Thinking about writing this post has kept me up at night. That happens any time I’m about to jump into a controversial issue. In my college comp course, I warn students away from controversial topics because they aren’t ready to tackle them; their rhetorical skills aren’t advanced enough yet. Heck, I’m not sure my own skills are, which is half the reason I also avoid confrontational subjects . . . until they start to keep me up at night. That’s when I know that it’s time to say something, even if saying something scares the crap out of me.
Plus this site is called “All About the Words,” and that’s what rhetoric is. Rhetoric is all about the words and how they can be used to persuade.
Getting to the Issue
This fall, every time I go to the community college to teach my class, I pass a small poster that says this:
Your flu vaccine protects me.
My flu vaccine protects you.
At the beginning of the semester, it had the effect of a reminder. I would think to myself as I passed it, “Oh yeah. Need to check on when the pediatrician is offering the walk-in clinics. Need to get our flu shots.”
Eek. There. I said it. Now you know what side I’m on, which possibly ruins all the rest of my rhetoric. As I tell my students, the trouble with controversial subjects is that most people have already made up their minds and refuse to change them, so the only audience you’re going to get — the only readers who will stick with you through the end — are the ones who agree with you. You end up preaching to the choir because the rest of the congregation fled the second you admitted you were on the “wrong” side of the controversy.
So in a way I can breathe easier now. The only people reading this paragraph are the ones who haven’t been scared away!
A few months ago I gave my intermediate class an article from Parents magazine about vaccines. As I would have suggested back then, the article waited until the very end to spill the news that they were pro-vaccine. At the time, so was I, and I applauded their arguments and used the article to show my class an effective piece of rhetoric.
Since then my life has been turned upside down.
How Having a Baby Can Shake Your Worldview
It started with a baby — our third. With my first two labors, I’d broken down into tears at 5cm dilated, at which point I got an epidural with the first. With the second, I tried to tough it out, which involved massive amounts of screaming, both scaring and scarring my poor husband, until I got an epidural at 8cm. Needless to say, with this third pregnancy, I knew that I needed help. So we hired a doula — a birthing coach. And the first thing she did was come to our house with an enormous stack of handouts for us to read.
I read and read and read. I couldn’t get enough. I was amazed that even though we’d taken the hospital class with our first baby and even though I’d been through delivery twice, there was so much I didn’t know. Things like how laughter speeds up labor, relaxing speeds up labor, being immersed in water speeds up labor — and all of those things also reduce the pain without the side effects of drugs. Why had no one told me with my other babies?
Anyhow, I started to get excited for labor. I wanted to test out my new knowledge! And believe me, being anxious for labor to start was totally out of character for me. I’m happy to go overdue with my babies. I’m happy to be pregnant as long as my body wants to. Because babies are hard work! So for me to be excited for labor says a lot about how much I loved what I had learned.
Okay, I’m taking too long with all this. The point is, once I went into labor, no one believed me. I hardly believed me. Our doula didn’t believe me. I was too calm. It was too easy. Labor shouldn’t be so easy. I shouldn’t have been joking around. And yet when we got to the hospital I was 8cm dilated. I laughed and said, “Are you kidding me?”
Knowledge really is power!
That was what started to shake our worldview. A month or so after the baby was born, Hubby and I had a conversation about the wool being pulled over our eyes. Everyone says that birth is the most painful thing ever and you shouldn’t even try to do it without the epidural, but we’d learned that the whole experience was so much better without medical intervention. Conventional wisdom had lied to us. And we started to wonder what other interventions weren’t so good — what other things were considered normal when really the “fringe” view was better . . . if you had the right knowledge to go with it.
Think how fringe we once considered environmentally conscience people. I remember being teased in fifth grade (early ’90s) because I had a book called 50 Ways to Save the Earth. Now it’s trendy to be earth conscience.
Think how decades ago baby formula was promoted as healthier than breast milk because science had engineered it to be optimally nutritious. Now we’ve gotten smart and admitted that Mother Nature is smarter than science.
Think of fad diets — always the latest, best nutritional plan! — that later prove to be unhealthy.
If conventional wisdom can be that fickle, can we really trust it?
