My Anti-Vaxxer Friend

A couple of months ago, I came across an article in the Guardian about an unlikely friendship between an anti-vaxxer and pro-vaxxer. While interesting as a modern day Fox and the Hound story, I found that the article missed a key point. Why should we cultivate friendships with those of opposing views?

The Land of Oceania

Let us begin with a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which everyone shares exactly the same opinions and subscribes to the same beliefs. At first glance, we might say, ‘That’s great. Everyone agrees with each other.’ However, without an opposing view to spar against, our ideas would fail to develop. There would be no singular, unique thought, and we would stagnate. Our opinions grow and develop by considering multiple perspectives. We posit ourselves in a different scenario and try to understand where the opposing view is coming from.

On an island mostly dominated by two political parties (unfortunately), each with their own radical following, it is highly likely that we have close friends with polarised views. You would think we’d have learned how to have a civilised discussion, but for many of us, the trick is to avoid having political arguments lest we spoil dinner. Yet as difficult as these discussions are, having a debate with someone who shares the same beliefs quickly becomes little more than preaching to the choir.

However, an argument with someone from the opposing side of the political spectrum — that is where heated debate comes in. Let us take an example: my best friend’s father, a lovely man who tirelessly toils to help a friend out (even if their views are radically different). He also stands firmly opposite me on the political spectrum. It becomes inevitable that the conversation steers towards current affairs, and it quickly develops into an angry back-and-forth. Often, I’m left exasperated and frustrated. However, it is only when I discuss with him that I see the other perspective. As annoying as it is, I am forced to accept that his views, as illogical as they seem to me, are still worthy of consideration. I accept that we will probably never see eye-to-eye when it comes to politics, but it is these debates that allow us to understand the other side and help our own ideas to be honed. 

Covid and Politics

My enjoyment of a good debate was put to the test last year. While politics might seem removed from our daily lives, Covid is not. Covid became a matter of hospitalisations and death. I was unnerved, but not unsurprised by another friend who completely rejects the idea of Covid and any sort of lockdown. Initially I found it difficult to even discuss the matter with her. Her answers just seemed so callous and heartless that I found myself wondering:  is this the same kind and caring person I thought I knew? 

But as time went on, I began to understand where her views were coming from. Her anti-lockdown sentiment came from a righteous indignation at the Czech state, which left small businesses to drown. Her anti-vaxxer attitude stems from a huge mistrust in medical practitioners who botched simple medical procedures and left her in the dark with their unprofessional bedside manner. She rejected the pharmaceutical industry for its gross practices and has never taken a pill or aspirin out of protest. As I spoke to her, I began to admire her anti-authoritarian stance towards the state — and her integrity. Here was a person who lived by her values, who not only rejected the vaccine, but the entire pharmaceutical industry. 

Do I believe she is right? No. Does this change our relationship? Not in the slightest. Her staunch character and dedication to a cause is inspirational if nothing else. I realised that our ideas are born out of our experiences. Of course someone will mistrust doctors if their experience with them has been negative. No amount of rhetoric can change that. Not all medical professionals are unprofessional, but we must remember that it is our actions that sway minds, not our words. 

Dismissing more than a decade of friendship over an opposing view is ridiculous. How insecure in my own beliefs must I be to surround myself only with people who share my ideas?

Why Argue?

The goal of an argument isn’t to convince the other party. It is to reach the truth. How can we even attempt that if we start from the premise that our opinions, and only our own, are true? Of course, with a concept so grand and lofty as Truth, it is unlikely that we will reach it from a mere discussion over a few beers. In spite of this, an argument offers us something else: a way to validate our views and to have our say recognised by the other side. There is no greater affront to democracy than silencing the opposition. Even if the opposing side might seem illogical and downright wrong, these are still views that stem from another human being, from their fears, doubts, hopes, and ideals. The individuals behind these ideas are infinitely more important than the ideas themselves.    

Separating the thought from the individual is crucial. I refuse to pigeon-hole my friend as an anti-vaxxer. Reducing them to a single belief is a gross injustice to our other mutually shared experiences. I did find myself wondering whether it was worth keeping this friendship. However, dismissing more than a decade of friendship over an opposing view is ridiculous. How insecure in my own beliefs must I be to surround myself only with people who share my ideas? My role as a friend isn’t to convert them to my way of thinking. This would imply that somehow my beliefs are superior to theirs — a narcissistic thought, to say the least.

A world in which we all share the same thoughts completely destroys the concept of individuality. It is our differences that make for spirited debates.

Us and Them

Let us take our thought experiment to a conclusion. If we choose to surround ourselves with those who share the same belief, segregation will follow. One tribe shares belief A, and another tribe believes in B; unless these two sides can come to terms with each other, they will quickly come to blows. Shrink this down to an individual level, to person A and person B — unless they learn to live together, they will alienate each other. We must accept that our opinions are not fact and learn to live with each other despite our differences.  

But, back to the main issue. Why is it worth cultivating these friendships? A world in which we all share the same thoughts completely destroys the concept of individuality. It is our differences that make for spirited debates. And it is these spirited debates that dislodge us from our regular frame of thinking and open us up to new ones. Besides, are we only willing to defend individual rights if it suits us?

The scientific literature does firmly establish that vaccinations are the only real way to eradicate the virus. But despite this fact, we shouldn’t alienate those around us simply because of their opposing views or, even worse, segregate them.

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