The war against misinformation continues. I’ve been trying to frame it as something other than a war. But I don’t feel able to leave the field. How do I do my job of health education effectively and without being a jerk? How do any of us talk with folks who have become untethered from reality? Should we even try, since we aren’t likely to get through to them?
I’m trying to cut down on reacting, but at times it feels necessary. A couple of weeks ago I wrote comments to a blog belonging to a person I used to respect greatly, an MD who has really gone off the deep end. I hated to jeopardize the connection I have with him, but what he had written was so egregious and harmful that I felt I had to say “no farther.” I cringed a bit while awaiting the result. He replied that he was interested in hearing from people with completely different worldviews, and while he didn’t think I was right in the least, he listened amicably. It was not horrible.
Later, I received a message from someone I didn’t know, thanking me for standing up that way. Was it worth jumping in? She thought so.
Sometimes skirmishes show up unexpectedly. Sometimes they lead to some fascinating meetings of minds. Other times there seems to be no possible good outcome. Maybe writing this won’t bring any better outcomes, either, but I guess I need to think on the page for a bit. I would be very interested in hearing about your own experiences along these lines.
I volunteered with Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s reelection campaign. On Election Day, I arrived at the polling place, a middle school, to wave a sign around and present a friendly face to voters. I got there late in the day and found the earlier volunteer still walking up and down the sidewalk with her own sign. We got to talking, and it turned out that she was a nurse doing some interesting community work.
A forty-something man approached us. I expected that he would have some normal sort of voter question. Instead, he started one of the most abnormal conversations I have ever been a part of. He wanted to tell us why he was not voting for Mayor Keller, even though he liked him and was generally in favor of his policies, except for one crucial issue. For some reason I never came to understand, he felt it was important to explain and justify his decision to us.
He told us that he had been away from Albuquerque for quite a while and hadn’t heard much of anything about the candidates. There was just one thing he had heard from GOP candidate Eddy Aragon, and that was that if a vaccine mandate were imposed, he wouldn’t enforce it. So our voter planned to give his vote to Aragon.
Aragon had shown himself to be way out there in debates, one of those far-right defenders of “freedom” who refused not only vaccines but masks and public health restrictions of all kinds— even supporting a restaurant that was refusing regular health inspections as well as the mask requirement. He was in every way the antithesis of Tim Keller (except that they had both played football at St. Pius High!). I told our voter that if he liked Keller’s policies overall, he really wouldn’t like Aragon’s, and he might want to find out more and give some more thought to his decision. He insisted that the vaccine issue outweighed everything else. I reminded him that the city didn’t even have a vaccine mandate. He was unmoved.
That was when things started to get very unusual. This was already getting to be a fairly long conversation, but the voter showed no signs of moving on into the building. He continued to explain his point of view, seeming to be looking for validation. I warned him, just so that he wouldn’t waste his time, that we were both health care professionals and were disposed toward wanting people to be vaccinated. He was undeterred.
He told us that he follows the Shinto religion and that this includes intensive purification practices. Now, he isn’t Japanese, and I’ve never heard of the kind of extreme practices he described being part of Shinto, but maybe there is some sect that’s like this. No alcohol ever, he said (though Shinto uses sake for ritual purposes). No medications of any kind. When he broke his leg, he said, UNM Hospital wouldn’t treat him without an X-ray, and he wouldn’t allow radiation to be applied to his pristine body, so he went home and recovered on his own. I have no idea how he managed that, and I can’t see how any religion would require it, but that’s what he said.
He also reported that he had been through a case of COVID and therefore had less need of a vaccine. He was masking and being sensible otherwise. He appeared totally sincere.
If all that is true, his health strategy was inadvisable at best, but a person whose belief is strong enough to cause him to refuse a cast for a broken leg has a serious case for a religious exemption. And he said he was trying to get one, because he was working for UNM as an engineer, and they were requiring all employees to be vaccinated.
“Not only am I losing my job, they’re losing a good engineer,” he added. He then told us about his sister, who left a high-paying job with an airline that required vaccination, threw away her retirement, sold her house, and moved to Georgia.
