Jacob, Z. Hess, Ph.D.
Stop pretending your friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters with serious questions about prevailing COVID-19 policies are simply selfish, ignorant, or dishonest. As gratifying as that might feel to those of you frustrated over their dissent, it’s simply not an honest or fair position to take – at least, not if you intend to represent the full scope of people’s motives. If you’re open to it, there’s another way to explain much of the public resistance, in a way that doesn’t misrepresent the experience of those who continue to maintain it.
David Brooks wrote recently suggesting that people hesitant to go along with the program and get vaccinated (or mask up) demonstrate an insufficient trust and willingness to “sacrifice for the common good” and support “collective action.” Jay Evertsen similarly argued in recent days that hesitancy around wearing masks among those who have opted out of the vaccine largely reflects a question of “basic honesty of Americans” – hinting that those resistant to these measures are perpetuating at least some “sort of lie.”
Many others have insisted that those harboring such skepticism for prevailing public health guidelines are willingly ignorant – even hostile to – “the science” and the common knowledge they see as indubitable and obvious.
Ignorance. Dishonesty. And selfishness.
That’s about the extent of many people’s conceptions regarding what’s behind the skepticism significant portions of America feels towards prevailing medical dictates. And it baffles me, to be frank, that so many of these same people struggle to imagine any other explanations for resistance.
Of course, few would deny the growing dishonesty, ignorance and self-absorption in American society today. That is all true. Yet I write this morning to push back against the easy layering of those national trends on top of any and all medical skepticism – underscoring, instead, another possible explanation for such hesitance, resistance, and skepticism to prevailing medical dictates (spanning from masks to lockdowns to vaccines and beyond – opioids, psychiatry, etc.).
My central argument is that another explanation “fits the data” better in terms of what’s actually happening, and in a way that doesn’t require you to presume that a big chunk of your fellow countrymen and women are just more selfish (and less honest or enlightened) than you are.
Competing philosophies of health and healing. That explanation centers on something I’m, once again, a little shocked isn’t more apparent to most Americans – or even obvious. Namely, that there are competing philosophies of health and healing in America today…philosophies very much relevant to the COVID-19 debates of the last year.
Why wouldn’t that be obvious?
Maybe because so few people have heard those differences articulated in clear, fair-minded ways (pretty hard to do that when one side of that contrast has been categorically scrubbed from social media!)
Instead of considering these meaningful differences seriously, the prevailing discourse around health (ala, CNN, Washington Post, Deseret News) almost always takes for granted that we’re all on the same page – X is what the scientists all believe, Y, is what all the doctors say, and Z is what all public health officials believe, right?
There is no question that many – even most – public health officials think similarly about these matters…as do most mainstream (allopathic) doctors, and many scientists who conduct controlled trials of medical interventions. There are reasons for that similarity and consistency (given a socialization in similar training programs). This similarity and consistency shows up in statements made by the largest, most prominent (and well-funded) groups of doctors and professional associations – and is leveraged in public rhetoric to effectively persuade the majority of Americans to embrace these proposed consensus views as “the” scientific truth of the matter.
No one would dispute the dominance of these larger opinions. But rather than representing them accurately, as “the prevailing view,” they have been represented as precisely this – something far more than a dominant view, and instead “what the science says” and “what all doctors believe.” (Thus, when Rand Paul announces his decision to not get vaccinated due to acquiring natural immunity, NBC News is quick to add in their summary, “Experts disagree.” (Notice, not some experts: Experts).
That is what I’m highlighting as simply not true. There is legitimate division among experts – both physicians and researchers. But can you blame people for thinking otherwise, when any dissenting voices (including thoughtful, credentialed, authoritative critics) are actively censored and silenced?
Starting in 2018, Facebook systematically began to delete hundreds of “natural healing” sites – without, in most cases, any explanation given (see my own piece on this, “A Short History of Social Media Bans“). This purge has received relatively little attention, compared with conservatives accounts getting deplatformed – but it has silenced and crippled alternative perspectives on health in significant ways.
Some honest questions for fellow believers. I’ve often wanted to ask other brothers and sisters of faith observing this all: Is there anything even slightly creepy to you in witnessing such pervasive silencing of anyone raising even an honest question about the orthodox medical views we’ve been presented over the last year?
