As hard as it is to believe, I’ve been writing about the antivaccine movement for over 12 years now, and dealing with it online for close to 17 years. If there’s one thing that all that exposure to the pseudoscience, logical fallacies, misinformation, and outright hatred spewed forth by antivaccine activists on a daily basis, it’s that language matters. Antivaxers know this and are constantly trying to twist language to their ends. For instance, other than hard core antivaxers who are refreshingly honest, most antivaxers really, really hate being called “antivaccine.” I like to think it’s because they still harbor some shame for such harmful beliefs, but in reality it is far more strategic than due to any guilt or shame. They know that being perceived as antivaccine is a bad thing; so they do everything they can to counter the term. Unfortunately, their rhetoric belies their denials, as I document in a semi-regular feature I like to call The annals of “I’m not antivaccine.” For instance, Robert F. Kennedy frequently denies that he’s antivaccine and, indeed, goes even farther by calling himself “fiercely pro-vaccine.” Unfortunately for him, his rhetoric comparing vaccines (and the autism that he believes to be caused by them) to the Holocaust, not just once, but several times.
So it was with great interest that I discovered an article in a magazine called Natural Mother Magazine. I know, I know, any publication called something like Natural Mother is very likely to be filled with the most annoying woo, and this magazine is no exception. However, in the February 2017 issue, there was a revealing article by someone named Guggie Daly entitled Vacctivism Terminology: How to Empower Instead of Cower. My first thought reading the title is that the title was just too cutesy for words. My second thought was that if Daly is going to tell antivaxers how to use language to empower, maybe she shouldn’t use such a headline. My third thought was: Wow, this is the most blatant example of what I’ve been talking about all these years. I hadn’t heard of Guggie Daly before; apparently it’s the pseudonym of a Missouri “mommy blogger” very much into home birth and also very, very antivaccine if her article is any indication. Apparently she’s popular among antivaxers; so it’s amazing to me that I had never heard of her. So what is the message she’s promoting?
She starts out by warning her fellow antivaxers about how their words shape perceptions about them, which is true, and blaming the public health establishment and (to her) its lapdog media for this:
As with many profitable topics in our culture, the vaccine topic is filled with emotionally charged, artificially crafted phrases and words. This is intentional, to deliberately shape consumer perceptions and trigger negative connotations upon reading a certain word. Phrases can also make subtle assumptions, even when used by those who oppose vaccines.
Nothing about this is accidental. Utilizing the media and public health sectors to shape consumer opinion is a basic practice, and vaccines are not immune to it. When a parent continues using certain phrases without realizing the carefully shaped perception behind it, she can unknowingly adopt a defensive stance.
Her solution? Change to being “assertive”:
When you consciously change your words from being defensive to assertive, it might shift your soical interactions enough to have more fruitful conversations, too.
In reality, what she is doing is not so much being “assertive,” but going deep into Orwellian territory with pretty much every vaccine-related term you can think of starting with one as basic as “unvaccinated”:
Original terms: Unvaccinated, unvaxxed.
“My daughter is unvaccinated.”
“We don’t vaccinate.”
Preferred terms: Vaccine-free, intact immune system.
“My son has an intact immune system.”
“We are vaccine-free.”
One can’t help but note here that being vaccinated or unvaccinated does not correlate with having an “intact immune system,” except in the case of children with immune deficiencies who can’t be vaccinated with attenuated live virus vaccines. Their vaccination status does correlate with an intact immune system, just not in the way Guggie Daly thinks it does. She mistakenly thinks that vaccines somehow harm the immune system, hence her use of such deceptive terminology. She even admits it, using one of the most mind-numbingly inapt analogies I’ve ever heard:
Why the originals are problematic: “Un” implies lacking. This is the same concept in the circumcision topic. To have a whole body is not a deprivation, but a bare minimum expectation. Your child is not uncircumcised, but rather in the natural default. The normal state of the human body is to have an intact immune system and intact genitals. You don’t walk around saying you’re unlobotomized, as if you missed out.
That’s right. Vaccines are like circumcision or being lobotomized, like cutting a part of the body off or damaging the brain? Nice. What was this about her saying she’s not “antivaccine” again?
Which brings us to:
Original terms: Anti-vaxxers, anti-vax, vaccine skeptics.
“I’m an anti-vaxxer.” “We’re vaccine skeptics.”
Preferred term: Vaccine safety advocate, vaccine safety proponent.
This is, of course, the oldest twisting of language in the antivaccine playbook. I first heard this trope around 9 years ago, when Jenny McCarthy was first diving headfirst into the antivaccine movement. It was a favorite of hers. It wasn’t convincing then, and it’s not convincing now, particularly given Guggie Daly’s previous attempt to conflate being vaccinated with not having an intact immune system, clearly believing that vaccines somehow damage the immune system when they do not. Let’s hear her reasons:
Why the originals are problematic: Vaxx and its various forms are intentional keywords. They were not pulled out of thin air. I highly discourage advocates from ever using it. I appreciate that some larger vaccine safety advocates have adopted its usage for their purposes, but at the grass-roots level these terms can only hinder. Similarly, other phrases involving skepticism have already been artificially manipulated in the media to create a connotation of scientific ignorance or paranoia. Slick media manipulation means when consumers hear these terms, their brains are triggered to conjure up negative connotations, and even connotations associated with terrorism, fanaticism, scientific denial, etc. It will override any ability to have a science-based, calm decision.
