Sunday, May 24, 2020

Antivaxxers and gay rights

Andrew Koppelman

The new, coronavirus-inspired surge of anti-vaccine blather can teach us something important about an issue that might seem entirely unrelated: the controversy over gay rights and religion, which I’ve just written a book about.

Anti-vaccine activists have been a public health hazard for many years.  Now they have become even more dangerous: they are mobilizing in anticipation of a Covid-19 vaccine, which they see as more dangerous than the pandemic itself.  This alarming  development comes with a valuable lesson: people can be badly wrong without being evil. 

The anti-vaccination movement is based on a combination of wild conspiracy theories and bogus expertise.  In recent years, it has become increasingly influential.  Childhood vaccinations have dropped, and measles, once eradicated from the United States, is returning.  Now they present a real danger to efforts to end the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are undoubtedly some reprehensible people in the antivaxx movement.  The spurious study that purported to find a link with autism was based on deliberately falsified data, by Andrew Wakefield, a doctor with massive financial conflicts of interest who has since been barred from practice.  Judy Mikovits, whose ideas are the basis of the widely seen, wildly dishonest “Plandemic” video, is delusional. 

But most antivaxxers are decent people.  Many are parents who want their children to be safe.  Some of them have autistic children, and are grasping for an explanation.  Refuting them is important, and isn’t easy. 

But it would be daft to claim that they want to hurt children.  We can disagree with them, even mobilize against them, without demonizing them.  Otherwise decent people sometimes hold wrong and destructive beliefs. 

There is a lesson here for the gay rights/religion controversy, the source of some of the bitterest divisions in American politics.  Many on each side of that divide think that their counterparts are motivated by irrational hatred – either hatred of gay people or hatred of conservative Christians.  The liberals think that the conservatives are the moral equivalent of racists, to be treated with comparable disdain.  The conservatives feel isolated and vulnerable, and that led them to support Trump, who grotesquely violates their ideals but who promised to protect them.

About a third of Americans think, most of them for religious reasons, that homosexual sex is never morally acceptable.  They honestly embrace the sexual ethics that their religions have taught for centuries.  They take those teachings seriously.  They believe that life and morality make no sense without a religious basis.  (Of course, not all believers think that those traditions condemn as immoral any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage.  Every major religion is divided on that question.)

I, like most Americans, reject that view.  But I worry that many who agree with me tend to caricature their opponents, and so make this issue unnecessarily bitter.  A majority of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights spoke for many when it declared in 2016 that proposals for religious accommodation “represent an orchestrated, nationwide effort by extremists to promote bigotry, cloaked in the mantle of ‘religious freedom,’” and “are pretextual attempts to justify naked animus against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”  That just isn’t true.

The suggestion that our adversaries know they are wrong, and are just pretending to disagree with us because they are horrible people, has a certain smug charm.  Americans of all political persuasions are increasingly ensnared by that temptation.  It produces the toxic polarization that is tearing the country apart.

In the most prominent cases, the bakers and florists who refuse to serve same-sex weddings, conservative Christians have been willing to endure huge fines, and sometimes the destruction of their businesses, rather than facilitate what they believe to be sinful conduct.  In some of the cases they had previously been friendly with the gay complainants.  You may not like their ideals.  I don’t.  But idealists is what they are. 

A central challenge of modern politics is to tell a story of who Americans are in which each faction can recognize itself and see a home for itself.

Part of America’s promise has always been to be a place where diversity can flourish.  We all ought to be proud of this common identity:  we are a society that, as much as possible, makes room for the enormous range of human variation.  That is one message of the rainbow flag.  Religious conservatives should find that there is a place here for them too.

Older Posts
Newer Posts