Is there room for compassion in the US vaccine debates?

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“What if your doctor is wrong?”

This is what I heard conservative radio host (and former guest of my show) Dennis Prager say as I drove home from the school I volunteer for in South Los Angeles a few days ago.

Against the backdrop of the rise of Omicron, he was complaining about what he felt to be the clear suppression of evidence showing that there are alternative treatments to COVID-19 aside from the vaccine.

“How is it I know ivermectin works” and others don’t, he asked? Dennis lamented the suppression of what he believes to be “clear evidence” of the efficacy of this drug and the tragic willingness of Americans to sacrifice the health of their children to newly developed vaccine technology, the long-term effects of which we do not know.

“We don’t have long-term data on these mRNA vaccines,” liberal-leaning podcaster and public intellectual Sam Harris stated in his most recent podcast. “We don’t have long-term data on what it’s like to get COVID not having been vaccinated – apart from the short-term data of watching people die by the hundreds of thousands.”

Sam was explaining why he would not debate COVID-19 vaccine skeptics such as his and my mutual friend, the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein. “Not everything can be debated responsibly in the middle of a pandemic, where you have thousands of people dying everyday…in many cases…dying quite unnecessarily.”

The breakdown in communication even within the high halls of our democracy is on full display in the fireworks that routinely unfold in congressional hearings between the nation’s leading infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and United States Senator (and one of only four medical doctors in the Senate) Dr. Rand Paul.

I got caught up on their most recent duel in a video I listened to as I drove around town. I didn’t learn much about the issue, but I did learn that Sen. Paul finds Dr. Fauci to be a man who equates criticisms of him with attacks on science itself, a highly paid and arrogant official who “rules by mandate” and “attacks [his] colleagues in a political and reprehensible way.”

I also learned that Dr. Fauci finds Sen. Paul to be a political opportunist guilty of “attacks on me that have no relevance to reality” whose words feed threats of violence against Dr. Fauci and the spread of misinformation. I learned that, in Dr. Fauci’s view, Rand Paul is “making a catastrophic epidemic for [his] political gain.”

Political grudge matches can be sadly entertaining. They can emerge out of earnest disputes as well as the clashes between those who would lie for gain and those who would tell the truth.

It is up to the American people to discern the truth and to decide which authorities and experts we trust. But we need compassion for one another in the process. How many of us can follow every thread of the most important debates that unfold in America? How easy is it to be swept up in the contempt and distrust expressed by political and opinion leaders because none of us have the time to pursue every issue to its roots?

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Let us remember that Dr. King had a very different vision of American democracy – one in which “we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding.”

The relationship between trust and our ability to make sense of the world is expressed brilliantly by Daniel Schmactenberger of The Conscilience Project: “If people don’t have some spaces and some relationships where they feel like they can actually share fully, openly, honestly, their sense-making is going to be radically curtailed.”  

Braver Angels must hold the space for us to understand our neighbors as human beings so that we can help each other learn what is true – and where there is earnest disagreement – on the issues that matter most. If we fail to do so, the well of common ground and respect in American life will dry up. There will be less and less room for the American people to work together. Distrust in our institutions will naturally rise unless the American people set a better example for our entire society to follow.

As we set our sights on the balance of this new year, let us commit to expanding the ground upon which we may faithfully hear one another, and open the landscape upon which we may build this house united.

—John Wood Jr., National Ambassador

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