The headline looked promising: ‘How to argue with a Covid anti-vaxxer.’ And, yes, a Times colleague had put together a good, informative feature assessing some of the bogus arguments flying around in this pandemic.
But it was not what I was looking for. Since undergraduate days I’ve been fascinated by the category of mental imbalance we call paranoia, believing its milder manifestations to be present to some degree in all of us. Mass paranoia is plainly a strand in the anti-vax movement, and I’ve been listening to a powerful BBC Radio 4 and podcast series researched and presented by Jon Ronson, Things Fell Apart. Ronson looks into the rise of the weird and shocking ‘QAnon’ phenomenon in America — a movement persuaded that the United States is in the grip of a vast, hidden paedophile conspiracy, in which powerful figures from the country’s ruling elite are believed to be complicit. We had something similar here — remember Operation Midland? — though only a tremor: you’ll recall the alarming potency of a cock-and-bull heap of nonsense about a ‘top people’s paedophile ring’ at Westminster, and the alarming credence given it by senior police officers and some respected journalists too.
But my interest in all this goes back further, to my first year as an undergraduate at Cambridge. I was friendly with a struggling and lonely Arab boy occupying rooms near mine. One night in the small hours he hammered on my door and begged me to come and witness something, pulling me to his bedroom window. ‘It’s a death ray!’ he exclaimed. I saw a hedge through which one could just discern the glimmer of an outside porch light. His glance showed his horror at my incomprehension. ‘Matthew,’ he said, ‘can’t you see? This light is disguised as an innocent light, or the plan to kill me would be obvious.’ Poor kid. He was finally taken away, now protesting about a conspiracy by a network of (secretly) Jewish dons to remove him from Cambridge. Evidently the network succeeded.
The incident taught me that you cannot, in fact, argue with paranoia — or seldom by confronting it head-on. Pure logic can never prove the absence of a hidden hand, and if you persist in a complete rejection of the paranoid fantasy you’ll soon enough be suspected of being an agent of the conspiracy. Thinking back, I should have told my friend I was concerned, and would approach the adjacent householders and have their light extinguished — and done so. At least this might have calmed him for a while.
A related technique was deployed, apparently successfully, in a story I heard about a woman who lived in a Glasgow apartment block. Her upstairs neighbour became convinced there was a plan to poisonall the flat owners (I can’t remember how). The downstairs neighbour had some experience of therapy and knew laughing it off would be futile. So she affected concern: ‘My God! How did you find out?’
‘The cat on the top floor told me.’
‘You mean the black and white tomcat?’
‘Yes, that one.’
‘Oh thank heavens! For a moment you had me worried. That cat lies. He enjoys frightening the wits out of people. You can ignore anything he says.’ Apparently it worked. Whether or not the story is apocryphal, it makes a serious point. Do not pooh-pooh a paranoiac’s fantasies, not if you want to help. Go with the grain of their suspicion, and try to steer things in a harmless direction.
Which brings me back to the anti-vax movement — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the viral ideas and beliefs that fuel the anti-vax rumour machine. Their falsity is all but impossible to prove in an argument — or, at least, to demonstrate scientifically to someone convinced that scientists may be part of the conspiracy. But what if we were instead to run with the conspiracy idea, but take it in a new direction?
I’ve just read an email from a friend who lives in Georgia and harbours (as you would) a profound suspicion of the Russian government and all its works. He believes the anti-vax thing may be being pushed energetically by secret operatives employed by Moscow. He suspects Kremlin bots may be at work, helping generate a fear of vaccination in the West. Russian agencies do this kind of thing routinely, he says, not necessarily as part of any plan for the complete defeat of vaccination as a medical tool, but simply because anything that sows confusion or demoralisation in the West or puts a spanner in the works of western economies suits an overall Russian strategy of troublemaking.
I understand there’s evidence for my friend’s theory, but my point is that it would work well as propaganda. Fight fear not with reassurance, but with another fear. Concede that there may well be a conspiracy afoot, but claim the anti-vaxxer has fallen straight into the trap by misidentifying the conspirators. The real conspiracy is to help spread the virus, cripple our economies, and kill people. Such accusations were often heard at the start of the pandemic, but with the supposed culprit being China: fears like this have an easy purchase on people’s imagination.
And how about this: given that anti-vax beliefs appear to be more common among some ethnic or religious minorities, why not suggest that there’s a secret racist plot to inflict greater casualties among these groups by persuading them not to get vaccinated?
The reason I wouldn’t recommend either stratagem is because I cannot condone frightening people with stories that are not true. But I do think such stratagems might work. Unless, of course, the anti-vaxxers were to read The Spectator and conclude that this column is all part of the Enemy’s wider plot to destroy the anti-vax movement by sowing paranoid doubts within it. Which in a way, of course, it would be, except that I am not in fact the Enemy. But, then again, I would write that, wouldn’t I?
Honestly, you can’t win.