It’s time to talk seriously about Health Illiberalism.
Widely respected NBA basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton did something unforgiveable this last week.
He dared to publicly question the medical orthodoxy in America – adding his voice to a broader effort to push back on the dominant narrative about COVID-19 many have taken for granted.
Retribution was predictably swift and decisive.
Questions about Stockton’s intellect were most common, with plenty jibing the former athlete for presuming to have done “significant research” and having anything to offer the broader conversation.
Others made it even more personal, like one who questioned Stockton’s essential worth as a human being:
Or another who joked about whether Stockton might be demonstrating signs of brain damage:
Then some, of course, just opted for some good old-fashioned name-calling:
- @oringordon tweeted: “The disappointment of finding out that someone you admire is a nutcase.”
- @HeadAsploding wrote: ” Sometimes you just have to realize that there but for the grace of God go I. I feel for his family who must be in pain dealing with his quackery.”
Despite the fact that Stockton is never quoted as endorsing either of these specific ideologies, @DadShammdad managed to string together two of the more stigmatized labels in America today– tweeting, “John Stockton being a QAnon anti-vaxxer is really putting a damper on my day.”
It wouldn’t be a legitimate online mob, of course, without threatening some other kind of property damage. And there you go: Bryan Kilpatrick comes through for us!
All of this should feel eerily familiar to many of us. Because things-like-this have been happening more and more these days – on campuses, at tech companies, and on social media.
But interestingly enough, some of the same people raising their voices in legitimate concern after seeing so many conservative voices being “cancelled” and socially ostracized for questioning LGBT activism or CRT/Black Lives Matter orthodoxy – some of these same people remain strangely silent when it comes to illiberalism in matters of health.
Why is that?
Latter-day Saints themselves are no strangers to mobs – having faced their wrath through most of their history, right up till the present-day hordes of ex-Mormon Redditers still out for blood.
Yet even some of my stalwart fellow brothers and sisters, who shudder to remember ancient attacks on our own people – seem all too willing to “pile on” incendiary, sweeping attacks on those raising honest concerns about prevailing medical conclusions and public policy dictates, or voicing support for alternative theories of health.
I’ve heard the craziest, darkest kinds of attacks on mindfulness, and various natural healing methodologies by some who insist that the priesthood of God is the only legitimate channel of healing (alongside, of course, conventional, allopathic medicine).
Our own family doctor, who was trained in chiropractic medicine, tells the story of first studying the patterns in the many attacks that have sought to discredit non-conventional approaches to medicine over the years. This good, faithful Latter-day Saint physician was struck by how comparable this rhetoric was in tactics, tone, and even talking points to anti-Mormon propaganda:
- Searing, aggressive rhetoric that invokes sinister motives and agendas.
- Mocking labels that ridicule core tenets as made-up nonsense.
- Personal attacks on specific leaders in attempt to discredit the entire body of thought.
Of course, some of this same rhetoric shows up in those condemning the larger medical system as well – including the documentary Stockton participated in. Wherever such rhetoric shows up, let me be clear: I believe it’s a problem.
Even if there is truth to questions or concerns being raised (about any issue), doing so with a sinister, suspicion-generating, trust-destroying approach is harmful.
I also believe raising a perspective as if no reasonable human could disagree is also harmful. The level of certitude we’re seeing on both sides of this is striking! On one hand, I’m dumbfounded at the zealotry of the proponents of “this vaccine is safe and effective for everyone – the old, the young, the pregnant – we must convince everyone to take it as soon as possible!” Most news media – both local and national – seem to have dropped all pretense of objectivity on the matter. Anything good about COVID-19 vaccination is printed. Anything concerning is downplayed or even ignored.
On the other hand, I see many with concerns about vaccines who evince similar zealotry and lack of critical thinking about their own convictions.
I wish we could at least agree on one thing: No matter how passionate you or any of us may feel about something, to raise it in a way that disallows dissent is harmful. And in every one of these examples above, I would argue the core intolerance is essentially the same.
In whatever direction it faces, the intent to silence and punish those who raise unpopular speech reflects precisely the same dangerous impulse and threat to freedom.
Illiberalism is illiberalism is illiberalism.
If there is any meaningful difference in these various arenas, it’s that the attacks on conservatives and religious folks have been less effective in silencing them. At least conservative religious folks are still allowed to speak on social media platforms (for now). Thank God for the First Amendment.
