How to Talk to Truthers, Deniers and Assorted Covidiots

Maybe don't call them names, for starters?

May 26, 2020 10:24 am
Judy Mikovits in "Plandemic"
Judy Mikovits in "Plandemic", protesters in Michigan and California
Plandemic / Jeff Kowalsky / Education Images / Getty

Crisis affects people in different ways. Among the more unsettling ones, you could point to images of armed civilians storming state capitals from Lansing to Raleigh, or perhaps that video that leaked over the weekend of a poolside bacchanal in the Ozarks. Trace these reactions to the COVID-19 epidemic out to their source, and you’ll find a legion of truthers, deniers and downplayers. Among them is defrocked virologist Judy Mikovits, the voice behind Plandemic, a controversial documentary that makes unfounded claims regarding COVID-19 as well as some patently discredited ones about vaccines. It was taken down from YouTube because it violated the streaming service’s standards, which is somewhat remarkable for a place that made its name sharing videos of the reckless and absurd. 

Taking a position of denial or defiance to nationwide shelter-in-place orders is seen in most circles as dangerous and irresponsible. In the vernacular of the internet, a new word has even gained traction — Covidiot — to describe those who do. But the usage of that word exposes deeper problems within contemporary American society, and our collective tendency to publicly shame and deride anyone who disagrees with us is chief among them.

When this story was initially assigned, it was under the assumption that I would talk to lawyers and master negotiators who could advise us on how to win a conversation. Yes, winning a conversation did sound appealing. I love sounding smart. Readers want firepower to sound smart, too. However, in doing my research, I’ve come to see that winning may not be helpful or even possible. 

Pandemics have been around forever. That the media has taken to calling this thing a “novel” coronavirus is misleading: this strain of SARS-CoV-2 is new, but the media’s insistence on labeling it as such insinuates that we’ve never dealt with a situation like this before. In fact, in all prior pandemics throughout history, certain strains of society have held doubts about the severity of the situation, resisted self-isolation and leaned toward dogmatic leaders. That people are reacting this way right now is actually quite normal. 

This is not to say that people should avoid having conversations with people who want to discuss this topic. But the word “want” is operative here. There’s no sense in speaking with someone who doesn’t want to talk, or worse, someone like Sean Hannity, a bully who just wants to fight. You can’t stifle them either — it’s a consequence of free speech. So just ignore them. 

But there is merit in speaking with someone who is skeptical of the virus’s risks but still willing to engage, provided you’re at a safe distance and ideally not on Twitter or some internet messageboard. Around one-third of Americans think that coronavirus is a hoax or overblown, and those folks are engaging in risky behavior that not only puts them at risk, but everyone with whom they interact. That could be a loved one of theirs; that could be you.

Given the stakes, I would argue that it’s our civic duty to try to have measured, patient discourse with these folks — in the name of public health, if nothing else. So we talked to some experts on how to go about that without veering into enmity or condescension.

Just Come Correct

Calling people names like “Covidiot” and even thinking of them thusly is problematic.

“Defensiveness is the enemy of understanding,” says Dr. John Carter, a counseling psychologist and adjunct professor at University of Redlands. “If we’re kind of sparring off, trading insults, the last thing that we’re going to do is really try to be understanding of how the other person’s really experiencing things.”

If you hear someone say that the media is exaggerating the magnitude of the situation, consider the possibility that they have a point. “It’s like every time there’s a hurricane, it’s going to be the worst hurricane ever. And sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t,” says Dr. Carter. 

He then recalls an experience he had with his son, who a few years ago caught swine flu. It was predicted with a great deal of hype, and it was over in four days with nothing more than mild symptoms. His doctor even said he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Now, this is anecdotal, but it illustrates a point: “It’s completely possible to believe that the media hyped it,” says Dr. Carter. “In fact, I thought that for the first probably month of coverage, ‘Well, maybe this is just another hype.’” 

For Dr. Carter, it’s all a matter of figuring out how we know what we think we know. He recommends asking, “How do you know this?” as a way to zero in on what a person believes and who they trust for their information. “Everyone has to trust something in order to form a belief, because if you didn’t trust anything, then you just have kind of an ambiguous wash of partial beliefs. But once you have a ‘trust community’ of people that are reinforcing a particular circle of beliefs, it can be very self-sustaining.” 

That the pandemic hit at a time when our institutions — from media to government — have been suffering a crisis of faith is both unfortunate and the reason for deepened suspicion. But there’s another component at play here.

Over the past 20 years, psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenber and Tom Pyszcynski have run tests in which they remind a group of test subjects of their mortality and then ask them a series of questions. “In one of our earlier studies, when Christian participants are reminded that they’re going to die, they like fellow Christians a lot more, and they dislike Jewish people,” says Solomon. “In general, what we find is that these death reminders provoke some immediate responses to distract ourselves from the idea of death, with things like watching television. And then we have these other defenses that are more unconscious: avoidance, over-caution, reckless behavior, etc. This is where we just become more devoted to our cultural worldview.”

Solomon’s work has been collected in a fun book called The Worm at the Core, a reference to William James’s idea about how our awareness of death is like the worm at the core of an apple. Their work is premised on philosopher Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, but where Becker’s work is philosophy, Solomon’s is psychology, a science, which means it needs to be tested using statistical methods that can be replicated. Using Becker as inspiration, they orchestrated tests consisting of thousands of participants, which have been reproduced in 25 countries on five continents. “There’s some cross-cultural validity,” says Solomon of his work. “These death reminders have produced effects in kids as young as 11, and then older folks in their 80s.” 

“According to Becker, if we all thought about the fact that I could walk outside and get smoked by a virus or a comet, that I’m just a piece of meat, we wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning,” says Solomon. To confront this, we construct worldviews and find like-minded people to support them.

