn to if you ever want to say no? There will be no one.
    Once we enter the slippery slope of removing and individual's right to refuse medical procedures that carry a risk of injury or death, once we remove an individual's right to speak for him/herself and his/her children, we open ourselves up to an insidious new era, where other drugs and other procedures can be mandated. I heard (on NPR, interestingly enough) that there are people who want to test for a gene marker that's been found in mass shooters in the hopes that they can the carriers of that gene on medications in early childhood. Sounds great, right? But many of us carry genes that will never be expressed. You could be a carrier of that gene. Or your child could be a carrier. So if we follow the "for the greater good" mentality behind vaccines (or the Nazi's "for the greater good" mentality behind eugenics (breeding out illness), we are looking at forcing people who may never express a sociopathic gene to take antipsychotics, just in case. Because that's what forced vaccination does. It asks children who may never come into contact with a particular virus to accept a vaccine just in case. And that's what eugenics was all about. It sterilizes people who can pass on a genetic disease just in case. Forced vaccination is a human rights violation, and to support it when you know that the government's own Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System exists and lists people who have died as a result of vaccines is unethical at best, sociopathic at worst.
    The ethical thing to do is to allow people their right to refuse and leave it up to doctors and big pharma (who have marketing budgets larger than the GDP of some countries) to do a better job of convincing parents that vaccines are safe. We can start by reversing the law that grants vaccine manufacturers total immunity from vaccine injury lawsuits. Because as it stands, you can't sue a vaccine manufacturer if your child is injured or killed by a vaccine, even in cases where they could've made a safer vaccine and chose not to or when they failed to recall a contaminated lot# in a timely manner. Think about that. You can't sue the manufacturer. That immunity from liability does more to shake parents' confidence in vaccines than anything else out there."

      I wan't to live in a world where the few idiots can't endanger the lives of the rest.

      I want to live in a world where we don't need swift water rescue because we, as a society, realize that letting people stupid enough to drive into flood waters die is good for the rest of society.

      I wan't to live in a world where we don't have to have "this is not a toy" on a plastic bag.

      Either these idiots vaccinate, or they remove themselves from society.

      If they want to ignore doctors advise about getting immunized, then they have no right to medical service when they get sick.

        Pre-note: I think vaccines are great. Vaccination is great. It is one of the greatest medical achievements ever. I think any parent with one iota of good sense should allow their child to have the full vaccination schedule. (Note: full vaccination schedule doesn't mean any and all vaccines).

        Having said that:
        I think it would be ethically dubious (at best) to deny people medical service when they get sick, even if they have become sick due to stupid decisions. For example, I don't think it is reasonable to refuse to provide treatment for cirrhosis of the liver to someone who is an alcoholic. I do think it is reasonable to prioritise them lower, when limited resources mean less individuals can be treated, but not to deny treatment as such. For example, I think it is entirely reasonable to refuse to provide a liver transplant to someone who was an alcoholic, and continues to drink. Drink -> bumped to end of the queue seems fair. Was an alcoholic in the past -> no liver transplant not so much (to me).
        Similarly, it is clearly unhealthy to be overweight, but I don't think it would be reasonable to deny insertion of a stent to someone who needed one because they were overweight (or are overweight for that matter). I think it would be unethical to deny cancer treatment to a smoker.

        There is a lot mountain of evidence that people are very poor at understanding risk and probability, and that a range of biases (like thinking that because someone is trustworthy/good/expert in one area their judgements should carry weight in others) would come to bear on the decisions people make. (Tversky & Kahneman have done a lot of work in that area, as have many others. I like Gigerenzer myself.)
        As such, I think that using a wide range of means to make the risks of engaging in some behaviour (or not engaging, in the case of vaccination) salient and believable are valuable, but denying treatment/rescue/etc to people because of their past actions is ethically wrong.

        (Note: I am aware that this winds up going into strange territory in criminal justice, where people are punished for their past behaviour. That is an argument worth having too, about rehabilitation, risk to society, and so on).
        (Note 2: Just labelling something as 'not a toy' is pointless if it doesn't explain why it is not a toy. Some blinds I saw recently had a label on the cords which said 'Children have died from choking when playing with draw cords of blinds. Ensure they are out of the reach of children'. That's much better, because it clearly notes the specific risk, and at least vaguely notes the degree of risk - children have died, so it is not entirely theoretical)

      I respect the time it has taken you to write a rather long defense of your right to choose. However your introduction of Nazi references, genetic tests with "cures" that may never happen and other vacuous rationalizations simply made your argument ridiculous. Vaccines are a tool to boost our immune system in to recognizing and attacking a disease - that's all.

      To extend your theme of the right to choose in society, you must also address the rules that limit our choices in all areas. I should have a right to kill, a right to euthanise, drive on the opposite side of the road etc. The basic tenet of your position dismisses the greater good for which these rules exist and vaccines as well.

      In effect you would like to place yourself outside the society that accepts the greater good and value of vaccination. If so, leave its protection and join a society that conforms to your beliefs but do not argue an insane position that prevents death and disabilities.

      Last edited 08/02/15 10:58 pm

      The question I need to ask myself is whether I trust my GP. Do I honestly believe that my GP, and all others for that matter, are so bad at their job, so reckless, or so negligent in their behavior, that they would willingly and knowingly put the lives of their patients at risk? Of course not. Stop being such an idiot.