Yes, these efforts have been framed up and justified in the name of “battling misinformation” – a campaign which many Christians have been willing to support, with missionary zeal – “let’s do our part to get the truth out there!”
Yet I would ask, if the views expressed by prevailing medical authorities are legitimately reflective of higher truth (and God’s will), is that truth really that fragile – as to not be able to endure questioning? Since when is genuine truth so threatened by honest scrutiny and public examination?
I’ve also been eager to ask fellow Christians, this: We’ve watched over the last decade (especially) as our beliefs about sexuality have been actively misrepresented and deformed in popular media outlets, in a way that starkly distorts the truth as we understand it. Yet when it comes to matters of public health, many of you look to these same popular media outlets with remarkable levels of trust and certitude – following pronouncements from official government entities and popular health officials as if they were simple reflections of reality or higher inspiration itself. “Dr. Fauci reveals…” “The CDC now clarifies what people are allowed to do…” “Moderna reported the exciting news that its vaccine is powerfully effective for teens…”
My curiosity is simply this: Given prior history, what leads you now to give such remarkable trust to government, media, and pharmaceutical institutions – with so much surety and confidence that they are getting these matters of health right?
Those are honest questions. I don’t expect you to believe what the skeptics believe. But I would at least ask you to stop pretending that meaningful, ongoing differences in how Americans see health don’t play a central and overriding role in these contrasting responses to current public health policies – which we return to below:
Whose choices matter the MOST in terms of our own health? For most people, I would argue, they tend to see their own health as centered on choices and actions that they make (or don’t make). That is, if watch Netflix till dawn, have Red Bulls for breakfast, and sit in front of a screen all day hardly seeing the sun, few of us are surprised if we start to feel not-so-hot.
It’s fair to say this would still be the most natural and common way people understand the body falling into disease, as well as the most obvious way someone finds their way out: by taking care of their own body in a better way. At the beginning of the pandemic, Public Square Magazine published a piece by a researcher at Mayo Clinic and another physician specializing in gerontology, outlining very simple and clear steps any American could take to protect themselves from COVID-19 (“Five Steps Towards More Confidence Against Coronavirus”).
They spoke of common sense, research-based recommendations in terms of adjustments to sleep, physical activity, diet, and stress, that everyone could take – perhaps especially the most vulnerable – to increase their natural protection against infectious disease.
When was the last time you heard that kind of advice from public health officials speaking amidst our pandemic?
Almost never, right? I can’t remember a single time personally.
Imagine what it could have meant for this difficult health crisis to prompt new humility and scrutiny of our lives collectively. Imagine where we would be today, if this had been taken as a large-scale reminder to make adjustments in our lives, in terms of how we take care of ourselves (and those we love too)?
Instead of that, the prevailing narrative of health invites our attention in a very different direction. Rather than focus on the range of things any individual can or should do in their own lives and homes to care for their body (and boost their immune system), the prevailing narrative of healing encourages virtually all public attention to move outward – and consider the central, determining role of factors outside of themselves.
Remarkably enough, almost the entire focus of public health education over the last year has been on what’s happening around you: How close are you to others around you who might be sick? How effectively are you – and they – wearing a protective barrier to keep viruses and germs from traveling between you? And, of course, how many of your fellow Americans around you are “doing the right thing” and “doing their part” to get vaccinated?
That’s been our focus, right? Almost exclusively. I’m simply drawing attention here to that focus – and the associated message of how much YOUR health and well-being are dependent on the choices and decisions of OTHERS around you (e.g., whether others mask up like they’re supposed to, stay home like they’re supposed to, take the vaccine like they’re supposed to…and whether researchers succeed in continuing to develop the next “miraculous” intervention).
All THIS is what our health depends on, right? Certainly not simply on your own choices.
Isn’t that interesting…and maybe a little troubling?
Maybe it isn’t for you. But for many millions of Americans, it feels downright strange. It doesn’t feel right. And it’s not an approach to healing we trust, or want to follow.
Granted, most Americans earnestly believe otherwise – and see all these established interventions (and the narrative supporting them) as patently obvious. Why wouldn’t our best answers to the pandemic come from new scientific discoveries made possible by pharmaceutical company initiative and enormous government investment?
