My favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla. My wife prefers caramel swirl. Although I feel that caramel swirl is inferior to vanilla, I accept her preference, and I find no reason to quarrel with her about her choice. I can like my flavor, and she can like hers.
There are other areas in my life where I am more passionate about my feelings. Some have views that are different from mine. Yet, I accept this as I believe that the best practice is live and let live.
I can stretch this thought further into areas where I may feel that someone else’s belief is downright outrageous. Perhaps they believe that some over-the-counter supplement will cure their medical illness, or they are convinced that we never landed on the moon. Maybe they think that the newspaper horoscope offers direct guidance for their life. “You do you and me do me,” I think. I’ll accept you for who you are. Others don’t need to lockstep behind me. I may not agree with what they believe in, but they have the right to believe it. That is a good thing, right? In many cases, the answer is yes.
Differences come in many forms that go well beyond opinions. Different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, socioeconomic classes, education levels, and so on. When we accept our differences, we can also recognize our similarities. In most instances, we are more alike than we are different.
“It’s your thing, do what you want to do!” isn’t just the tagline from an Isley Brother’s song, it is an anthem of acceptance of others. But can this concept foster the opposite effect? Unfortunately, I believe that the answer is yes.
We have laws that are designed to establish acceptable norms. Rules are necessary to allow our society to function. It is against the law to discriminate based on many determinators such as race or religion. It is against the law to willfully kill another person. It is against the law to exploit children, and the list goes on.
It is possible to draw some conclusions using the above examples. When differences in actions or opinions are relatively inconsequential, the best practice is acceptance. When activities or ideas break established norms, the best practice is a correction. These points are almost universally accepted, but there is a grey zone where it becomes more challenging to determine or categorize harmless differences vs. dangerous ideologies.
In my last post, I attempted to answer common questions concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. I based my responses on established information obtained from primary sources, reliable publications, and governmental information streams. I felt good about my attempt to provide this information. I made a concerted effort to write the piece at a level understandable to non-medical readers. Beyond posting on my blog site, I also linked the article in several other forums, including a local Naperville Facebook page. The post got mostly positive responses, but I was surprised at the adverse reactions that I received. One person felt that I wasn’t qualified to write the article because I was a psychiatrist. She didn’t realize that psychiatrists are trained as medical doctors. Another person simply said, “So many untruths” without further explanation. Still, others responded to my informational post by registering an angry icon. The negative comments were reinforced by some readers who signified their agreement with the commentator with “thumbs-up” clicks.
The next day I scanned a different post in the same forum that noted that a person’s loved one was being called back to work as a bartender. The writer was seeking opinions if others thought that he would be safe. One responded (edited):
“All you people are sheep. I’ve worked everyday through quarantine. I’ve been in peoples homes. I’ve hosted parties and I’d say I’ve shooken a minimum of 3 new peoples hand daily. …You guys need to realize the person funding this vaccine same person. Funding micro chip same person owns Amazon. Social distance is an ordinance for the fact that when everyone can take these masks off they will still have to be distant for no other reason but satellite imagery and recognition…”
In another post, a person asked if anyone knew when Illinois was going to cancel shelter-in-place. She received this reply from someone upset with Illinois’ stay-at-home restriction:
“Looking at non shithole states to move to.”
Newspapers report that some protestors believe that the country’s head of infectious diseases, Anthony Fauci, is lying to us about the coronavirus and that he is trying to profit from this pandemic.
Protesters are carrying rifles when marching on state capitals. Photos of unmasked protestors co-mingled with unmasked children and infants splash across the news media. They claim that they are defending their civil rights.
Fringe religious fundamentalists say that this pandemic has been predicted in Revelations and that the cure (a vaccine) is a ploy to inject microchips into the greater population as the “Mark of the Beast.”
Despite 100,000 deaths in the US, some people believe that COVID-19 is a made-up hoax.
Some business owners have opened their shops in direct opposition to state laws saying that they are exercising their civil rights.
The federal government tells us to socially distance and wear a mask, while at the same time encouraging protest groups and demonstrating a lack of concern with social-distancing.
Despite dire warnings of a second wave of infection, people crowded beaches, parks, and pools over the Memorial Day weekend. When asked why they parrot, “I have to live. Depression and anxiety are dangerous too.”
Despite countless authoritative sources that have documented the infectiousness and lethality of this novel coronavirus individuals justify their irresponsible actions by noting that it is no worse than the flu.
People minimize the impact of this illness by claiming that it only kills the elderly. And they imply that this population is expendable.