      As a-soon-to-be-father with no issue whatsoever in following scientifically proven medical advice (not bullshit conjecture which is what you're spewing forth), I can say that yes, I am comfortable with the future vaccine schedule. Why? Because it's SCIENTIFICALLY TESTED. What's that? You'd prefer to draw parallels between immunization and Nazis? Yeah, this is why we have to ridicule people like you. That is quite possibly the single most F***ING MORONIC thing I have ever read in my entire life. Congratulations, you will be remembered for your boundless stupidity.

      There are so many idiotic things in your post, I'd love to address them all. But unfortunately as we've discovered, pointing out all the flaws in your arguments and addressing them with logic has no effect. If you have children and they're not vaccinated out of choice, please go and live somewhere away from civilized society. You're not welcome here.

      Choice is fine, but it comes with consequences.

      When government services such as education, child care and medicare are denied to those who are not immunised then I'll accept their right to choose to endanger others.

      Well said. The anti anti-vaccine movement seems to have thrown reason out of the window insisting wrongly that all vaccines are 100% safe for everyone, and violently attacking anyone and everyone who suggests otherwise.

      It has become a nasty viscous hate campaign directed at anyone who questions the right of people to say no to what is a medical intervention that may, just may, harm them and that isn't actually necessary to prevent a life-threatening illness.

        Wearing a seatbelt in a car should be optional, not enforced by law. I mean, if I get in a serious car crash, that seatbelt could break my ribs. Yes, seatbelts have been known to save lives, but they haven't been shown to be 100% safe, so it should be my choice as to whether I wear one and whether I make my children wear one.

        Do you see how stupid you sound?

    "I wan't to live in a world where the few idiots can't endanger the lives of the rest."

    @tonyintsv, I couldn't have said that any better.

    Vax works. The science proves it. To go against it is like thinking the world is still flat. I wont ever condone "forcing" anyone to "take" any drug, but have you ever played lotto? Ive seen polio in all its glory. Check it, if its a quality vax, take it. People win lotto all the time.

    Last edited 08/02/15 8:39 pm

    Simple question - if vaccination is so successful - why are the pro vaccination side of the debate SO worried about the non vaccinated kids? Surely those vaccinated are "safe" eh? Seems to me that underneath the political drive its more about numbers lining up for a jab... profits and boxes being ticked...
    Yes those diseases were bad in the past... but remember too - we have much much healthier lives now... better hygiene and potentially better diets... another factor in declining disease rates

      Herd immunity, look it up.
      Also not everyone can be vaccinated in rare cases, it is important for everyone that can to get vaccinated to protect those that cannot.

      Because when one of those non-vaccinated kids gets something nasty and goes to the same school as my kid and spread it around it becomes my problem, as the others are saying, don't want to vaccinate your kid? fine, but stay away from mine which has been vaccinated and living as healthy as me and my wife, both vaccinated and no consequences.

        But that's what I mean - what are you worried about? If your kids are vaccinated and vaccination works then you are safe aren't you? Hey I am just playing devil's advocate... but I know a few parents who didn't vaccinate and their kids have contracted whooping cough, measles etc, recovered and now have natural immunity. Also - vaccinated kids can still be carriers and "spread it around"....

          Certain diseases such as whooping cough, which is back on the rise courtesy of our anti-vax 'friends', do not have 100% effective vaccines. They're still a hell of a lot better than nothing at all, but it IS still possible for a vaccinated person (child or adult) to contract it. Immunity to whooping cough can also wear off after a period of time, regardless of whether that immunity was developed naturally or through a vaccine. Lastly on this point, a person who has been vaccinated will typically show reduced symptoms, suffer less and suffer for a shorter period of time if they do contract the disease.

          Regarding your friends who didn't vaccinate their children. I'm very happy to hear that those kids recovered and haven't suffered any long term effects. However part of me still shudders at the thought that those children may have been exposed to young babies or immunocompromised children who didn't fare as well. How many others were unknowingly affected, potentially very seriously, by your friends' selfish choice?

          Lastly, your friends' children now having 'natural immunity'. I'm not sure if it was intentional on your behalf or not, but it almost sounds like that's being held high as a benefit over vaccines. It has been shown that immunity developed naturally to a disease through the body fighting it off and creating antibodies is no more effective than an immunity developed through vaccine. They both stimulate the same process within the body and the outcome is the same. Remember, a vaccine doesn't give you immunity, it triggers a process within your immune system that safely allows your body to generate that immunity.

          Please do not let your kids play with my child who cannot be vaccinated due to an immune disorder.

          Hooer is too cowardly to sign in and debate. No point responding. All they are interested in is trying to spread their disinformation and go away.

      Because not all kids can get vaccinated, either they're still too young or they have a medical condition that makes it unsuitable. These kids rely on herd immunity for protection. Voluntarily not vaccinating your kids compromises this protection.

      If you've ever seen a baby with whooping cough you wouldn't ask that question. It is one of the most heart breaking things you'll ever experience, and the feeling of helplessness is devastating.

      They can't be immunised to a point where they are considered safe until they're 4 months old. If everyone was immunised this wouldn't be a much of a problem, as there would be fewer people from whom they could catch it.

      Sadly, with the reducing rates of immunisation we're seeing increasing cases of whooping cough.

      Vaccinate my kids and I protect them from the problem. Vaccinate everyone and we eliminate the problem.

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