The anti-vax movement isn’t about Autism — It’s about purity

This story begins, like so many nowadays, with a Facebook interaction. I rarely comment on things that I know will start an argument, but I was feeling flippant when I read a post, a comic, actually, about whether Doctors, or “Google, M.D.,” are more qualified to help you decide whether to vaccinate. I mentioned that I wasn’t vaccinated as a child (not till I was 20 years old!), and still arguably ended up on the spectrum (I hide it pretty well), and how I’d still rather be like this than die from rubella.

The response was, predictably, hostile. What was unpredictable was the content; that it was “gross” that I’d rather poison myself than suffer a “usually mild” disease. I won’t argue about the merits of that statement, or even the original comic. It’s true, there are a lot of conflicts of interest in the medical field, and I expect we’ll see a lot anecdotes, crowdsourced into real data, overturning long-held, entrenched hypotheses over the next few decades.

But one thing really came together for me. Apart from those few who have actually had an autistic child, the anti-vax movement, by and large, does not care about autism or the autistic. What matters is Purity.

Purity is one of civilization’s longest-running, and nastiest, concepts. It’s been around at least since the Indus valley civilization was taken over by the current caste system in India (although I’m sure it has other origins as well, that just seems to be where the idea was first recorded and codified), and it’s a doozy. It’s a nasty concept because it appeals to a number of atavistic traits that appear on both the right and the left, although it manifests in different ways. On the right, purity is mostly a sexual concept; on the left, it’s usually a function of how close you can get to being “natural”. Even in the center, it appears as a desire to disinfect everything, in order to keep your children safe. All are based around the idea that by polluting the body, one somehow becomes less worthy.

This would be a great time to point out that Hitler was a vegetarian, and that many of the people who have contributed the most to human welfare throughout history have been chain-smoking, promiscuous lushes. It would be, but one of the defining traits of those who care excessively about purity seems to be that, by and large, they lack compassion or concern for human welfare. Yes, I went there — fulfilled the promise of Godwin’s law , and used a blanket statement, to boot— but in this case, it’s appropriate. Because that idea of purity is exactly what drove Hitler, and so many other madmen (and a few madwomen) throughout history to commit or instigate atrocities. It is literally the ideological motivation behind nearly every hate crime, ever. Why do we hate the Other? Because they are Impure, and they threaten Our Purity. Unlike greed, which is undeniably the driving force behind most of the world’s evil, it is persistent. And, unlike greed, we might actually be able to do something about it, through education, by teaching children to make decisions based on data, not dogma or appeal to authority (whether that authority is a preacher, a celebrity, or even a scientist).

The world is a dirty, messy place. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s a bad thing. Make decisions based on the best outcome for the most people. Get vaccinated, get your children vaccinated. Yes, It’s important to stay clean. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom. But maybe not with antibacterial soap.