My social media feeds have lit up the last few weeks in the wake of the measles outbreak tied to Disneyland, with rage directed at the anti-vaccination crown. As a parent and a thinking person, I’m concerned about the health implications of so many choosing not to vaccinate their children. Claims linking vaccines with autism have been so thoroughly debunked, and the historic health advantages of vaccines are so apparent that it’s hard not to try to appeal to these parents on the scientific grounds. Don’t they get it? Don’t they understand large-scale controlled studies? The difference between correlation and causation? Do they not understand that measles is a serious disease that ravaged this country before the vaccine came about and still ravages much of the world?
In my view, that’s asking the wrong question. Failure to understand science is nothing new. Plenty of people spend money on useless supplements, follow questionable diets, worry about things that aren’t particularly a threat while ignoring glaring safety hazards. And skepticism with medicine isn’t new and isn’t, in my view, altogether unwarranted.
The missing piece is a failure to understand that we are inextricably tied together as human beings
Much more concerning to me (and much more at the heart of this problem) than the poor level of scientific literacy demonstrated in the decline in vaccination levels is the persistent refusal of so many people to appreciate that what it means to be human, in as fundamental a sense as walking upright, and using tools and language, is that we are an unavoidably social species. Our basic biology is social. The germs and tiny microbes that cover our bodies and line our guts have lived on and within other people. We breath in air particles that those around us have drawn in and out of their lungs, too.
Parents who elect not to vaccinate their children have, in my view, every right to dispute the science that says those vaccines are safe. But they arrive at the very question with a glaring misunderstanding of their own and their children’s status as human (i.e. social) being. They fail to appreciate that it is simply not possible for the decisions they make about their children to be decisions that merely affect their children. They confront the decision not as the choice they’re making to put an entire community at risk but as a question of personal civil liberties. But there’s nothing personal about it.
My emotions, my choice
As a psychotherapist, I’m particularly attuned to the affect this failure to understand our collectivity has on our collective emotional well being. Just as we’ve framed our understanding of wellness and disease based on a false understanding of what it is to be human, the dominant frame of our emotional health as articulated in psychology gives too little appreciation to our sociality. Just as the decisions we make about our health (participating in a vaccination process, washing our hands, using condoms) affect those around us, so do the choices we make about our emotional health. We’re stuck in understanding our depression without examining the social context. We understand our own relationship with drugs and alcohol with insufficient appreciation for how it affects those around us. We insist in seeing the problems of a child without investigating the impact of the family and school environment. We downplay the role of poverty and poor schooling in emotional problems. We under-examine the role of sexism and racism as broad indicators of mental distress. The result? An epidemic of unhappiness and dysfunction far more crippling than measles.