I find this to be a strange hill to die on, but they have staked it out as theirs. I doubt there are very many people with this particular religious point of view, not enough of the population to have much effect on the pandemic. If we give religious exemptions to anyone, it seems to me that these purportedly Shinto folk deserve them. I would suppose that their horror of impurity would keep them vigilant against contagion, for whatever that’s worth.
Eventually the man finished saying his piece and moved on to cast his vote. For Eddy Aragon, I assume. Who had no chance of winning.
The nurse said, “Wow, you confronted him. I would never have done that.” I didn’t, exactly; I just quietly stated some facts, and I didn’t argue with him about his health— or point out that an engineer should be able to understand X-rays more clearly. Keeping a conversation going allowed me to find out about his unique point of view. And even though we volunteers had no special influence on city policies, I wanted to convey the sense that the campaign and the mayor himself valued him and were willing to listen. I’ve seen Mayor Tim treat people exactly that way. It didn’t occur to me till after the nurse’s comment that he could have done something dangerous. He didn’t seem like a person who wanted to cause trouble. He just seemed to want to be heard— and in a way, to apologize.
A month later, we had an unusually mild day, and I took advantage of it to swim at Midtown Sports and Wellness, where they have only an outdoor pool but they keep it nice and warm. I had a blissful time with the pool and then the hot tub all to myself for a little while. Who would have expected a fun outdoor swim in early December? It was a real treat.
Then an older Hispanic man showed up to use the hot tub. We got to chatting about the just-passed Thanksgiving holiday, during which he’d gone to visit his daughter in San Diego. I commented that it was great to be able to do things like that again, unlike last year. Somehow in the process, vaccines came up. The conversation remained cordial, but included such pronouncements as “[dismissive snort] Fauci doesn’t know anything.” (OK, only 40 years of experience heading a major medical organization… no opportunities to learn… whatever.) I knew playing the “I’m a health care provider and I know things” card wasn’t going to get me anywhere, so I kept that to a minimum.
He went on with typical right-wing talking points, including the classic “I did my own research.” None of it was surprising, though it was dismaying.
We were having a somewhat useful exchange when a friend of his came along. As he lowered himself into the bubbles, the friend said, “The way to solve all of this is to invite Jesus Christ into your heart.”
I did not try to tell him that I have a personal relationship with Jesus. I did mention that I had been raised Catholic, which was relevant to some point in the conversation that I don’t remember.
The first guy told me something that shed a little light on the attitude of evangelicals toward authorities and establishments. His mother, he said, had been Catholic, and she was brought up to do whatever the priest said and never think for herself nor read the Bible on her own. She had rejected this. I told him that the Catholicism I’d experienced had been much groovier and more open-minded, but that I’d heard about the kind of stifling situation his mother had grown up with and wouldn’t like it one bit.
I can easily understand why someone would want to leave that behind. It’s just that so many trade the conformity of the Catholic church for the same thing in an evangelical sect that is at least as rigid and paternalistic, if not more so.
This gentleman was toeing the party line in every way, but he did seem to have put thought into his point of view. Like so many Americans, he insisted that he was against mandates, not necessarily against vaccines. I keep wanting to tell them, “If more people would do what they’re supposed to, there wouldn’t be any need for mandates.” I can totally understand their discomfort with being told what to do, or possibly coerced, but I also think coercion could easily have been avoided.
To find his way through the conflicting advice, he was trying to use intuition. “You know in your heart what’s true.” This struck me as important and a sticky point. I can’t really argue with it, as I feel my way along intuitively as well. However, when facts staring me in the face don’t match my intuition, I’m going to look further. The Q and militant-antivax people say similar things to justify themselves– trust yourself to know what’s best for yourself and your kids. It’s also a very evangelical point of view, to lead with the heart instead of the head. I’d rather listen to both.
Along these lines, he started to tell me that there was an awakening going on among many groups of people. “Even the Moslems [sic],” he added. I didn’t get to hear any more of what he thought about that, and would have been curious to know what he meant. It may have been the typical Q sort of balderdash, but he seemed like a serious sort of person and he may have had something more profound in mind.