As a physician, scientist, and psychiatrist, I have been trying to make sense of these illogical and dangerous thoughts and actions. I accept that there will always be individuals who have alternative beliefs and that some of those beliefs will be “out there.” However, it appears that these reckless behaviors have gained a foothold in portions of mainstream society. Why are individuals reacting so strongly during this time of crisis? A time when there is clear evidence that their actions are dangerous not only to themselves but to the greater population? We value individual rights and accept differing opinions in this country, but when is the “Me do me,” philosophy exploited to the detriment of the greater good? And how do we, as rational human beings, justify these dangerous actions?
I think there are many reasons why individuals are ignoring clear facts and placing both themselves and the greater population in danger. Here are some of my thoughts:
The rejection of science and medicine
The mistrust of science and scientists is a long-standing tradition for some, as is the incorrect assumption that science and religion oppose each other. We have all read stories of “mad scientists” whose evil ambitions cause pain and destruction. We have also had real-life examples of how science has damaged our world with nuclear waste and chemical dumping. Many individuals would disagree with the old DuPont tagline, “Better living through chemistry.”
There are many examples where errors in scientific judgment have had significant consequences. However, there are many more examples where the knowledge and implementation of science have dramatically improved our quality of life. If you lack an understanding of the fundamentals of science, it is easy to demonize this area of knowledge and dismiss any conclusions that scientific examination affords. Also, some people feel that science and religion are oppositional forces. There could be many reasons for this belief that range from the false impression that all scientists are atheists to the interpretation of sacred works.
Physicians used to be revered in communities. As a practicing doctor for over 30 years, I have witnessed a decline. This is partially due to the changing roles of doctors. As medicine has become more complicated, the need for multiple physician experts (specialists) has weakened the doctor/patient relationship. Also, most doctors in the US earn their living via a production model. The faster they work, the more they make. Working as quickly as possible is counter to establishing a meaningful relationship with patients.
The internet has provided an explosion of both good and bad medical information. Patients can come to an appointment with a preconceived idea of their problem and a treatment expectation. I can recall patients who misinterpreted information from medical websites. Because of this, they would refuse to accept my medical advice. Dr. Google can seem a lot more credible than the doctor sitting across from you.
Science vs. religion
As a practicing Christian, I believe that God gave us our minds and free will to explore the world. I think that religion and science coexist quite nicely.
I was at a function where I talked to someone I would regard as educated and intelligent. I was shocked when this person told me that they rejected that humans were contributing to climate change. There was a religious connection to her belief, and honestly, her comments took me aback. Later that day, I asked my wife how it was possible to reject something accepted by the world community, and has been demonstrated time and time again in real-life examples. My wife was raised in the same religious tradition as this person, and so I thought she might have more insight. She noted that some fundamentalist religions view science as the enemy because its conclusions can be contrary to the literal translation of the Bible.
When the Bible says that the world was created in 7 days, I interpret it using a week to symbolize that it didn’t happen instantly. That is compatible with what we know scientifically. Others believe that the world was created in 7 actual days. I’m not trying to get into a me vs. you argument. Still, I can see how this different interpretation could lead to the belief that science is anti-Bible. That is not the case.
There is a world out there where everything has a sinister and secret meaning. It is a world run by influential people who sometimes practice magical rituals. It is the world of conspiracy. Conspiracy theories abound and seem to explain just about any event or problem. 911? There are conspiracy theories to explain it. Sandy Hook? There are conspiracy theories to explain it. Pandemic? There are conspiracy theories to explain it.
Most conspiracy theories have some basis in facts. However, those facts are misinterpreted or manipulated to make the argument more plausible. They offer the believer the inside scoop and explain to them the whys of the world.
Promoters of conspiracy theories can gain a cult-like following. With it, they can achieve a certain amount of power. Some will also use their influence to sell things that range from herbal supplements to magical toothpaste.
I find it interesting that there are quite a few real arrangements that are both secret and unsavory. They are often more interesting than fictional conspiracy theories. Deals do get made behind the scenes; the privacy of individuals is compromised without their permission. Plots happen in real life. For some reason, these actual events don’t seem as appealing as alien-human hybrids, or Masonic conspiracies to overtake the world. This is likely because the uncovering of real plots requires quite a bit of time and research. Also, there may be little payoff. A conspiracy theory only needs a seed of truth. Still, that seed can be grown into anything that the theorist wishes. Random information can be added; non-confirming information can be subtracted.
Beyond hucksters, governments also use this technique. I just watched a news clip that described how Russian and Chinese Arabic outlets are promoting the idea that a US lab created this novel coronavirus. Conversely, we have implied that this coronavirus was either created or released from a Chinese lab. Why would governments get involved with conspiracy theories? To manipulate a naive group, and to serve as a method of distraction.
The Mark of the Beast
As long as I have been listening to late-night radio, I remember stories of hidden organizations that had plots to label humans with the “Mark of the Beast.” Over time the “Mark” has changed from social security numbers to credit cards to UPCs and more recently “chip” tagging devices like you use to ID your dog and cat.