With that new mindset, my thirst for better knowledge has been unquenchable again, like it was with the childbirth info. I read and read and read about how herbal medicine works with the body while drugs work against it (herbal remedies cure swine flu three times as fast as the drug for it); how the best way to avoid getting sick is to avoid refined sugars and toxins (like, say, the toxins in the vaccines) and instead focus on getting enough vitamins and minerals and sleep and exercise (duh); how actual immunity is achieved by getting diseases like the chicken pox, whereas vaccines wear off, leaving adults susceptible to diseases that were meant to be handled by children. (Think how much energy kids have. No wonder childhood diseases hit adults so much harder.)
And now I see the rhetoric of conventional wisdom in a new light. Think of when the swine flu hit. There was panic. Government doesn’t like panic; government likes to be the hero. I don’t blame it. It’s a perfectly rational response. And we’ve been conditioned to believe that vaccines will save us, so of course the government works as hard and as fast as it can to give us those vaccines and to promote them by playing on our fears:
Your flu vaccine protects me.
My flu vaccine protects you.
The textbook I use in my comp course calls “Appeal to Fear” a logical fallacy — in other words, bad/dishonest rhetoric. It says, “One type of logical fallacy makes an appeal to readers’ irrational fears and prejudices, preventing them from dealing squarely with a given issue and often confusing cause and effect” (Green and Lidinsky 188).
Um . . . exactly.
The Parable of the Apple Maggots
The final piece in the vaccine puzzle for me was when an experience I had with our apple trees came to mind a few weeks ago. I had bought “fruit spray” for the trees (notice they don’t call it “pesticide” at the store — more rhetoric) because conventional wisdom said that you have to spray the trees in order to protect the fruit. But then I changed my mind and figured I would “go organic” and simply not spray. I would let those apples grow the way nature intended!
Well, within a few weeks, my beautiful budding apples were decimated by apple maggots. In desperation, I sprayed them all . . . but it was too late.
What I realized was that (a) going organic doesn’t mean doing nothing — it means actually working harder sometimes instead of going with the easy conventional method, and (b) we run to the conventional method because we’re desperate.
We run to vaccines because we don’t know how else to protect our kids from apple maggots, basically. And the propaganda reinforces that by reassuring us we’re doing the right thing. We’re protecting not only our own kids but other people’s kids, too. Until you start to read up on how pesticides on your apples equals more toxins in your body which makes you less healthy, more likely to get sick, and therefore not at all protected. (Sort of like vaccines . . .)
Propaganda plays on the fears of the uninformed. That’s why when I pass that poster at the community college I scold myself for being duped for so long. I should have known better. After all, rhetoric is what I teach!
And I teach it a little differently now, too. Our textbook tells students you can trust that .edu and .gov websites are unbiased. I tell them to scratch that out and remember that every website has a bias; they just have to recognize what that bias is. It’s the nature of rhetoric.
(When I called my doctor’s office and the nurse, worried that I’ve been duped about vaccines, told me to be sure and read the CDC’s website for unbiased information, I laughed.)
Sometimes I let myself get all dreamy and picture a perfect world where the government would promote herbs and vitamins and tell everyone,
“It’s your job to protect yourself from disease
by eating healthy, getting exercise and sleep,
and knowing what herbs to use to help your body combat illness.”
But that’s not exactly the easy fix, is it? The easy fix is to run for the pesticide and spray the crap out of those apple maggots — and right into our food, and thus into our bodies. And unfortunately easy fixes are also easier rhetoric.
It’s just too bad that I’m probably preaching only to the choir.
If you made it this far, please leave a comment. Please tell me what you think. This coming Tuesday I’m taking my baby to the doctor and will have to defend why I’m not going to let them inject one single thing into his body, so I need all the practice I can get at responding to whatever objections come my way.
UPDATE 11/13/10: After all the comments and emails I’ve gotten on this post in the last week, I realized I need to qualify my claim a little better. I am not claiming that vaccines don’t work; I’m claiming they’re like pesticides: yes, they are one way to keep the “bugs” away, but do you really want those toxins in your body if there’s an organic option? It’s like buying “conventionally grown” produce at the grocery store — if you’re okay with it, go for it. But I don’t think you should be persuaded to eat pesticides or get vaccines because of fear-inducing rhetoric. That’s all. Let’s let everyone make an educated choice.
UPDATE: I realized I should also post a link to my doula’s blog, which has a great series of posts about vaccines that first started to convince me I didn’t know the whole truth.
- Greene, Stuart and April Lidinsky. From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text and Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.