What Becker hypothesized, and what Solomon tested, is that when our existential anxieties are summoned, whether by suggestion or by actual events — like an earthquake, terrorist attack or virus — our defensive reactions kick in automatically to try to ward off that anxiety. “We become more committed to our culturally constructed beliefs,” says Solomon. “We search for evidence of our own value.” Perhaps that’s why Trump’s approval (and disapproval) rating hasn’t changed much since March.

In another study, white college students who had been reminded about their own mortality showed a preference for an African American who conformed to a hip-hop-inspired look over one who appeared more business-casual and straightlaced. In his book, Solomon states that “our fear of people who differ from us is also quelled by putting them into neat little boxes where they can serve the stereotypic cultural roles members of certain groups are expected to inhabit.” In other words, when we encounter moments of crisis, not only do we seek out our own homogenous safe spaces — we also tend to group outsiders into similar ones.

The first step in meaningful engagement, then, is to never “psychologize” or stereotype someone. “The point is to acknowledge that it’s not a question of these lunatic virus deniers that are somehow quintessentially weak by virtue of their reaction to anxiety, because we’re all reacting to it, we just do so in different ways,” says Solomon. 

“I wouldn’t presume to diagnose somebody that I’ve never sat down and actually kind of interacted with,” adds Dr. Carter. “In all my experience in counseling, I’ve never met a psychologist that’s that good, that can basically diagnose and solve somebody’s problem in 10 minutes. Helping someone out of a life problem, that’s a heavy endeavor.” 

Putting It Into Practice

So let’s posit that someone tells you they think that what’s going on is some version of Plandemic: a conspiracy theory with high adoption but little scientific backing. Hear them out. Acknowledge that we’ve all indulged in conspiracy theories at some point, and that people have legitimate reasons to doubt the government. Consider the ways they lied to the public about the Vietnam War or the clandestine efforts to subvert Civil Rights.

One of the allures of conspiracy theories is their capacity to engender a sense that there’s control in the world; it’s far harder to live with the reality that a pandemic could be rooted in something as simple and chaotic as a small group of people eating pangolin meat in a Chinese market. This is where Dr. Carter would suggest asking how they know what they think to be true. And for that to be true, what else would have to be true? 

“If nobody has all the information, there is no perfect solution. Then it comes down to a question of probability,” he reasons. “What’s the likelihood that, for example, our government could be lying to us about every single thing that we ever see in the news? That it’s all a complete fiction? There are all kinds of independent decision makers.” All of the doctors would have to be on board, and that would be tricky, because there are laws that they’re governed by, so judges would have to be in on it, too. “These are all independent decision makers; the government doesn’t control all of them. That would be very, very unlikely.”

Conspiracy theories also play to our need to feel like we know more than others. Everyone wants to feel that they’re on to something, that they’re smarter than the average bear (or at least the average mainstream media dupe).

“I think everyone needs to feel that way,” says Dr. Carter. “I do want to avoid that liberal trap of standing on a high horse and saying I would never do that. Rather, I would say, ‘I have been there, I have made mistakes. I have believed in lots of different things.’ We all want to feel smart and important and to feel like we’re right. That’s a basic human drive. And sometimes it can even usurp needing to feel loved, taken care of or a whole host of things.”

Our need to be right, Dr. Carter points out, rolls right into our institutions — particularly the media and our staunchly bipartisan lawmakers. Which is why it’s not productive to subvert or stifle controversial opinions: that only validates the conspiracy theorists’ view. Furthermore, if we set a precedent for limiting free speech today, think about the implications: similar measures could easily be deployed in the future to suppress a view that you hold dear. 

So how do we confront the reckless behavior exhibited by those who doubt the realities of this virus? And how do we do so while managing our own death anxieties and assuaging others? I have no fucking clue, and neither Dr. Carter nor Dr. Solomon claims to know either. “We’re all pilgrims that seek meaning and value and need it more desperately in times of distress and massive uncertainty,” says Solomon. 

Solomon nods to philosopher Martin Heidegger, who saw these issues as something that couldn’t be solved. Rather, you need to come to tolerate and accept opposing views, not overcome them. That’s where you get to a point where you’re truly concerned and compassionate for your fellow humans. As Solomon notes, “that gives you a sense of what Heidegger called ‘unshakeable joy.’” 

This practice of acceptance has proven clinical effectiveness, and has also been echoed in the halls of countless addiction meetings worldwide. As Solomon says: “For many of us lucky enough to to have a bed and a sandwich, this could be an opportunity for — what do they call it? — post traumatic growth.”

How to Approach Others and Yourself With Humility

  • Acknowledge that you’re a hairless ape coping with existential angst like all the other hairless apes out there. 

  • Acknowledge that you’ve held views and beliefs in the past that you now find ridiculous, which means you probably hold some now that you’ll feel the same way about in the future. 

  • Use a “success lens” when talking to people: see them as wanting love and dignity, worthy of respect, and completely capable of teaching you something you didn’t know. 

  • Aim for a 2:1 ratio: reflect and acknowledge what someone has said twice as often as you ask questions.

  • When asking, use the word how they know what they know instead of why — why connotes judgment. 

  • Once you’ve earned someone’s trust, ask more about their sources of information. Some publications are more reputable than others when it comes to journalistic standards and ethics, but we also tend to pick sources that confirm our own beliefs. 

  • Remember what they teach in AA: Accept what you can’t change, change what you can, and know the difference between the two.

  • If you really want change, accept that it’s not as simple as a social-media post; it’s a long hard slog of working the system, voting for good leaders and constantly learning and being open to new things.

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