The cult of the antivaccine

After a brief foray yesterday into discussing atheism, tone deafness, and the Holocaust (how’s that for an odd combination?), I’m ready to get back to more—shall we say?—conventional topics. One topic that’s been popping up at that other wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery (one of the ones other than Age of Autism) reveals something about the antivaccine movement that I find educational. Specifically, it has to do with how, once a parent has drunk deeply of the antivaccine Kool Aid, she behaves in a rather cult-like manner. I’ll show you what I mean, and the post that best epitomizes this appeared on the not-so Thinking Mom’s Revolution a couple of weeks ago in the form of a post by one of the not-so-Thinking Mom’s (or should I call them the un-Thinking Moms?), MamaMac, entitled You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again.

It’s basically simultaneously a lament over how MamaMac’s friends from her youth don’t understand her anymore now that she’s become a rabid antivaccine activist (obviously she didn’t phrase it that way) and how they aren’t interested in her antivaccine rants (obviously, again, she didn’t phrase it that way, but that’s what she’s saying). Lest you think my interpretation of what she is saying is unfair, let’s take a look right at the first paragraph:

In my town, I don’t fit in anymore. Friends don’t like my updates on Facebook. Some of my friends since childhood don’t understand me anymore. Even some family doesn’t really want to hear much about what I think these days. Moms in my town don’t want to hear what I have to say. They think I’m weird. They feel bad that Nick has autism and they want to hear that he is improving, but they don’t want to hear me talk about how he regressed from vaccine injury. They don’t want to hear my opinion that the HPV vaccine and Flu Shot are unsafe and not worth it, or that neurological and physical regressions can happen with older kids too. They don’t want to know that insurance doesn’t cover the kind of treatment Nick needs. They tell me, “They have a nephew with autism, he’s doing great, he’s seven and doesn’t speak but the family loves him very much, have I heard about Autism Speaks?”

It never occurs to MamaMac that maybe—just maybe—the reason that her friends and family are having a hard time putting up with her is that she’s become a crank. An antivaccine crank, which she most definitely is. True, on rare occasions cranks can turn out to be right, but antivaccine cranks are not one of those cases. Their ability to ignore all the data and studies that disconfirm their single fixed idea that vaccines are evil and caused their children’s autism is truly prodigious. What she is doing by promoting antivaccine views, ranting against the HPV and flu vaccines, and going on and on and on about how she thinks is not “warning” her friends and family about the dangers of vaccines and the One True Way to Salvation (i.e., curing her children of autism and avoiding it in the first place) is to avoid vaccines like the plague. Rather, it’s endangering public health by encouraging people not to vaccinate their children against, well, anything. Why? Because in her world vaccines are evil and cause autism and all manner of problems.

And what’s the cure? To Mama Mac, it’s quackery like “supplements, diet changes, homeopathy, etc., that might be a safer and more effective long term solution for their child’s issues.” The problem, of course, is that none of these are “long term solutions” for anything, much less autism, ADHD, and the plethora of “food or environmental sensitivities” (translation: vaccines plus everything else antivaccinationists distrust). I hadn’t realized that Mama Mac was into homeopathy, either. Now that’s one of the purest of pure quackeries there is. Here’s a hint to her: It’s water!

Simultaneously amusingly and sadly, MamaMac complains that sometimes the people with whom she shares her rants “push back,” telling her science-based information, such as that vaccines are safe (they are), mentioning that herd immunity protects children who can’t be vaccinated, such as a “niece with Leukemia” (I’m not sure why MamaMac capitalized the word leukemia), and saying that they don’t want their children to be going to school with unvaccinated children (a perfectly reasonable position to take, given that unvaccinated children are far more likely to serve as vectors and reservoirs for vaccine-preventable diseases than are unvaccinated children). It seems to be particularly annoying to her that people talk about her behind her back, wondering why she’s latched on to quackery like homeopathy and expressing concern or frustration that she blames vaccines for her child’s autism. It’s unfortunate, but completely understandable, behavior. It’s human nature, and self-righteous cranks like MamaMac lecturing family and friends about the dangers of vaccines are extremely off-putting. They’re annoying as hell to people who know they’re wrong and on the fringe. Only family is likely to stick with such a person, and even then more with a bemused or annoyed tolerance than any sort of respect. After all, nearly every extended family has a crank or someone who borders on being a crank. Such family members are invited to family functions but the family hopes they won’t make a scene or annoy too many people. That is the position that MamaMac has put herself in by her own choice.

It’s nearly cult-like in isolation, as you’ll see in a moment. First, I’d like to show a more recent example of how the not-so-Thinking/un-Thinking Moms demonstrate in a small way the cult-like nature of antivaccine beliefs. This time, the example is a post from a couple of days ago by another not-so-Thinking Mom, Mamacita, entitled 4 Facebook Updates That Annoy This Vaccine-Injury Parent.

While I was reading this post, one thought kept going through my head that goes through my head whenever anyone complains about what’s on Facebook: If you don’t like it, just skip over it and don’t read it. Seriously. It’s that easy. Not to Mamacita. To here, there are four offenses that send her into the stratosphere when she sees them on Facebook. Number one on the list is:

#1 – Posting this status on Facebook: Little Johnny is getting his shots tomorrow.

For the love of all that is holy, why do parents post that as their status? Would you ever post, “Hey, I’m getting my annual Pap smear tomorrow.” Or, “Dude, I gotta turn my head and cough tomorrow.”