I actually laughed out loud at this. In reality, as someone who self-identifies as a skeptic, I find it as annoying as Guggie Daly when the media refers to “vaccine skeptics,” but for an entirely different reason. Antivaxers are not vaccine “skeptics.” They are vaccine denialists. Use of the word “skeptic” to describe them doesn’t trigger a negative reaction. Rather, if the use of “skeptic” does trigger a negative reaction, it’s not a negative enough reaction; using the term basically whitewashes what antivaxers are about, as though being antivaccine was being skeptical instead of a denier. At the same time, using the word “skeptic” to describe science denialists dilutes the term and gives such people more status than they deserve.
Guggie Daly’s Doublespeak continues with an attempt to rename the term “vaccine-preventable diseases”:
Original term: Vaccine-preventable disease (VPD), eradicated
“My child has never contracted a VPD!” “These diseases are eradicated anyway.”
Preferred terms: Vaccine Related Disease (VRD), shifting epidemiology, renamed, better diagnostic criteria.
Why the originals are problematic: VPD implies that vaccines effectively prevent disease, which is questionable on many different levels. Using this term still adopts the vaccine program as the natural default. Switching to VRD can cause the other person to ask questions, which can open up to authentic connection and real learning instead of simply being angry at each other. VRD reminds us that vaccinated individuals can carry disease and transmit disease to others. It also reminds us that vaccines can alter the incidence of other diseases. For example, when people receive the Pertussis vaccine, they become very susceptible to parapertussis:
Yes, there is evidence that vaccination against Bordetella pertussis, the main cause of whooping cough, can lead to increased colonization with Bordetella parapertussis, which has led to speculation that increasing rates of whooping cough might be due to B. parapertussis. Not surprisingly, antivaxers have latched on to this research, even though it’s all basically in rodent models and is nowhere near as supportive of an antivaccine messages that the whooping cough vaccine somehow increases the risk of whooping cough in children as antivaxers like Guggie Daly thinks they are. Basically, large randomized studies have shown no inkling of the phenomenon observed in mice happening in humans.
But back to the language. Guggie Daly is quite blatant about wanting to imply with her term “vaccine-related disease” that vaccines somehow cause disease and that they don’t prevent the VPDs that they are targeted against. Again, it’s hard to describe this as anything other than Orwellian.
Interestingly, she doesn’t like another favorite antivaccine term, “vaccine-injured.” Obviously pro-science advocates hate that term because it implies that autism is a vaccine injury when it is not. That is not, of course, the reason why Guggie Daly disapproves of it:
Original terms: Vax-injured, vaccine injury, vaccine-damaged
“My son is vax injured.” “I’m scared of vaccine injuries.” “She’s vaccine-damaged.”
Preferred terms: Adverse reaction, listed side effect, inherent risks.
Why the originals are problematic: First, let me put this down. Children are humans and deserve the utmost respect as individual people. The vaccine program itself exploits these non-consenting, innocent people. When we are sharing about vaccine victims online, we must always be vigilant so as not to unintentionally adopt the same exploitative and disrespectful tone as the pro-vaccine side. Let us always speak to the upper standards of HIPAA and try to be as inclusive as possible while also accurately sharing information to warn other parents.
Second, it’s important to be specific because many parents are not educated on vaccine adverse reactions. Hearing the phrase vaccine injured is meaningless because they cannot conjure up any connection to it. What does it mean to be vaccine-injured? How does that work? What does it look like? Why was it the vaccines? The don’t know, and their brains can’t make the cognitive connection from such a useless phrase.
Interestingly, the example she chooses to illustrate this does not involve autism, but hearing loss from MMR vaccine. I wonder why.
Be that as it may, Guggie Daly’s entire article is as blatant an example of torturing language to serve an ideological purpose as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve frequently pointed out what I like to call the “I’m not antivaccine, I’m a vaccine safety advocate” gambit, a trope so transparent that it generally takes very little digging to demonstrate that the person using it really is antivaccine. I was surprised to learn that some antivaxers don’t like the term “vaccine-injured,” given how often I had seen it used.
Whatever the actual terms used, abused, and twisted into something else to promote the antivaccine agenda, I’ve always known that the manipulation of language is inherent in antivaccine rhetoric, be it the claim that vaccines are dangerous or the various conspiracy theories that are at the heart of antivaccine beliefs. I can’t help but thank Guggie Daly for making my point for me so clearly.
Besides, when I think of antivaccine language, I think of this: