In a recent piece, I looked at the symbolic significance of cell tower arson 1. In this post, I want to look at another kind of conspiracy that has been gaining steam, or rather regaining steam, in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. More precisely, I will look at the symbolism of anti-vaxxer (anti-vaccination) conspiracy theories. First, anti-vaxxers validly intuit that our use of technology causes genuine psychological and social problems. Second, because vaccines mediate between technology and our bodies, anti-vaxxers confusingly associate those problems with vaccines. Finally, I will claim that attending to these higher-level patterns necessitates our attention much more than material-level debates over vaccination. We have psychological and social problems that won’t be solved by arguing over their material layer.
Let’s start by examining anti-vaxxer theories themselves. Now, there are a lot of them, and I obviously cannot go through them all. I will focus on three examples that I think are fairly common and symbolically clear: namely the claims that vaccines cause autism, that they allow nefarious agents to track us, and that they cause infertility. These claims are then connected to Covid-19 through the additional claim that the virus is a plot by the nefarious agents to vaccinate people, making at least some of us autistic, trackable or infertile. Interestingly, Bill Gates is often identified as one of those nefarious agents. 2
Rather than looking at these conspiracies at the material level, let me start at higher levels. Indeed, if we look at it at the psychological and social levels, we can see that technology has indeed had the effects that anti-vaxxers claim. And because vaccines are a piece of technology that gets into our bodies and transforms us, it’s natural to use them as symbols. They are a material piece of technology that mediates between our material bodies and our abstract technological world. Further, because Bill Gates has helped create so much of our technological world, it’s natural to take him to be the father of these issues.
And of course, if we look at technology at the psychological and social levels, it has played a part in making us asocial, trackable, and infertile.
Indeed, technology has increasingly allowed us to isolate ourselves. It has sheltered us from the necessity of interacting with others and developing social skills. Why strive to make and maintain deep friendships and family bonds when on-demand television and video games offer easy distractions? Why go see someone when you can call them? Or better yet, just text them? It’s also all too common for parents to let their children spend more time with iPads and televisions than with people, teaching them to interact with machines more than with humans. With this lack of practice at human interactions, it’s really no surprise that our social skills would be deteriorating. One could even reasonably argue that technology has thus fuelled the rise of autism rates.
It’s also obvious that technology has made us easier to track. We willingly put our personal information on Facebook and Twitter. We always have our trackable phones with us. Add to that cameras mounted in public places and police cars, and it’s clear that we really have become quite trackable.
And of course technology has also made us less fertile. Not only can we use devices, pills and medical procedures to avoid pregnancies, our weakened sociability also reduces our desire and ability to create families. If we tend to stay inside and have poor social skills, what are the odds of meeting and connecting with a potential spouse? Plus, why would one want to go through the sacrifices required to raise a family when so much easy entertainment is available at one’s fingertips? Why strive to maintain a marriage when pornography and Tinder provide such easy consolations?
Let’s now circle back to vaccines themselves. Because vaccines are a piece of technology that gets into our bodies and transforms us, anti-vaxxers unconsciously use them as a symbol for technologically-induced autism, trackability and infertility. The myriad of abstract ways in which technology has psychologically and socially transformed us is associated with the material vaccine that is injected into our skin and materially transforms us. The vaccine thus becomes a mediator between our technologically-induced autism, trackability and infertility, and our bodies, i.e., it becomes a symbol.
Note that this simultaneously shows the anti-vaxxers’ symbolic weakness. Vaccines are at best an oblique symbol of our technologically induced psychological and social woes. While they do mediate between medical technology and our material bodies, they most likely do not actually mediate between technologically-induced autism, trackability and infertility on the one hand and our bodies on the other. In contrast, video games, Tinder, text messages and cell phones really do participate in our psychological and social problems. That would make them valid symbols of those issues. But that is most likely not the case with vaccines, which have in fact cured millions of people of deadly diseases. Anti-vaxxers are right about the effects, but wrong about the source. Still, we can see why anti-vaxxers would use vaccines as a manifestation of the technological world entering into our bodies and transforming us. The symbolism is misplaced, but it is simple and powerful. It is simpler to understand the idea of nefarious vaccines causing autism, trackability and infertility than it is to understand how we have made ourselves asocial, trackable and infertile through our beloved machines.
Let me stress that I am not advocating for a return to a pre-technological world. Indeed, technology also has plenty of benefits. Vaccines really have eradicated dangerous viruses that used to periodically wipe out millions of people. Modern medicine has done great wonders in general, and our modern ability to communicate across the internet is truly exciting, amongst other things. My goal here was just to lay out some of the ways in which anti-vaxxers are intuiting real psychological and social patterns.
And psychological and social problems require psychological and social level solutions. Our modern habit of reducing everything down to the material level is preventing us from correctly analyzing psychological and social issues. Our blindness to symbolism is preventing us from seeing patterns that should be clear. While anti-vaxxers start out with good intuitions, they go astray when focusing on the material layer of reality. It prevents them from seeing the good aspects of vaccination, and prevents them from focusing on the genuine psychological and social problems they confusingly point to.
Engaging in endless internet debates about the pharmacology and/or nanotechnology of vaccination is not nearly as relevant as tackling the very real breakdown of our social fabric. Indeed, it does not seem like the anti-vaxxer movement is heading anywhere substantially productive. And even if vaccines were somehow banned, it’s not like the negative psychological and social problems they symbolize would go away. We need to be discussing all the ways in which we have failed to handle technology properly. We need to figure out why it is that we are so willing to sacrifice our time with others in favour of time with machines.
Let me conclude by comparing vaccines to a Christian symbol, namely the Eucharist. The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel contains a rich theology of the Eucharist, where, amongst other things, Christ explains that when we consume the Eucharist, we are simultaneously being consumed by Christ. As we eat the Eucharist, which is the Body of Christ, and incorporate it into our human bodies, we are actually being incorporated into the Church, which is the Body of Christ.
I think that anti-vaxxers validly intuit that something like this Eucharistic incorporation is occurring in our unbridled consumption of technology. We should be careful not to irresponsibly ingest — or inject —, too many technological artifacts, lest we ourselves become mere appendages of a machine-world. Indeed, we should be mindful not to become asocial, trackable and infertile machines, only connected to one another through other machines.
As symbolically confused as their warning may be, anti-vaxxers are thus reminding us of something deeply true: we should be careful what we consume, since it might be consuming us. Or, to put it more optimistically, we should choose what body we become a member of.
Video version of this post:
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “The Symbolism of Cell Tower Arson”, The Symbolic World Blog, June, 2020
- Wakefield, Jane. “How Bill Gates Became the Voodoo Doll of Covid Conspiracies”, BBC News, June, 2020