We Should Not Legislate and Shame Idiocy

By Graham Peterson

I used to get fed here and there a nominal post about how important vaccines are, or about how many deaths we could have prevented with them, but that was it.  Now the backlash to anti-vaccine advocates has turned to, “we should put these people in jail,” and ” this is child abuse.”  We can’t lock up anti-vaxxers because we can’t lock up people who let their kids play street hockey.

To parent is to expose one’s child, and the rest of us, to risks.  People have voluminous opinions about the size of risks, and they love to disapprove of other parents.  So we have a moral panic on both sides of the debate.

Anti-vaxxers are convinced parents are exposing their kids to autism and that they have a moral duty to mission against it. Anti-anti-vaxxers are convinced parents are exposing their kids to measles and that they have a moral duty to mission against it.

There were 100 cases of measles last year.  Everybody needs to calm down and think this through, because moralizing and jail and fines aren’t going to resolve an issue for which both sides are confident that their morals are sound.

First of all, where do anti-vaxxers come from?  The internet.  How do I know?  Because I was an anti-vaxxer way before it was cool.*  Sometime in about 2002 or 2003 a local newspaper in Madison, WI ran a four page expose on corporate greed and vaccines.  I was (wrongly) convinced.  But the movement went nowhere.  It’s got legs now because of the internet.  A lot of minority opinions have legs now because of the internet.

The increasing reach and saturation of information technologies boosts minority opinions. Minority opinions, tastes, experiences, and so on experience new solidarity as people find one another.  It’s a good thing.  Ask the millions of survivors of sexual abuse who’ve found one another on the internet, the people whose hobbies have blossomed into real income on Etsy.com.

Now being a minority doesn’t by itself make an opinion or taste right or good, but increasing the variety of them in general does improve variation and selection, and that is good in general for the evolution of ideas and tastes.

Anti-vaccine advocates are the best evidence that the internet makes people smarter. People who would have never given a second thought to what The Experts told them are now actively educating themselves.  Now, I’d rather they have a critical debate about the best way to render the oils from fresh sage on foodnetwork.com, but that’s beside the point.

We can only count on technologies to make ideas cheaper to get at, and for people thusly to have more of them.

It’s our responsibility to persuade one another which are the good and bad ones.  So the solution to an increase in critical debate cannot be force.  Ideas will always have material implications and many of those will be harmful — but that’s the whole reason we debate ideas at the level of ideas — instead of skipping right to enforcing behaviors at the level of behaviors.

People will outgrow the internet-as-moral-panic-machine.  They will outgrow the internet-as-harassing-personal-insult-machine.  They will outgrow these things if we keep debate about debate — and don’t allow one moral panic to incite another — and then run to the state to adjudicate, or trounce one another with sheer indignation.  If that’s how we’re going to do this then we all lose, because we lose the debate itself.

2 thoughts on “We Should Not Legislate and Shame Idiocy”

  1. I feel like a lot of rhetorical guns are aiming at the wrong targets in the recent upsurge of this debate. The Slate piece by Jamelle Bouie – while very good! – is a good example: It relies on a poll that asks whether parents should have “final say” on vaccination. Answering “yes” to that question is not the same as believing “vaccines are bad and no one should get them”. It’s that 2nd group that’s causing the problems, and who need to be confronted. Excoriating politicians who clumsily try to express some crude limited-government approach to mandates and vaccines (an issue that ultimately is going to be decided in courtrooms) avoids the grittier work of actually confronting anti-vaxxers.


    1. Agree. If there’s one thing being in sociology has taught me, it’s to take a first pass at any argument by looking for the out-group derogation and stereotypes implied in it. The media just jumped at the opportunity to paint Rand Paul as a reactionary anti-science idiot. Then he has to go get a shot on camera to prove to people he’s not stockpiling guns and worshipping Jesus in a feed silo. The point of this post and a lot of others is strictly to counteract the moral panics that develop on the internet. I guess that means I end up pushing back against the left a lot, but that’s because ultimately I like them a lot more than the right and am exposed to a lot more of their moral panics.


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