historical stuff by Gareth Millward
Anti-vaccinationism is fascinating. It takes elements of truth, facts taken entirely out of context and a smattering of outright falsehoods. But what’s really interesting about it is how its supporters take the whole thing as a cohesive whole. It doesn’t matter which bits are true, false or somewhere in the middle. What matters is the central message. And all information can be refracted through that same lens: vaccination must be stopped
It contains within it an elegant and quite brilliant defence strategy – any and all criticism must be based on ignorance, malice or slander. All evidence that is not “anti-vax” approved is dismissed as biased. The medical industry manufactures vaccines – therefore any evidence with the slightest connection to pharmaceuticals is immediately dodgy. Government funding? Well, they have vested interests too. The very fact they have so much evidence shows just how much they fear what anti-vaccinationists are saying – look how hard they’re trying to keep them silent! People only criticise the anti-vaccination community because they fear that if the masses knew the truth the establishment would lose their ability to make money from vaccines.
The same level of critical cynicism, however, is not levelled at evidence which agrees with the anti-vax position. If a single suspected case of vaccine damage can be found, this is taken as bona fide fact. If a single study suggests increased risks of disease within a population, this is seized upon. A vaccinated kid gets the disease they were immunised against? You’d better believe that’s going in the file.
What I find intriguing about all of this is that it purports to use the same tools of rational debate that the humanities, social sciences and hard sciences have used since they were professionalised towards the end of the eighteenth century. Find evidence to support your hypothesis, lay out these facts in a convincing manner, and spread the word amongst your community so that they can build upon your findings. Of course, the academic disciplines have rules and peer review to continually critique those findings. Anti-vaccinationists, however, have their own echo chamber, reinterpreting and reinforcing the same set of information and ideas and shielding it from any criticism. Remember – anyone who criticises them is either working for big pharma or has been taken in by their propaganda.
That is irrational. And it flies in the face of how experts traditionally talk to one another.
Corbyn’s supporters also have their network of truths and half-truths, some of which I’ll delve into in a minute. But what seems abundantly clear is there is a very well-constructed defence edifice that has been built around this “social movement”. Jeremy fights against corporations, Conservatives, the right-wing of the Labour Party and those who benefit most from the status quo. Anyone who disagrees with him must therefore either have swallowed these vested interests’ lies or be actively working for them. Any evidence they provide is tainted by association, and must be rejected as suspicious. They only do it because they fear that the world will see the truth and sweep away the old establishment. By the same token, any evidence put forward by Corbyn’s supporters, regardless of context, is yet more proof of how important the cause must be.
Caveat box!. I am not saying all supporters of Corbyn behave in this manner. There are rational reasons to support him, and plenty of evidence that his enemies are dangerous to our interests.
I found a cache of letters written to the Minister of Health in 1942 at The National Archives. They show that many of the techniques used by anti-vaccination campaigners haven’t changed much over the decades. There’s a shift in nuance here, a change of target there. But broadly it’s the same. Vaccination is unnatural, unsafe and unnecessary. The only reason to support it is because too many people make money from it. And once people hear the truth, they will reject it all, sweeping away those who exploited them.
Let’s just take a few areas as examples. The use of statistics. In the letters, anti-vaccinationists rightly point out that ‘2,380 children who had received a course of immunisation developed diphtheria’.1 What they neglected to mention was that your chances of getting diphtheria were significantly reduced if one was vaccinated. Unvaccinated children were four times more likely to get the disease, and twenty times more likely to die.2
There’s no lie here. The anti-vaccination campaigners were entirely correct. But put in the proper epidemiological context, the claim was bizarre. At face value, relatively convincing; with proper analysis it actually strengthened the argument of the medical authorities.
The same can be applied to election results. Every seat held by Labour is put down to Corbyn’s broad and unquestionable appeal. Yet the local election results of 2016 were largely seen as underwhelming for the party according to all but the most Corbyn-optimistic pundits. Corbyn held most of the seats he was supposed to (which is better than most predicted), but he failed to make gains where his “new politics” was meant to make a difference. He ‘performed woefully in Scotland’, for example.
Again – his supporters aren’t lying when they say Corbyn did well. He didn’t lose many seats. But 6 years into Cameron’s Prime Ministership, this wasn’t the performance of a man with momentum to win a Parliamentary majority in 2020. Far from it.
‘In spite of all the misrepresentation of facts and figures by medical and other interested apologists, the case against [vaccination] becomes more impressive and condemning’ wrote one correspondent whose signature I can’t decipher.3 This too reflects a key component of anti-vaccinationism’s in-built confidence. The people are “waking up” to the truth, despite the propaganda. And eventually the people will win.
Once more, this isn’t necessarily a lie. It’s not really statistically provable, but its repetition in itself strengthens the cause. Because doctors and the government were engaging in propaganda around vaccines. A war was on – but even for years after 1945, much of the poster and film work around promoting health policy was called “propaganda”.
They government make claims about vaccination being perfectly safe, painless and protecting your child from disease.4 Yet we all know that complications do happen (albeit very, very rarely), it isn’t “painless”, and (as we’ve already seen) vaccinated children can catch the disease. Why is the government exaggerating? What is it hiding? And if I’m noticing this, surely others must be too?
So, back to Corbyn. It’s true, the press has never given him a fair shake.5 Nor did many in his Parliamentary party. Why do they try so hard to discredit him? What are they worried about us knowing or finding out? Since all my friends are seeing this, it can’t be long before the whole nation embraces him.
But… there is always a but. Vaccination is safe. Complications are so rare as to be statistically negligible (though clearly devastating for any family affected by them). The needle does prick and cause discomfort, especially in small children, but it is nowhere near as painful as actually getting diphtheria. And we already know your chances of getting the disease are slim if you get the jab.
Similarly, maybe the press is out to get Corbyn. But he has done and said some pretty questionable things. Taking money from Iranian state TV, for example, while claiming to be pro-gay rights and civil liberties seems to be contradictory. It at least requires addressing if you’re going to attack people for previous employment choices. He clearly does have a problem delegating and managing a large team, regardless of whose interests it is for that story to come out. Just because someone is exaggerating and has an interest doesn’t mean – necessarily – that they’re wrong.
I could go on.
The point here is not to say that Corbyn’s supporters are liars. I don’t think they make stuff up. Nor is it to say that they have no truth or power to their cause. Rather that the selective use of evidence and self-proving mythology about why and how they are criticised act in similar ways to the anti-vaccination movement.
Both groups have evidence on their side – and again, for clarity, Corbyn has far more truth on his side than anti-vaccinationists. But this doesn’t really matter. Context is largely irrelevant, and criticism is blunted when the rules of rational debate are subverted. Vested corporate interests are destroying our communities. New Labour did stifle debate and the voice of the working classes. We should have leaders who are willing to challenge established institutions so that they work more fairly for the majority and not just for the privileged few.
And most importantly of all, the Parliamentary Labour Party is a fucking mess that couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.
But cherry-picking evidence within that framework to prove Corbyn is the man to change all that doesn’t serve those purposes. It leaves us without a rational defence against the Tories. It leaves us without an internal rational debate within the left as to how best to build coalitions and partnerships with those sympathetic – but not yet converted – to our cause. In short, it leaves us with irrational politics. Voids in the extremes to be filled by fascists and populist racists to the right and dogmatic anti-establishment cults of personality on the left.
And here I am – the academic in his ivory tower – stuck in the middle with you.