First of all, let me say that I don’t like that term. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly. You know what else I don’t like? Sick kids. So I vaccinated my children. You might be surprised to hear that, based on the title of this post, but it’s true. I’m not anti-vaccination, and as a matter of fact I’m quite pro-vaccination. But I’m not kidding. Advocates of vaccination need to stop yelling at anti-vaxxers. Here’s why.
This is a group of people who are being collectively dehumanized. Unless someone is ACTUALLY not human, that’s never okay. Take this example. A post appeared on the website ScaryMommy.com. I’m not linking to the post here, but I’m sure you can find it, or one like it, easily. The point of the post was that the author did not believe that vaccination should be a choice that parents make, it should be mandatory with the exception of kids with compromised immune systems. The author has every right to her opinion, and every right to put it out there. There was an air of condescension to the piece, and this is often the case with such pieces. I’ve seen it on Gawker, Jezebel, The Daily Beast and The New York Times. They all pretty much start the same way: “Thanks For The Measles, Anti-Vaxxers”, or some variant of that title. And the problem with condescension like that is that is implies permission. Permission to dispense with civil discourse. This almost always leads to a thread of comments in which people on opposing sides opine until things devolve into an string of abusive offenses. And I’m sorry to say, simply because anti-vaxxers are in the minority, there are many more commenters telling these folks how stupid and ignorant they are, what horrible parents and people they are, and how if they truly loved their children they would vaccinate their kids. I AM not saying that the anti-vaccine side can’t be just as nasty, but it always seems to come after someone mentions what terrible people they are. I’ve seen it in every comment thread I’ve ever read in every major outlet, but last week I reached a new level of disgust when I saw someone had posted this in the comments thread under the Scary Mommy article, and please note again that this was in the comments thread, and was not posted by the article’s author:
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d never call someone else’s kids “crotch-fruit” or “plague pits”. And the tone here is so ugly it makes me want to cry.
I know plenty of people who have reservations about vaccination, and yes, most of them are in the special needs community. I’m aware that there are people who don’t vaccinate their children due to religious beliefs, but I don’t know anybody of whom that is true, so I won’t speak about that group of folks. These are parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Apraxia, or PDD-NOS. And this may come as a surprise, but lots of these families did, in fact, vaccinate their children, and report changes in their child’s health, behavior or development afterward.
Most vaccine proponents will say that this is purely coincidental, based on the timing of the vaccines during the developmental timeline. I am not arguing that. I should also say that I am not going to absolutely refute what another parent says they experienced with their child. What I will argue is the assumption that if someone holds this belief, they are stupid and they love their child less than I do.
I have seen people in this community parenting their children with such bravery and tireless advocacy and immense love and acceptance. I have looked at some of these people and felt ashamed of my own impatience and frustration with my situation. And do you know why so many of my friends hold “PhD”s from “Google U”? It’s because the science is not in yet on what causes these neurological disorders. My child’s disorder (or the one of the three that affects her the most) wasn’t even named and recognized until a decade ago, we don’t know the cause, and it may be awhile before we have answers to our most basic questions. While parents like me wait for those answers, we’re left with the daily task of trying to navigate parenting children whose minds and bodies work differently from a typically developing child. The parents I know who are faced with this job are doing it with incredible grace. And I honestly can’t think of a single parent I know, who when faced with any unexplained illness or condition, doesn’t look for as much information as they can find on the subject.
I understand that the root of this condescension toward anti-vaxxers is fear. Measles, whooping cough, polio… those are really scary things. I certainly don’t want my child to suffer any of those diseases. But while those are things that for most of us will probably always remain just possibilities, many anti-vaxxers are already living with children who are fighting something. I’ve heard comments like, “well, Autism isn’t deadly.” I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. I would point out that families dealing with special needs are at a higher risk for debt, divorce, substance abuse, sexual abuse, mental illness and suicide. Certainly there is a difference between a fast-moving, communicable illness and a long-term neurological disorder, but the immediate risk is finite with the former, whereas the long-term risk looms there in background, always, with the latter. Plenty of families have been broken in this way. I personally do not care for either scenario.
That person in the comments feed who is getting called a “waste of breath”, or in the case of the above graphic, a “cretin”, for questioning vaccinations or timetables may at times, feel utterly inadequate to the task with which they’ve been charged. God knows I have spent enough of my own nights questioning my worth and ability to parent a child with special needs. Tearful, gut-clenching hours of darkness asking why her, why me, why us, what is her future going to be, will she be bullied, will she be able to handle it, will she be able to tell me about it, will I be able to handle it, what if we have to support her physically forever, what if we have to support her financially forever, what if something happens to me or my husband, what if, what if, what if??? Please know that the anti-vaxxers I know are a community of people who are already hurting with something that has already happened. Not hurting all the time, certainly experiencing enormous joy with their children, but having those tearful, gut-clenching moments, sometimes many of them, in the dark.
I’d also like to point out that when trying to persuade someone to change their opinions or be open to changing a view, condescension, snark, shame and shouting are rarely useful methods of persuasion. I think about my teenage years, when my parents would yell at me. I immediately became defensive, and shut them out. It didn’t matter if they had cause and were totally right; if I felt attacked then I just shut them out, or dug in my heels and held my ground.
Yesterday I received an email from the principal of my daughter’s high school. He was asking parents to help keep a social app called Yik Yak off of our kids’ iPads and cell phones. This app is like anonymous Twitter, apparently, and allows users to say horrible things about each other in total anonymity. It is a nuclear bomb of rumors and hate, and the source of extreme bullying.
I talked to my daughter about it when she got home. She doesn’t have the app, and doesn’t understand why anyone would want to spend their time being so ugly, or being a voyeur to the ugliness. I wondered who these kids are that are being so ruthlessly cruel to their fellow students. But when I read things like the bit above, I realize that these children are OUR children and the products of OUR Mean Girl culture. Why would I expect anything less from children than the example that we set for them when we bully other parents?
My point is this: Anti-vaxxers, and yes, I still really dislike that term – because it reduces complicated thoughts and feelings to a word synonymous with SOMETHING BAD, are human beings. The people that I know who have reservations about vaccination are smart, loving and kind people who deserve my respect because like me, they are people who are collections of thoughts, feelings, life experience and love for their children. If the pro-vaccination population truly wants to change views and boost vaccination rates among people who might question, the first thing to be done is to change the tone of the conversation from hate and condescension to one of listening and compassion. So to folks like the author of the meme above: Don’t stop advocating for vaccination. Don’t stop talking about what you believe is right and important. Don’t even stop doing it passionately. Do try to have some basic decency in your discourse, and definitely stop dehumanizing your fellow parents over it. If your intention is to change some one’s perception about vaccination, I promise that is counter-productive behavior. If your intention is to simply vent and be hostile, then you might be interested in an app called Yik Yak.