If you take social media at face value, there are only two groups of people in the world. Those who believe vaccines are evil tools used by the world’s elite to control the population and destroy our health, and those who think vaccines and interventional medicine are more important than core health and autonomy that is supposed to come with a genuinely free society. Scientism crowds view the other side as lost, idiotic ‘anti-vaxxers’ while the skeptics see the pro-medicine group like sheep, blindly following orders at the peril of humanity. We have essentially created caricatures of each other, destroying our chances of a well-functioning society.
The rise of social media has allowed human beings to feel important, influential, powerful, and part of a group of like-minded individuals. As authors like Gustave Le Bon understand, for a crowd to function, the group requires a common enemy, and that enemy needs to be well-defined and easily recognized. When an individual becomes part of a crowd or group, s/he will also do and say things that would never happen as an individual. Social media has become the digital version of rioting that leads to shocking violence, which no human being would take part in on their own.
The truth is that most people live closer to the center of this ongoing controversy and battle for what is right. We assume those who disagree with us are uneducated, irresponsible, unsavory human beings who want to destroy the world. Forming this image of the person on the other side of the argument allows us to dehumanize the individual and validate our attacks on them, whether in our minds, text, or speech. The Nurse who is hesitant to get vaccinated because she is uncomfortable with the speed of the vaccine manufacturing and the approval process has a valid concern. She is likely a mother, wife, friend, and caring individual who is excellent at her job. She wants what is best for her and her family and isn’t comfortable with the pressure from a forced medical intervention. She worries about the motivations for driving down the accepted age of vaccination, especially when younger populations who are highly resilient to the disease show a significant risk of serious adverse events from the medicine.
The emergency physician who has seen a host of people come through her ward, some of them barely hanging on or succumbing to the disease, can’t seem to concern himself with unknown long-term effects of mRNA vaccines. She knows that the risk associated with the vaccine is low and that it will significantly reduce the severity of the disease and the volume of sick people coming through the doors. She has seen distraught families lose loved ones on multiple occasions and can’t fathom why a person would not take the small risk of medical intervention in exchange for even a mild to moderate duration of strong protection.
The Nurse becomes an irresponsible quack who spends too much time watching essential oils gurus on Instagram. At the same time, the Physician presents as a myopic authoritarian who is only here to do the bidding of power-hungry public health officials and the elites who control them.
Both of these individuals care. Both of them are concerned and want to make the correct decision. Both of them have families and friends who they want to serve and protect by making choices that result in the least amount of harm. But we don’t see people as people anymore. We don’t see them as human beings struggling with a complex historical situation for which we don’t have a blueprint. We see them as opposition, the enemy, and the other.
Our ability to take most human beings and categorize them to the fringes- instead of recognizing them as regular people closer to the reasonable centre of an argument- is a trend we have seen before in history, and it doesn’t end well. The population divide- especially into ‘have and have nots’- is a recipe for destruction. I am much more concerned about this trend than the effects of the virus, and you should be too.
Yes, the virus is real. It is making people sick and killing our most vulnerable citizens at considerable rates. But the COVID-19 pandemic could have been much worse, and it is clearly established that the young and healthy are highly resilient to the virus. As the pandemic rolls on, even our most susceptible demographics are showing higher rates of survival. COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere, ever. And it won’t be the last virus we are likely to face in our lifetimes.
Why does any of this matter? Because as social beings, a connected fabric of people who are out to aid- not destroy one another- is not only critical for effectively getting through a pandemic, but it is also non-negotiable for every other element of a stable society. For a government to work the way we intend, to avoid stratification that leads to a silent caste system, and to operate to push humanity forward instead of back into darker times, we need to consider each other on the individual level. On a HUMAN level. Regardless of how this pandemic ends, if we lose the ability to interact with each other with good faith and the assumption of positive intentions, we will move backward as a society. We should hold space for conversations on tense, emotional topics while attacking ideas, not people. Just like you should be able to respectfully debate the existence of God with an atheist while still seeing her as a caring, well-intentioned human being, you should be able to argue the complexities of forced vaccination while highlighting errors in the argument instead of the character of your opposition. To do otherwise is to prove that you are not interested in getting to what is right. You are interested in being right and accessing the feelings of power that come with dunking on another person over Twitter.
Social media can be a valuable tool, or it can be a curse. Those who are the most convinced of their position with the least amount of evidence to support their point of view are the loudest. Those who are the most considerate and nuanced in assessing a given topic stay quiet (as to avoid the wrath of the insecure and angry). While viewing from the outside, it appears that the world has gone insane and filled up with only anti-vaxxers and eugenicists. Then you go outside and see other actual human beings. You interact with a friend, and neighbour, or a total stranger, and you never encounter the caricatures that you have created in your mind. If these insane, dangerous people are so abundant, why do we rarely see them in real life? It’s because they don’t exist, for now. No person who takes a nasty position while attacking others on the web is likely to act similarly during face-to-face interactions. Partly because he is likely a coward and partially because two-way conversations eliminate the ability to create the enemy you seek to destroy on Facebook. The issue here is that the internet is becoming the physical world. It’s not just a place to research or watch funny videos. It is a world of absolute power and influence. We will be in big trouble if we don’t begin interacting online with the type of consideration and thoughtfulness we offer during in-person conversations. When you think about the atrocities that human beings can enforce on one another in real life, think of the harm we will be able to justify in the digital world.
So while COVID-10 is a problem which we should continue to focus on and resolve, the much bigger issue with the actual power to destroy society festers and grows below our radars (even though it should be blatantly obvious).
Have a conversation. Engage in debate and the exchange of competing ideas. But do it with respect and a degree of consideration for the other person that requires effort and discipline on your part to provide. Even when attacked, attempt to take the high road and force the other person to look in the mirror and ask himself what the insults he threw at you say about his character. If you fight back and engage in character attacks, you justify the attacks on you. At the end of the day, we are all just people who want to feel significant, secure, and included. Every action we take is an effort to self-actualize and be recognized for the value we offer the world. But there is a way to rise in society that becomes a net positive and a way to assert your dominance in a way that breaks others down. I implore you to take the former approach, for if too many of us continue to take the latter, we will create a societal plague orders of magnitude more destructive than the one we are attempting to survive.