Words matter. They color our conversations, they define the scope and limits of our debates and civil discourse. They can act as shorthand, letting us bypass the landscape of ideas on which we already agree. Just as easily they can presumptively wall off entire fields of discussion where we most likely will disagree. Are we talking about states’ rights or voter suppression, the right to life or the right to choose, climate change or routine periodic fluctuations?
When you’re pro- or anti- something, it usually concerns something over which you have a choice. It might express a preference or abhorrence of a political candidate or a like or dislike (however shameful) of a religion or minority. In any case, though, it’s inappropriate when applied to a fact. For example, no one can seriously take a position of being anti-gravity. Gravity is real, it exists, and though you might not always enjoy feeling its effects or imagine how wonderful it would be to float free of its influence, it's just not reasonable to say you don't believe in, or are ardently opposed to, it. Gravity is a fact.
Here are three other facts:
Vaccines work; their efficacy has been proven.
Vaccines are safe; their side-effects, if any, are minimal.
Herd immunity increases with greater adoption; unvaccinated persons are at lesser risk of infection when greater numbers of the surrounding population have themselves been vaccinated.
Given those facts, it's not logical to use the term anti-vax, because this is not a matter of choice or preference. No one can choose whether vaccines work, –they do. No one can choose whether vaccines are safe, –they are. And no one can deny the herd-immunity effect, –it's demonstratively real. In that sense then, to be anti-vax is to deny these facts, and that is simply not rational. And if someone uses the term anti-vax to mean "I choose not be vaccinated," it means they have also chosen to not believe the facts about vaccines.
So the term "anti-vax" is wrong grammatically and logically. But it's also misleading and deceptive. Because the media wants to be perceived as balanced, it often goes out of its way to present false-equivalency stories. When someone advocates for more widespread vaccination, they're not pro-vax because, remember, no one can be pro something that's a fact (e.g., pro-gravity). And if there's no pro, then there's no need to present an anti view as well. But repeating the term anti-vax sets up in the public's mind that this is a legitimate stance and only half of the argument or full story. To see how absurd this is, imagine a physicist interviewed and discussing gravity. Would any reporter feel the need to present an opposing, anti-gravity point of view? Of course not. And in the same manner, “anti-vaxers” should be denied an equivalency platform. Free speech, of course, guarantees them the right to propound their views in any way they wish, but it should not obligate the news media to present those views as somehow equivalent to fact-based reporting about vaccines.
What term should we use? Instead of saying that someone is anti-vax, we should simply say that they "do not believe anyone should be vaccinated because they do not believe in the efficacy and safety of vaccines." It's a little longer, but it respects their views and it avoids the damage that the term anti-vax can inflict on the discussion.
Please leave comments below.