Commentary

Political sectarianism fuels vaccine resistance

November 28, 2021 11:00 am

Protesters gather at a March for Freedom rally demonstrating against the Los Angeles City Council’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees and contractors on Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Emotional intelligence is the ability to fathom our feelings so as to reduce stress, enhance reasoning and perceive emotions in ourselves and others so as to enhance awareness and mental well-being.

The ability to process emotions has many benefits. We can interact prudently and mindfully with others, communicating effectively, overcoming challenges and defusing conflict.

The global pandemic requires such intelligence. We should empathize with others who have succumbed to coronavirus and its variants.

Those who received the vaccine have overcome one of the biggest challenges of the century.

But partisan politics and conspiracy theories, often promulgated by social media, have done little to defuse conflict.

The opposite of emotional intelligence is sectarianism, which has become “especially acrimonious in the United States,” according to a study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Sectarianism is defined as political polarization driven by the urge to dominate and revile supporters of the opposing party.

Unlike emotional intelligence, sectarianism increases stress, triggers imprudent or even dangerous actions, and uses communication as a weapon, especially on social media.

As such, sectarianism does little to overcome challenges or defuse conflicts.

To practice emotional intelligence, we have to take inventory of our deepest desires, fears, beliefs and values.

Ask yourself, what do you wish more than anything in life? What prospect terrifies you the most? What are your convictions about political parties or policies? What moral principles do you embrace without question?

If you answer those questions, chances are you will not succumb to those who would mislead and manipulate you. They analyze your emotions and set a plan in motion to deceive you.

If you desire upward mobility, you can enhance your work ethic via mindfulness or fall prey to scammers with get-rich schemes. If you fear loss of employment, you can improve your skill sets or blame company policies for your shortcomings.

Political sectarians transform neighbors, friends and even relatives into godless socialists or ignorant fascists.

Kitchen debates, especially on holidays, can be disconcerting. When it comes to social media, we can unfriend those who disagree with us. And while that is generally unharmful, sectarianism in the time of pandemic can be lethal.

A computer engineering study, titled “Does social media misinformation cause vaccine hesitancy?,” identified a large anti-vaccine community on Twitter. Users relied on the platform to spread disinformation and conspiracies suggesting vaccines are unsafe or ineffective.

Another study, “The Anti-Vaccination Infodemic on Social Media,” noted that vaccinations are “one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine,” offering humanity a solution to halt the COVID-19 pandemic. That goal was undermined by the anti-vaccination movement spreading misinformation about safety. The study analyzed behavior on Twitter and found anti-vaxxers used emotionally charged language to dissuade others from being inoculated.

The same result was occurring on other platforms, including Instagram. When such tweets and posts were banned, anti-vaxxers developed their own coded language to circumvent monitors.

Instead of using hashtags like “#vaccineskill,” they used “abstruse hashtags like #learntherisk and #justasking.” They also spelled “vaccines with cedillas, “vaççines,” or modified spelling with brackets and parentheses, such as “va((ines.”

Because of social media crackdowns, NBC News reported that anti-vaxxers targeted local media. Whether on Twitter, Instagram or network TV affiliates, the goal was the same — information laundering.

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, who studies media manipulation, notes: “If you make a harmful position sound reasonable, then more people who would otherwise not be inclined to believe it, might be willing to look at it as an issue with two sides.”

National news has been featuring anti-vaxxers who contracted coronavirus recanting previous beliefs and begging doctors too late for inoculations on their death beds.

This scenario has played out before in America, as early as 1721. James Franklin, older brother of Benjamin and publisher of The New England Courant, attacked an early type of smallpox inoculation called variolation —inserting into a recipient a minute amount from an infected person. The ensuing disease often would be milder and death, in most cases, averted.

The Courant attacked the procedure and attributed smallpox “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God.”

Benjamin Franklin came to the opposite conclusion, using emotional intelligence to keep an open and independent mind.

Despite his belief in inoculation, Franklin still experienced the loss of his 4-year-old son Francis to the disease. Francis was scheduled to be inoculated but suffered from a spell of diarrhea. Franklin had thought it best to wait until the symptoms passed. By then, though, his son contracted smallpox naturally and passed away.

Rumors spread that Francis died from the smallpox inoculation.

For the rest of this life, Franklin bitterly regretted not getting the inoculation earlier. He confessed that in his 1771 autobiography, clearing the air about the rumor so that others would not be deterred.

“I do hereby sincerely declare, that [Francis] was not inoculated, but receiv’d the Distemper in the common Way of Infection,” Franklin wrote. “Inoculation was a safe and beneficial Practice … and that I intended to have my Child inoculated, as soon as he should have recovered sufficient Strength.”

To this day, Franklin is revered as a scientist and patriot. Perhaps others can heed his message and get the vaccine.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics."

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