The philosopher Onora O'Neill has spoken of the importance of "fostering trust over transparency". Fintan O'Toole's recent Weekend article on what he termed "the three anti-vaccine types" showed no interest in adopting such an approach.
Instead, he casts aspersions on what he sees as an “ascending order of purposeful malignity: the egoists, the paranoiacs and the fascists” apparently in the hope of laying bare the different stages of falsity in the arguments of those who are anti-vaccine or vaccine hesitant.
The article takes an unusually acerbic and intemperate tone. The “egoists” are seen as the least “malignant” group. They are defined as “those who find themselves following genuine, pure-blooded authoritarians”. However, we are not given chapter and verse as to who these “pure-blooded authoritarians” are. This sweeping generalisation appears to be fleshed out a little later by his attack on the “wellness” industry and, in particular, “yoga ‘influencers’, gym fanatics and New Age gurus”, who have been “important vectors of misinformation’”.
It might be considered to be a rational response – both wise and healthy – to practise yoga and go to the gym in a world where the pandemic has led to restrictions and isolation for many people. Who is being referred to here? Are all practitioners of yoga and gym goers “vectors of misinformation”, or just some of them?
Similarly, “misinformation” is a term frequently used during the pandemic to refer to those who peddle misinformed untruths. But in the mutating sands of semantic discourse on the pandemic, can any neutral, objective, omniscient voice lord it over other voices and authoritatively say, “I have the truth”?
If one were to chart the metamorphosing advice over the months issuing from scientists, epidemiologists and politicians, one would be forgiven for believing that no truth is fixed in stone. As a scientist friend said to me the other day, “scientists always stand on the edge of error”. Or as the writer Lionel Shriver commented, “science is an ongoing falsifiable search for the truth”.
“Egoist” vaccine sceptics are criticised in the piece for taking “poorly regulated supplements because they make them feel strong and protected”. However, medical doctors regularly prescribe vitamin and other supplements for a myriad of reasons.
The second grouping in the triptych: the “paranoiacs” – those who suggest that “both the virus and our state of knowledge about how to deal with it are evolving and therefore subject to the vagaries of trial and error. There is no absolutely fixed ‘truth’”. But no matter how we view the last year and nine months, the analyses, like the virus, have mutated.
The author rubbishes “connectedness”, giving a wholly ludicrous example of how paranoiacs think – “someone coughs in a market in Wuhan and a beloved grandmother dies in Galway”. But “connectedness” is a foundational principle of human intercourse. It is a commonplace of psychological wellbeing that connectedness refers to a sense of being cared for, supported and belonging. Not something that should be lightly jettisoned!
‘Intolerance of ambiguity’
Finally, the third grouping: the fascists – the “pureblooded authoritarians” who hold compliant followers in thrall. But “fascism” is an emotive and fear-inducing term in the current context that, if bandied about, does nothing to assuage the general populace who inhabit an interstitial space between certainties and uncertainties, assessing the veracity or otherwise of the discourses that come their way. They inhabit a space of ambiguity and what is wrong with that? “Authoritarian” discourse is not just the preserve of the so-called “fascist cohort”. As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno once remarked: “Intolerance of ambiguity is itself the mark of an authoritarian personality.”
When O’Toole writes that “it gets harder for a general public that overwhelmingly understands the need for vaccination to stay patient with those who don’t or won’t”, there is a minatory and intolerant tone struck that is unsettling. How are we to respond to an implied advocacy of intolerance towards those who “don’t or won’t” accept the need for vaccination?
The article expresses the wish that people would truly “think for themselves”. This is laudable, but always keeping in mind the realisation, as the American writer Adam Gopnik has written, that “communities of common doubt can always co-exist”.
Those of us who have accepted the vaccination should not uncritically dismiss those who have not. Dissenting voices are often not heard on mainstream media which on the whole privilege a hegemonic narrative that has little time for complexity, ambiguity and true critical thought. As Aristotle had it: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Ciaran Cosgrove is Fellow Emeritus in Hispanic Studies at Trinity College Dublin