Practical guide to talking to an antivaccinist at Christmas

Practical guide to talking to an antivaccinist at Christmas

Many Italians will gather around a video call or a virtual meal. And the theme of Christmas is the one that has turned our lives upside down: but with the campaign underway, how can we build a "happy dispute"?

(illustration: Getty Images) This year there will be a strange Christmas , without the long tables crowded with relatives that maybe we see only for anniversaries and with whom we have very little in common. But the virtual lunches and dinners, video calls of greetings, remote greetings will certainly increase. So let's take advantage of this opportunity to attack that parallel virus made, as Sandro Modeo explains today in a long article in the Corriere, of "a heavy mix (a kit) of fake and resistances" that feed "not only the vast no-vax movement" but that discourage even “light” skeptics.

The vaccination campaign is underway and it is essential to bring some elements back to reality after months of bombardments of news (and no), political distortions, denial and speculation. Impacting on that more or less large slice of those who do not intend to immunize themselves in a granitic way but also on the more shaky one of those who take time, bringing up that same table of the Christmas call endless questions that have little to do with the largest operation of this type for times and dimensions. We need to reach over 65% of Italians over 16 years old: we also and above all need them. Talk to him clearly (but without yelling, as it is riskier, and wearing a mask). Otherwise Sars-Cov-2 will remain for a long time to keep us company in these conditions, that is, with this transmissibility and lethality. The worst-case scenario would be to have several safe and effective vaccines - now we have them - but to collide with the rubber wall of reluctance if not, worse, the proudly claimed distrust.

But how do you overcome those cognitive biases, those widespread resistances - often fueled by information that screeches anecdotal aspects and ignores or overrides everything that happens after - on which legions of poisoners have worked for months and in hindsight they have always worked (should we go back to what happened in Italy just three years ago?). To the uncle who denounces Bill Gates' microchips shot intramuscularly with the very expensive syringes bought by Commissioner Arcuri, there would seem to be no possible reply. Yet you have to try. Precisely this Christmas, precisely because no one is saved alone. Not even the most marble deniers. And it is certainly true, against the scripts written by Pizzagate lovers, the strength of a platoon of Jedi knights would be needed. But perhaps in recent years we have been victims of our own fears: perhaps the desire to transform one's frustration into a mission of civic confrontation even before being purely scientific may be enough.

First of all, stay calm. A call or a virtual Christmas meal is not a war - especially this year - and it does not deserve to become a battlefield from which everyone will emerge beaten and even more divided. Leaving the virtual table or confrontation in ruins would be a defeat, whatever the rhetorical outcome of the conflict. It is useless to raise the tone, because you would end up triggering a passion that is probably symmetrical to yours if not preponderant, given that this type of conspiracy not limited to sawing the world into opposing categories but planting its roots in a mixture of resentments that in turn sink into the personal stories.

Once the conversation is secure, your task is to lead it (we know it is very hard) towards what the philosopher Bruno Mastroianni would call a “happy dispute”. We need empathy - before discovering Daniel Goleman we called it solidarity, but it's okay in version 2.0 too - and, at the same time, we need to dispel the temptation to ridicule. Put the silencer on pride and sometimes even self-love, swallow the mocking smiles of those who hide the truth in their pockets and listen patiently, giving way to decompress. But above all, in order not to return to the starting point, avoid humiliating a relative or a friend for their considerations. It is you who must build some kind of common ground on which, at least, try to recognize yourself: you cannot expect a flat-earther to come your way. To do this, sometimes it is enough to use the lock pick of empathy: at the bottom of those convictions there is often the search for an escape route or for a simpler scheme to read the world.

But the difficulty will come. with pars construens. In fact, if with a good dose of commitment you can learn to contain the damage, the climb against the unleashed cherry picking of data, research and information, the most absurd digital impostures or who knows what other blackmails to one's intelligence could seem an insurmountable barrier to climb. (and maybe ask us who makes us do it). Yet, as explained for example by the psychologist Jovan Byford of the open University at the BBC, the spirit of doubt that pervades every conspiracy theorist could alone represent the unexpected passepartout to lead him back to rational thought. Or at least critical, but in the right way. "Many of the people who believe in conspiracy theories see themselves as skeptics who are right to be and self-taught researchers on complex issues - adds Byford - present this consideration as something that, in principle, you appreciate and share". In short, that mentality could even be useful in constructing a surprising comparison, if it were possible to shift the targets of interest, pouring the skepticism in which they also swim on their sources.

That fact-checking works until at a certain point, and indeed you risk compacting the troops, we now know this clearly and also some relentless studies prove it, I am thinking of the work of the data science teacher at Sapienza Walter Quattrociocchi. At the heart of professional information, the slew of professorial denials may, however, be less useful in an informal confrontation, especially between people who know each other well. The solution? The questions . Asking is often more effective than peremptorily asserting. For example by focusing on the reasons why the sources of disinformation in which someone so much trusts would spread a certain thesis. The point is that it is better to lead the conversation, gradually closing the circle by pointing out flaws and gaps, than to get lost in the debunking unleashed by the messiah of the undeniable. Contradictoriness, alternative evidence, details that don't hold up, look for the ego in the haystack: it is much more rational to ask than to deny it all the time, to open passages more easily in what may seem imperforable positions fueled by an immeasurable and probably fatuous self-esteem. But, in fact, also pay attention to one's own self-esteem.

A bit like the first vaccinated in the coming months will not be able to tear off the mask thinking that it is all over after a couple of injections, you will probably have to resign to go home (soon, don't hold back too much from others, if you really have to go) with few immediate results. Conspiracy theories, especially during the year which is fortunately ending, for many act as a sort of mental comfort food, simple shortcuts for the interpretation of life which, while oversimplifying, on the contrary, give an impression of analytical superiority. Difficult to break them down in a wish or a virtual meal. Yet, if you have just opened a passage without arguing and liquidating with doubts and questions, much of the mission will be accomplished.

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