No, you probably wouldn’t.

So why do parents insist on telling all their Facebook friends that they are willingly letting someone jab their kids with all manner of known neurotoxins? One of my theories is that the people who post that sort of stuff aren’t 100% certain that they should do it. Another theory is that they are subconsciously admitting that they are scared shitless, and in posting that type of status, they are hoping their friends will give them permission to not get the vaccines. Alas, the more depressing theory that’s probably closer to the truth is that they just don’t know enough to know better. They are just going with the flow and following the schedule that has landed so many of us in the middle of this revolution.

If you are someone who posts that message, don’t be surprised if I come along and post a whole bunch of reasons why not to vaccinate. The first one would involve the retelling of Ronan’s story, which you should know by heart already.

Now there’s an obnoxious Facebook friend! Almost everyone has Facebook friends like that, actually. I’m not referring to antivaccine nutters like Mamacita, but to Facebook friends who can’t resist swooping in and grinding their particular personal axe, be it political, social, or whatever, when they see a post they disagree with. I have a few of them. One in particular is an anthropogenic global warming denialist and Libertarian crackpot. Any time I post anything that even comes close to goring his particular political oxen, this guy will inevitably swoop in, complete with the latest links from the right wing crankosphere, and proceed to annoy the hell out of my other Facebook friends and myself. I tried to engage with him for a couple of years and get him at least to accept that there is evidence that counters his viewpoint. I don’t expect to change his mind, but at least to make him realize that things aren’t as black and white as he thinks they are. No go. So now I basically either ignore him or dismissively throw some abuse his way to warn others about engaging, because trying to engage in civil conversation with him is pointless. When he realizes that he can’t lure me in, he usually goes away. Why don’t I unfriend him? Because he’s a longtime friend of a close family member. Well, that alone isn’t enough; my family finds him almost as annoying as I do. The embarrassing truth is probably pride. I know that he would take my unfriending him as an admission of defeat.

Mamacita sounds very much like my Facebook friend, and nobody likes that guy except others who are in the same echo chamber. Very likely the same is true for Mamacita.

In all fairness, I can understand why Mamacita might be upset, as she says she is in item #4, when parents post complaints that their normal child is doing normal kid things. That is entirely normal, I would imagine, for the parents of a special needs child who sees such comments and wants to tell those parents to be thankful they have a normal child. However, most parents of special needs children whom I’ve met also know that no good purpose is served expressing those feelings to those parents. They’re experiencing the normal tribulations of parenthood, and it’s not their fault they have a normal child and their Facebook friend had a difficult special needs child.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is Mamacita’s #3 pet peeve: “Asking this question on my wall: “Hey, Sally just spiked a high fever and is really out of it. She got seven shots yesterday. Should I be worried?” This leads her to write:

I just died a thousand times. Truly, I did. This sort of post is another PTSD trigger with an added, ‘Are you KIDDING me?’ being screamed in my head as I bite my tongue to stifle an ‘I told you so.’

But since I am all about helping people, of course I will walk you through your kid’s adverse vaccine reaction. I will inform you of available detox protocols, and I’ll steer you in the right direction should she need therapy in the future. Later, when you realize how betrayed I felt and how obtuse you were in the face of my son’s living proof of an adverse vaccine reaction, you can apologize for making me want to beat my head against a wall. But first, we get to work to fix your kid.

Because it’s all about the self-righteousness and about being right, coupled with self-pity, not about helping others. So she’ll “steer” such parents towards antivaccine quackery like “detox” protocols.

I started this post saying that the antivaccine movement is cult-like. If you want to see a good expression of that, let’s head on back to MamaMac’s post, where she opines:

Most of them have moved on without me because I don’t fit in anymore. We are not a normal family doing normal family things. I’m not lonely, although I do miss some of these friendships. I have loads of great people in my life that get me, understand what we are going through, and support us as a family. Some of them I actually get to see once in a while other than on the computer. My reactive stance is to fold in like a turtle, to bring the vulnerable bits inside the shell. I want to stop exposing my pain to a harsh audience and lick my wounds in private. So I take my anger back to the autism moms who get it and comfort me well. They tell me they know it sucks, tell me a story from their own experience, and tell me it won’t hurt as much tomorrow.

Which leads her to declare:

I’m not going away. My primary concern is healing my own child and family and taking care of our wounded autism community. My feelings do get hurt. I do get angry. But, I also wouldn’t be able to forgive myself down the road if I hadn’t spoken up. Once you are a mother, you are a bit of a mother to all children. When I sit by a swimming pool, a part of me is always scanning for a child in trouble. Would I be easier to take if I were the kind of mom that closed my eyes and looked away if a child was choking and struggling in the water? It would be far easier for all of us, including me if I just shut the f*ck up. But I’m not going to.

Now do you see what I mean? MamaMac, realizing that her belief in the cult of antivaccinationism has made it so that she doesn’t fit in with her family and prior friends, has made a new family and friends. Not surprisingly, these people share her beliefs. It’s the normal human mechanism for seeking solace put in the service of a harmful fixed idea that never changes, namely that vaccines cause autism. Having received that “truth” and joined a community of “truth,” these antivaccine parents become antivaccine evangelists, set to go out and preach the gospel of autism biomedical cures for autism and antivaccine pseudoscience as their preferred means of “preventing” autism, the cost to public health be damned.

I wonder if these parents shun members who realize what a mistake they’ve made and turn back to science-based medicine. Actually, I know the answer to that question.