It’s true that survey data confirms measurable differences on all these questions in terms of race, class and education. While media outlets represent these distinctions as a function of simple racism and lack of exposure to enlightened scientific views, I would argue these social demographics also represent people occupying places where they haven’t been subject to as much persuasion from dominant medical ethos – and where their own challenging life experiences have led them to harbor some perhaps well-earned skepticism.
(By the way, no one – myself included – is questioning the reality of our interconnectedness – how sickness can spread among us, how the vulnerable were more at risk from the spread of COVID, etc. My primary questions here aim to surface these contrasting emphases in our health discussions – and the degree to which we focus on our own choices, or on the choices of others around us.)
Given the dominant emphasis on external factors upon which our collective health is contingent, it shouldn’t surprise us to see campaigns over the last year focused almost entirely on (a) encouraging Americans to separate themselves far enough away from each other through physical distance or masking barriers and then (b) preparing these same citizens to embrace COVID-19 vaccination as THE miraculous answer to the pandemic.
As a result, neither should it surprise us to see the current level of angst and handwringing in public commentaries over whether enough people will get the vaccine to overcome the pandemic. Once again, when you’ve been persuaded that YOUR health depends largely on what OTHERS do, this is precisely the question you should ask…and exactly what should keep you up at night.
But wait, Jacob – are you raising questions about the centrality of “herd immunity” and the larger public health messaging around how best to end a pandemic – and protect us against future threats?
That’s exactly what I’m doing. People a lot smarter than me – and with a lot more credentials around infectious disease – have been doing it for far longer than the last year. Oh wait, haven’t heard of them yet?
There are good reasons for that. And it’s not because they’re not speaking up. For many decades, thousands of thoughtful practitioners have been exploring alternative approaches – ways to support and encourage the body in growing stronger in its own defenses. The entire fields of naturopathic medicine, chiropractic medicine, homeopathic medicine, and osteopathic medicine reflect various departures from the medical orthodoxy of allopathic medicine.
And yet, rather than making space to at least hear out all perspectives on the questions (as you would expect in a conversation aiming for the “whole truth, and nothing but to the truth”), these alternative voices have been not only consistently censored, they are endlessly pilloried and mocked (“kooky/loony!….pseudoscience/unscientific…crazy….fanatic…conspiracists).
That’s what you are called when you start to question medical orthodoxy. Instead of allowing these voices to speak openly, better to just work hard to circulate these insults and accusations (none of this should sound unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints, who have swum in similar waters of slander, and misrepresentation, for 150 years – due to their own heretical questions of prevailing orthodoxy).
As a result, the vast majority of Americans have never heard any of these thoughtful critics. You see, their messages were carefully scrubbed from Youtube (and Facebook) a long time ago. All that, once again, contributes substantially to prevailing sense of a “health consensus.”
Even otherwise good media platforms have been swept up in the trend – needing to hew with the prevailing narrative in order to maintain social respect (In fact, Millenial Star is one of the few Latter-day Saint publications than would even countenance raising these kinds of questions).
Of course, acknowledging the reality of competing views on the best way to heal the body is NOT a great way to get people united around a single philosophy of health – or get that same population to be compliant in accepting a particular intervention.
Hence, the suppression. The lampooning of alternatives. And the ceaseless, unending media promotion of a single view of health.
It’s all been remarkably painful for many of us to watch and witness.
I would ask, in closing: What does such a suppression of questions mean for our collective ability to discern truth? Are we really justified in being so fearful of alternative perspectives – and so quick to condemn them? Even this simple article, that makes no grand concerted effort to convince people, will surely be accused of stirring up “vaccine hesitancy.”
I won’t – and can’t – persuade you to embrace alternative views of health and healing. But I can – and have tried – to persuade you that those views at least exist. And that they are held by many millions of Americans who care equally (just as much as you) about preserving life and helping America overcome the pandemic.
No, that may not be as satisfying as casting epithets at those embodying such “rampant selfishness” and “blinding ignorance” of what should be “patently obvious” to all.
But it’s more honest.
And if it’s the “Truth” that makes us all free in the end, maybe we should take pains to ensure we’re seeing that truth about other people – and promoting a conversation where finding that truth is still possible.