I’m a practicing Christian, but I’m not a Bible scholar. However, I did do some research. Most well regarded Bible scholars say that the “Mark of the Beast” from Revelations doesn’t refer to a mark that someone places on you. Rather it symbolizes a person embracing the Devil. Could this involve an actual mark? That is unclear, but not relevant to my point. The Mark of the Beast is about a person’s conversion rather than someone being branded.
Some anti-vaccers and other fringe groups say that the world is developing a coronavirus vaccine because the entire population will be secretly injected with a microchip… serving as the “Mark of the Beast.” Here we see a blending of conspiracy, religion, and manipulation.
When opinions are as important as facts
There has been an increasing tendency to accept opinions as facts, mainly when an influencer of power expresses the idea. Do you watch YouTube? Have you ever seen a popular host talk ecstatically about a boring product? In many cases, that person is being paid to gush by the advertiser of that product. Yes, it is a commercial, except it is being sold as an honest opinion.
“1 + 1 = 2,” that is a fact. “Chocolate cake is the best cake,” that is an opinion. An opinion can sometimes become a fact with research and fact-finding. However, in most cases, this is neither done; nore is it desired. Vetting an opinion runs the risk of disproving it.
As humans, we like to have opinions as they give us a sense of mastery and knowledge. As in most of these examples, opinions can be used to manipulate others. Remember, facts can be verified by multiple credible sources. If this can’t be done, it is an opinion.
When powerful agencies or people lie to us
There are many examples where influential individuals or groups used their influence to manipulate us. A classic example is the case of the tobacco executives who testified under oath to Congress that smoking was not hazardous to your health… when they knew otherwise. People in power are caught in lies and break their promises. Add to this reality, their seemingly enchanted lifestyles of privilege, and it is easy for the mainstream to reject the establishment.
The “N” word
No, not THAT word. The “N” that I’m referring to is an “n,” and it stands for a number. We love testimonials, and they sometimes can be useful in our decision making. A friend tells us about a good and honest mechanic… score! However, these benefits don’t apply in all situations.
As an example, a person receives an experiment drug and survives a COVID-19 infection. It must have been that drug that they took, right? Wrong, that is why we have research protocols. Early on in the pandemic, I recall reading about a person who was convinced that hydroxychloroquine saved their life. Was this a fact or just a coincidence? A larger sample pool has suggested coincidence. Researchers have the tools and techniques needed to explore the benefits of a treatment, and even they sometimes get it wrong. Correlation does not imply causation. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer.”
Smart people should not be trusted
There seems to be a general distrust of smart or highly educated individuals. I have heard people refer to them in negative ways, “They live in an ivory tower,” They think that their sh** doesn’t stink,” etc. Presidential pundits talk about the importance of likability when it comes to choosing a viable presidential candidate. It has been said that citizens vote for someone based on how relatable they are. In other words, someone they would enjoy having lunch with. I’m not sure why there is a bias against smart people, but I am confident that their opinions shouldn’t be discounted.
Individual rights, the battle cry
We are a country of individuals. We pride ourselves on our rights and our freedom of choice. However, we live in a diverse society. What happens when individual rights negatively impact human rights? What if your freedom to express yourself has a direct negative impact on my rights? What if your desire for self-determination harms your dependents?
Real news as opposed to drama TV
I have to confess that I don’t watch a lot of TV news, as I get most of my information in other ways. However, I have deliberately watched shows from all of the major networks as well as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. Most networks try to present real facts during an actual news show (although those facts can be skewed depending on the network’s bias). However, the “fun” begins when the commentators take over. They have their agenda, which seems to consist of promoting a specific ideology (often right or left). Their shows appear to carry even more weight than the network’s actual newscasts. It is easy to confuse their editorial interpretations as trustworthy, unbiased facts. “This group is always good; the other group is always bad.” If you see this pattern when listening to a commentator, consider turning off the TV.
Everyone’s an expert
My friend Tom has worked in the construction industry for over 25 years. As a general contractor, he is one of the most knowledgeable experts that I know when it comes to home repair and remodeling. I often go with him to initial appointments (I’m retired, you know). It amazes me how often potential customers try to show their “superior” knowledge when it comes to a construction job. By association, I have picked up some facts about construction. Even with my limited experience, I can tell you that many of these consumers have no idea what they are talking about. However, in the age of the internet, it is possible to glean information on just about any topic. With that little bit of information, it appears to be easy to assume that you know more than someone who has dedicated their life to learning a skill set.
