Last year I had my first birthday zoom call as we couldn’t meet in person. On the call I had my closest friends, including someone who works for pharma, as well as a single mom. At one point in the conversation, inevitably talking about COVID-19, we started to talk about vaccinations. This is obviously a sensitive and polarizing topic, and even though most of my friends are “science minded”, they started to ask the single mom how we should be an anti-vaxxer and a mother as it didn’t make sense.
Luckily my friend who works in pharma has a lot of empathy, so she inquired as to why, without hostility or sarcasm but a tone of genuine curiousity. This had a profound effect that really resonated. The first one is as many scientists would guess, there was a lot of ignorance around what “science” actually means, as well as the choice of trusted information. What was not obvious at the time was that this safe space started with a discussion which quickly got to needs, which is common in non-violent communication. The mother just wanted to ensure her son was safe and healthy as all mothers do. What wasn’t obvious to me, is she also disclosed that when we used the term anti-vaxx it is a pejorative and so it forces her into a defensive space and so she will usually back out of a conversation when she hears the term as she knows she’s going to be attacked.
I spent a lot of the next few weeks, even months talking with this mother about how to read scientific journals, and understand the efficacy of a given vaccine. I explained that watching youtube videos on doctors warning about dangers of a vaccine is usually not productive, as there is no barrier to anyone sharing their personal opinions online, no matter what their education or experience. There could be over 100 doctors talking about the dangers of something, but if you do insist on watching that, what is needed is two important things – the ability for critical thinking, and an agreement to yourself to validate the science they are referring to.
It is a lot more work, and more of a cognitive load to take on doing the research, but you can search for any scientific article online and at least read the abstract.
When referring to the media, many people call it the “main stream media” or MSM, but I refer to them as corporate media as they are a company that is prioritized on profit, which usually means getting views. This is done through provocative headlines and stories that attract your base. There is very little journalism left to be found. We are entering a dawn where we’re reflecting on all of the media we consume, from social media to corporate. We should be asking ourselves if it’s serving us to pay attention to provocation through our favourite echo chambers to confirm our cognitive bias. It is my suggestion that one shouldn’t consume any media unless they’ve already mastered critical thinking, as well as the ability to do their own research to verify the facts from the science/source. By critical thought, I mean can you argue against the position you’re consuming until you find the facts even if they counter your beliefs, and are you able to remove the “fake news” which are not true from the story. We become a product of what we consume, so make sure if you’re going to consume any media, social or corporate, that it is serving you.
Last night I got into a conversation with someone about astrology, and I took the typical hard science stance, but as the discussion was had with someone I’m studying non-violent communication (NVC) with, instead of acting defensively she asked me what my needs were in being so strongly opinionated by science. I responded emotionally that the less people are able to critically think or make intelligent discussions, is the more likely humanity will be wiped out, that my friends and family will be wiped out, as well as myself. Fear of death was the deep need for my emotional reaction as to why I feel more people need to believe in science. She (relatively haha) calmly replied that this is likely the same reason that people believe in astrology or religion, they also fear death and this the most acceptable or easier belief path for them to take.
You can’t respectively get through an emotional conversation without getting to the fundamental need first, and with empathy not criticism.
Later on I decided to ask on my social media wall, which is mostly filled with my science undersanding, critically thinking friends, but I also have a lot of friends into “woo” as I have spent a lot of time in making sure I have a diverse group of friends – it makes no sense to me why anyone would want to live in an echo chmaber. I prefer (respectful) conversations with people with different beliefs, as understanding how and why they got to their believe is often interesting. Anyway, I asked on Facebook, “What’s the most compelling argument for astrology, or the most interesting fact about astrology that can’t be explained by science” and I started to get honest opinions, but then it was easy to spot those who lack empathy and NVC training come out of the woodwork, “Astrology is bullshit” and “It’s a great way to spot people who don’t believe in science!” and while they may not be wrong from a technical perspective, they are misguided if they think they have empathy and non-violent social skills. It’s also fasinating to notice how many smart, critical thinkers can’t understand how to answer the actual questions I asked, or don’t have the capability to tether their emotions in response, regardless. It is fascinating, as this is the same argument they often use against those they argue against – replying with emotions they’re unable to control instead of replying to the actual question that was asked. My friend Erin had the best reply in my opinion:
That human longing for connection and to find meaning in things is as fundamental as our need for food and water.
If you’re competent and a good communicator, you need to think carefully about what type of environment you create for people to communicate your beliefs with. I have no interest in communicating with anyone whose faith is so strong they are unwaivering – that person is dangerous and should not be trusted. That was my belief before NVC, and I’m mostly still holding that position, but I am learning to have more empathy in that if I learn their needs with empathy, and without critiscm, I likely have something I can teach them about understanding science and critical thinking, and they can share how they got to their beliefs, once we’re agreed we understand the core need that got us each to the position we hold.
I have not used the term “antivaxx” since my birthday last year, as I agree it is a perjorative, and doesn’t open productive conversations. The single mom is now open to vaccines and understands reading the science and understanding the efficacy of a given vaccine. This talk calm, tough, and respectful, conversations.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of being the first (and I’m think perhaps the only?) person the Canadian government sent to speak on the world stage, representing Canada, to speak about online hate. I see many parallels to all that I’ve talked to about here. Most of the needs of those filled with hate are based on fear, especially that of themselves and their loved ones. We don’t change hearts or minds by calling someone a terrorist or a white supremist (and we have a lot in Canada, especially passive ones, not to mention those with a gun for their profesion, but I digress), but instead of sharing where we have the same needs and fears. Only then can we talk through how we each got to the place we’re in now.
In summary, we need to use critical thought in not only how we respond to someone online or in person – is it respectful, answering their actual questions, and do I understand their needs to getting to their position – but we also need to be critical in evaluating the media we consume in the first place. What is it serving you to hear about a tragedy in another country, or even in your own country if it’s something you can’t control? When we’re answering a question online, are we answering the question, or just stating our emotional opinion that wasn’t asked for – and if we’re doing that, are we doing it violently? Most importantly though, if we have a belief in something so strong we feel we are unwaivering, we should do a needs assessment and ask ourselves why we have that strong opinion, and ask others with an opposing viewpoint how they got there, using a framework like non-violent communication – or starting with respect and an understanding of the needs. If you do decide to debate online, consider which position you’re using in the debate pyramid.
For more on non-violent communication, check out this video, it took me about 20 minutes to get into it, so be patient if your mind also moves quickly.