On VAXXED, and how not every opinion needs to be aired

This year, there have been a number of controversies over VAXXED, a conspiracy theorist film that purports, and perpetuates, the claim that vaccines cause autism and scary medical complications. The film suggests that the CDC and other government agency collaborated in some sort of epic scheme to suppress information about the risks of vaccines (despite the fact that they are among the most heavily regulated medical treatments in America), and it feeds the anti-vaccination movement that just won’t die. Every time I think people might finally be deciding that perhaps they should stop clinging to a movement heavily advanced and driven by people who have ideas that aren’t rooted in science, they pop back up again, like dandelion greens in the lawn.

Except at least I can eat dandelions.

So, VAXXED. Here’s a preview, if you’ve been dying to see one.

The film’s fans insist that it has been suppressed and censored on the grounds that film festivals in New York and Houston declined to air it after initially considering it as a possible pick. In both cases, those concerned about the film voiced those concerns extremely loudly, and, yes, pressured festival organisers to withdraw the film from their lineups. Ultimately, however, that was a judgement call made by the people who decide which films to air and which films to drop.

For fans, these nontroversies suggest that the coverup has an even grander scope than they could have ever imagined. In a sense, they were thrilled by this ‘evidence’ that the film was simply too dangerous to be seen, and they spun this as a fantastic PR opportunity. The censored film. Come get your copy here if you want to see what the government is trying to keep from you. This sort of thing, the air of the forbidden, is catnip to humans, and many took the bait.

Some more neutral parties argued that by suppressing the distribution of the film, people ran the risk of drawing attention to it, which did in fact happen. It likely wouldn’t have been such a topic of discussion if it had quietly aired and then moved on. They suggested that the film should have been aired either to avoid a huge public relations brouhaha or because people ought to get a chance to see it for themselves and make a judgement call.

The third group, and I count myself among them, argued that this film is dangerous — nearly criminally so, and shouldn’t be aired willy-nilly. Conspiracy theories are also a fundamental part of human nature. Some are harmless, some less so, but this particular one is of particular concern, because it leads people to make very dangerous decisions. Not vaccinating your children and failing to maintain your own adult vaccination schedule puts you at serious risk, and it endangers your community. Some anti-vaxxers have lost children to vaccine-preventable diseases like measles. In addition to being anti-vaccine, most are also anti-evidence-based medicine, which means that they resist treatment in favour of things like homeopathic preparations and tinctures, which…don’t help people recover from serious, life-threatening illnesses and infections.

We have a cultural, social, and moral obligation to weigh decisions about the distribution of information. People absolutely have the right to make films like VAXXED, because it is part of their guaranteed rights under freedom of speech. They do not, however, have the right to compel people to air or watch the film. Individuals can and should make that decision for themselves, and the film presents some serious liabilities. It actively encourages people to stop using extremely safe means of preventing extremely serious illnesses. It endangers children and adults alike.

Members of the anti-vaccination community tend to be middle class to wealthy, and they hold a lot of other strange attitudes and belief as well. They come from positions of extreme privilege, unlike the lower and working class people who vaccinate their children on time, fight to receive basic medical care, and struggle with the costs of living. Wealthy people can afford to make vaccination into a shell game, to gamble with their children’s lives, because if a situation gets dire, they can slink back into the arms of actual medicine. Poor people don’t have that option.

Many low-income people also don’t have access to educational resources, including tools for scientific literacy. The more we legitimise films and ideas like these, the more we open up a line of thinking that it’s a good idea to question vaccines — whether it’s not getting them at all or adjusting a time-tested and extremely safe vaccination schedule that offers maximum protection. We live in a sociocultural climate where films like this are designed to prey on fear and distrust — and many lower and working class people are legitimately afraid and distrustful of a system that has let them down in the past.

The wave of anti-vaccination that swept through the world’s wealthy and powerful has the huge potential to become a trickledown situation. When I see films like these headed off at the pass rather than treated as legitimate documentaries that deserve airtime, it gives me hope that the worst aspect of the anti-vaccination movement could be countered. Because no one should be given the false idea that it’s acceptable, or even a good idea, to refuse to vaccinate their children.

My heart breaks when I hear about children who die from vaccine-preventable disease, whether they’re unvaccinated children of the rich and privileged in the West, low-income children who got caught in a vulnerable window even though their parents did protect them, or children in the Global South with parents who couldn’t afford or couldn’t access vaccines. And when I see films like VAXXED legitimised, I’m reminded of who holds the power in this society — and who shouldn’t.

Image: Vaccination, frankieleon, Flickr