I have seen this same phenomenon with some patients. I recall a lady who I had seen for some time. She was doing well on her current medication and had made excellent progress overall. One day she came into a session angry at me. She demanded to know why she wasn’t on a particular medicine. She said she had done research on that medicine, and it seemed perfect for her. I reminded her that she was doing well, but she was not satisfied with my comment. I let her rant for a few minutes and then reached for her chart. I located what I was looking for and said to her, “Do you remember that medicine that you tried about six months ago?” “Yes, it was terrible. It had so many side effects. Why in the world did you put me on that terrible medicine,” she said. “I put you on that medicine because we were trying to improve your mood, but it wasn’t the right medicine. People react to medicines differently, which is why an expert prescribes them. That medicine is the one that you want me to put you on today.” “Oh,” was her only reply. She had seen a glossy commercial about the medicine on TV and felt that she had expert knowledge of psychopharmacology based on 60 seconds of information.
Do as I say, not as I do
If you are a person of few resources, you can expect to receive the maximum punishment if you break the law. However, it seems that the rules are different if you are a person with power or money. Worse yet is when influential people criticize others for the very things that they are doing themselves. This leads to an us vs. them separation, and the hypocrisy breeds mistrust.
Overdosing on outrage porn
It is exciting to be excited. It is even more appealing to be excited around others who are excited. A typical example of this is watching a sporting event with friends. However, there is another side to this phenomenon. It can be exhilarating to be outraged about something, and this is more exciting when done with others. Of course, there are times when we should be outraged as our anger causes us to elicit change. However, outrage porn is also a technique that many partisan news outlets use. They beat their version of a story over and over until the viewer is hopping mad. It is exciting, but (in my opinion) it rarely results in a change. Why do they do it? The longer you watch, the more money they make.
The art of the scapegoat
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where you were always right and never wrong? For most of us, this is a fantasy, but for some, it is a reality. What is the secret? Blame someone or some group. “I didn’t do a poor job; I did a great job… someone else did a terrible job… It’s their fault,” and so it goes. If someone says that they are always doing a good job and that someone else is always to blame, they are either lying or delusional (or both).
One note philosophies
We live in a time of sound bites and bullet points. We identify with celebrities and leaders based on minimal information, such as their stance on universal healthcare, immigration rights, or abortion positions. Once strongly allied by a single doctrine, it becomes easy to accept or ignore other attributes of that individual that might usually offend our sensibilities. To make those abhorrent ideas acceptable, we rationalize them or adopt them. In this way, it becomes possible to accept or ignore behaviors and ideologies that we would normally reject.
The more a person is different from us, the easier it is for us to distance ourselves from their needs or plights. Propaganda effectively makes enemies appear different. Think of posters of Japanese from WWII; they were drawn to appear subhuman. Likewise, Japanese propaganda of Americans made us look like monsters. This effect can occur subtly and, more recently, has been used to marginalize Hispanics, Muslims, and the elderly. Once dehumanized, it is easy to ignore a group’s plight. “Isn’t it OK for a few elderly people to die if that makes America great again?” This sounds a lot better than, “Isn’t it OK for my grandmother to die if that makes America great again?”
Snake oil and pseudo-experts
We all have to make a living, but some individuals do this at others’ expense. Usually, vulnerabilities are exploited. Hair tonics for the balding, weight loss “miracles” for the fat, get rich quick programs for the financially unstable… the list goes on. Fear can be a powerful motivator during a crisis. At times it is used to hawk benign products, like dehydrated shelf-stable foods. However, at other times it exploits the vulnerable by promising them magical protection from the offending agent (like a coronavirus). These types of exploitations can not only be financially draining, but they can also be life-threatening. Moreover, these salespeople will often use the tactic of “You can only trust me.” This places the customer in further danger as they are isolated and no longer accept more objective advice.
Partisanship is defined as blind adherence to a particular cause or party. Partisanship has exploded over the last decade and has slowed the government to a near halt. The enemies are clearly defined. They consist of anyone who opposes the leaders of that party or any group that threatens the power of the party. Both Democrats and Republicans practice extreme partisanship, and this attitude has had a detrimental impact on battling COVID-19.
The purpose of this post was to ask the question, “Are there times when individual rights need to be adjusted so that others’ rights are also respected? I am a firm believer in individual rights, but they cannot exclude the rights of others. However, there seems to be a societal trend to champion individual rights above all else. This pattern of behavior has many roots, some of which I listed above.
The unbridled expression of individual rights can only exist in a situation where there is no impact on others’ rights. However, in societies, individuals’ rights have to be balanced by the rights of the group. Actions that promote the rights of an individual at the expense of the group’s rights will invariably negate both.
To state this more eloquently, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
We are always stronger when we work together. When we adopt patterns of behavior that are contrary to this, we can initially feel more powerful. However, in the long run, we become weaker and more vulnerable.
Explore some of the constructs that I have listed above and see how they apply to your beliefs or actions. As always, Peace.