By comparison, many minority views of health are not even allowed to be a (respectable, formal, acknowledged) part of the public conversation anymore – as reflected in the Stockton attacks.
And that should concern all of us, regardless of what you believe about health!
So, I propose today that it’s time, at least among members of our own faith, to have a serious conversation about Health Illiberalism.
It’s saddening and frightening for many of us to see those with honest questions about prevailing public health policy – from masking mandates to the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination – condemned outright as “conspiracy theorists” or “anti-science” or, as I wrote earlier, “not having enough faith in God’s prophet.”
Whatever else you may think of Tucker Carlson’s demeanor, take a deep breath and listen to this segment from yesterday’s show (here and here). Then, regardless of what you think about the ultimate truth of the matter (which, I’m not sure anyone knows with perfect certainty), tell me this: should we at least be able to have this conversation about the relative risk/benefit ratio of COVID-19 vaccination for children? Does it at all concern you to see examples of even honest questions about this (yes, from legitimate experts), being censored and silenced? Within such a repressive environment, might not anyone who believes in the importance of seeking truth wherever it leads be concerned?
Those are my honest questions for you – especially my brothers and sisters of faith.
I’m aware that some see health conversations as a whole different playing field than politics, emphasizing concerns about “misinformation” to justify the possibility of new rules we ought to accept. According to this line of thinking, it’s okay to suppress free speech when it comes to matters of health, because the spread of “demonstrably false ideas” can be threatening to our health as a whole collective. That’s the basis on which Facebook deleted over a hundred natural healing sites starting in January of 2018, as part of a crackdown on “misinformation.”
The problem is that “misinformation” can quickly start to refer to a whole range of things one side or another simply disagrees upon strongly. “Okay, so let’s just take what MOST experts agree on as the truth – and label those sharing dissenting views purveyors of ‘misinformation.’” Seems far enough, right?
Until you consider that throughout history, the most popular, prevailing views – even of experts, even about health matters – has often, ultimately been shown to be the false one. And courageous minority voices, time and time again, have been the ones sometimes (not always) borne out to be holding forth the truth. Given even that possibility, do we really want to go along with pre-emptively silencing dissenting voices as dangerous, or reckless?
As virtually all scientists themselves know full well, research is almost always far more contested and debated than the general public appreciates. Science, at its best, is no monolithic “oracle.” It’s an ongoing debate.
John Stockton is certainly not the first – and won’t be the last – person who gets threatened with “cancellation” in terms of reputation or social influence due to unpopular health opinions. I’m already taking some heat myself. And professionals in the natural healing community continue to be subject to unrelenting and vicious accusations for all sorts of things. Most recently, Dr. Oz has faced similar public attacks.
You would think that persecuted Christians might actually feel some common cause with these other persecuted groups. I certainly do.
I would argue the many sundry rationales to suppress and censor voices reflect the same core logic used to crack down on unorthodox views since time immemorial – all the way back to those who dared question Catholic orthodoxy. “Surely, we can’t allow the heresy to spread…what would it mean for the spiritual health of the country?”
And I would ask my brothers and sisters in faith to think seriously about where they stand on these questions about the health of our public discourse.
Regardless of where you stand on the validity of these competing ideas, let’s be clear: Silencing honest questions is always a bad idea. Whether that’s in an abusive home, a bad classroom, or America’s public discourse. That’s true of socio-political issues. And it’s true of health matters too.
For the last year, we’ve largely come to accept that “this is the way things have to be.”
Maybe, it’s time we stopped being okay with that.
Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D., writes about the implications of competing socio-political and health narratives – and what it takes to preserve public conversation where open exploration of truth in these matters is still possible. To read more, visit: http://unthinkable.cc
 How dare he! The gall to have raised his voice publicly on matters that have affected the entire country this last year in every conceivable way. Doesn’t he know it’s only the EXPERTS who ought to be seriously regarded in what they have to say on these matters? (at least, those who reinforce the larger messages we ALL know to be true).
 (Or at least any shred of new evidence to reaffirm their loathing of a formerly precious faith – and give them additional ammo to actively undermine others’ faith too). Some might resist my use of violent imagery here as a rhetorical overstatement. If anything, I am understating the matter. Alma described his previous life of undermining faith and tearing people from the Church of Christ in terms arguably more accurate: “Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction.”