A young man came in and settled into the tub. After a few minutes of listening to the ongoing discussion, he asked us very politely to shut up. He just wanted to relax, he said, and we were making that impossible. I didn’t blame him for breaking in. The two evangelicals kept talking, and the unwilling listener cupped his hands over his heart to block out the discord. I tried to wrap up the conversation, acknowledging that a person who wanted to relax in a quiet space should be allowed to do so, and pointing out that we were causing him to feel a need to shield himself. I got up, saying, “I’ll leave, and that will end the controversy.” I hope they left the young guy alone after that. I apologized to him on the way out.
It was… exotic.
Last week, I became that guy, the one asking someone to STFU in the tub. Interesting how that showed up. It was a different, indoor facility, and a different kind of discussion. Unlike the polite and affable evangelicals, this problem person was loud and vehement, went on nonstop, lectured instead of discussing, and was literally in someone’s face.
The someone was a young mother with a toddler boy playing next to her and an infant girl in a carrier nearby. I had already interacted with her a little earlier by sharing my lane in the pool with her and her son, and I felt a little connected with her.
There were a couple of other people in the tub as well, individual and silent. The rushing sound of the jets muffled conversation, but gradually I noticed that this 70-ish guy was going on and on with great intensity, and words like “variant” and “omicron” wafted through to me, in a strong German accent. He appeared to be expounding a mostly toxic mix of misinformation with a few actual facts sprinkled in.
Then I heard him make a pronouncement to the mom that she should definitely not get the current vaccine, but should wait for one that worked against omicron.
So. This was not my conversation and not my fight. I tried to size things up. The young mother appeared to be backed up against the side of the tub and quite uncomfortable, while the man was almost shouting at her from maybe a foot away. She wasn’t trying to counter what he was saying or get out of there, though. Was she engaging with him on purpose and OK with the whole thing, or was she too polite or too timid to tell him to leave her alone? It looked to me like the latter. And it looked like a kind of assault.
I would be wrong in some way whether I spoke up or not. I decided to go ahead and intervene, damn the torpedoes. “That’s bad advice, I’d say, speaking as a health care professional.”
Immediately the torpedoes were aimed at me. I replied, as nonconfrontationally as I could, that I was there to relax in the tub, as were the other people present, and didn’t want to argue with him, but that it would be nice if he would let us have some quiet. He said I didn’t have to listen— but in that environment, of course we were all forced to listen. He pulled out a collection of tired and debunked talking points, even insisting that over 18,000 people have been killed by the vaccines. I just kept repeating, “That’s not true.”
He shouted, “You believe all the bullshit!” and stormed out in a huff. The hot tub returned to tranquillity. Of course I didn’t feel particularly tranquil, and wondered if I had done a bad thing.
On the way out, the mom and I had another friendly exchange. At least she wasn’t upset with me.
It only occurred to me later that the German guy was masklessly spewing his possibly viral breath at the two unvaccinated little ones as well as their mom. So, so very not OK. Masks aren’t practical in the water, but most people are sensible enough not to yell in someone’s face without one (or at all). I thought, at least I helped limit their exposure. The area was well-ventilated, but such close-up and intense interactions don’t seem like a good idea.
And yet, chances are, he saw himself as a good and helpful person trying to save the mom and/or her kids from some terrible health consequence. The vehemence likely came from sincere, if misguided, care for others.
Glad I wasn’t part of this one….
The owners of another membership-based business where my husband and I are regulars reported an odd, rather disturbing situation. A woman inquired about becoming a member, and stated that she was not vaccinated and would absolutely not wear a mask in the building. She was told that she could not come in without a mask, because the business follows state health requirements. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? The would-be customer started a lengthy argument— and one of the owners took the bait and let himself be drawn into it. This was a time when it was absolutely not worth engaging, but it can be hard to stop.
It turned out that this was the same woman who, not long before, had walked into the business and wandered around without a mask, so that she had to be told to leave.
My question is, what did she get out of this behavior? Is this sort of thing, which has become sadly common, simply a bid for attention? A need to feel important or significant? Is it some kind of crusade, battled one store or flight or meeting at a time? Does it come from the same corner of the psyche as the “Karen” behaviors? Is it a need to take out her overwhelming frustrations on someone? A symptom of a diagnosable mental illness?
I can come up with understandable motives for each of the people I described in the conversations above. To some extent I can put myself in their shoes. This one I just don’t get. If you do, please comment.