Still in the tunnel, trying to address pandemic denialism

by Rob Tiller

On the news this week, there were a lot of shots of the first covid-19 shots, and it was surprisingly cheering. Nurses were sticking needles into shoulders.  At first I flinched at the sight, but I got over that in short order.  Developing safe and effective vaccines in record time was an extraordinary achievement, for which gratitude is in order.  There seems to be a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.  

For the moment, though, the pandemic is still raging, and we’re still in the tunnel.  Especially in the short days and long nights of the holiday season, it’s difficult.  We miss getting together with friends and loved ones.  Masks and social distancing are still no fun.  Infection rates and death rates are still high, and we’re running low on good cheer.

There really doesn’t seem to be any reasonable choice except to press on with medically recommended safety measures, especially when it looks like there’s a good chance we’ll make it back to happier life.  That’s why it keeps surprising me that a good many Trumpists choose to refuse masks as a political statement and continue holding get-togethers as though they think the pandemic is a gigantic hoax.

At first I thought this might be caused by pure ignorance, and surely there’s some of that.  But for some, pandemic denialism seems to be tied to a fairly elaborate set of ideas that are woven into our culture.  It might help to tease them out.

Part of pandemic denialist thinking involves taking the idea of individual freedom to a perverse, though also  logical, conclusion.  The extreme idea that personal freedom should be completely unrestrained sees mask requirements as un-American tyranny.  The denialist feels that he or she is standing up for principle and resisting oppression.  

Preferring to symbolically defend an exaggerated, idealized notion of freedom rather than to avoid serious illness or death is hard to understand.  Denialist thinking must have some other drivers.  For one, there’s the frustration, sadness, and boredom many of us are experiencing.  Also, there’s economic pressure, including the urgent need to earn enough for gas, food, and rent, which are pressing problems for many, including some denialists.  At some point, a reasonable person might well choose the possibility of death from covid-19 over actual hunger.  

But for many mask opponents, there’s still food in the pantry, and starvation is not the issue.  Their pandemic denialism is closely connected to other kinds of denialism, including denial of man-made climate change and of racial equality.  These ideas all have in common a rejection of science and other expertise.  

This mindset seems self-defeating — indeed,  self-destructive — but it makes a strange kind of sense.  Accepting the authority of science and consensus views of experts would make it impossible to maintain certain parts of the denialist world view.  

For example, traditional views of racial hierarchies (with distinct races, and some understood to be inferior to others) are inconsistent with genetic research.  Similarly, the traditional view of nature  as limitless and existing solely to satisfy human appetites is undermined by ecology.  Likewise, creationism can’t comfortably co-exist with evolution.  

Even if pandemic denialists weren’t counter-science, they’d still be driven by polarization.  Extreme denialists have dug in on the notion that liberals are dangerous and not to be trusted on anything.  Denialists will be inclined to believe the opposite of whatever liberals say, simply because they think the source is not only wrong, but evil. 

So how do you have a discussion on pandemic safety with a denialist, if you’re not one?  Very carefully!  We don’t want to get them even more upset, and logic and facts just won’t work.  I’m still holding onto hope that respect and compassion, consistently applied, will eventually build understanding and trust.  In the meantime, it’s a good idea to  keep using masks and get in line as soon as possible for the vaccine. 

I took the pictures here one morning last week at Shelley Lake in Raleigh.