Op-Ed: Adapting vaccine conspiracies to a philosophy of fiction

As a professor of philosophy specializing in language, it is my job to conceptually distinguish fiction from lies. Lies are lies told with the intent to deceive; fiction is a lie shared with no intent to deceive. My scholarly work examines how it is that we think ‘Hamlet is a prince’ is true even though ‘Hamlet doesn’t exist’ is also true.

I teach my students these distinctions – the difference between “fictional truth” and the truth. Yet, armed with this intellectual framework, I still can’t convince my own relatives that COVID-19 vaccines don’t contain microchips.

Why? Because psychological needs determine what they believe. We all need to feel safe, and conspiracy theories can provide certainty and comfort. More than a third of Americans are not fully vaccinated, and my research into the fiction helps me see that for some Americans, vaccine hesitancy is a rational reaction, a means to produce desired results.

I have the experience of being trapped in this kind of thinking. I was involved in a “church” for several years that showed all the usual signs of a cult. The charismatic pastor abused members of the congregation; we met every day to study the Bible, do exercises and “fellowship”; we were estranged from family and told we couldn’t trust our own thoughts. I knew something was wrong, but leaving the church was difficult because the cult served deep-seated psychological needs. I stayed for years.

While trying to reason with a relative last Christmas, I realized the microchip conspiracy theory – that COVID vaccines contain”the mark of the the beast” signaling the covenant with Satan — also served powerful psychological needs. One wants to be in control, chosen and special, “awake” during the End Times while the others “sleep”. Many of my relatives and their friends are Korean immigrants with limited English, had difficult childhoods, unhappy family lives, or are facing financial difficulties. Sensational spiritual beliefs make them feel secure in a way that life has not.

I’m sick of anti-vaxxers. But I see that cults and conspiracy theories are right about our needs. We all need something or someone to tell us that we are in control or at the very least that we are fine. And for some people, that means embracing misinformation and false theories because they seem to offer answers or explain things we don’t understand.

In my academic work, we debate how, and why, people react to fiction the way we do. We cry for people we know don’t exist from reading “Anna Karenina,” and we internalize the morality of the mob and think snitches deserve to die from watching “The Godfather: Part II.”

People react to stories and the meanings embedded in stories, regardless of whether it’s true or false. The line between fictional truth and “real” truth is not always clear in our minds and hearts. Take it from Akihiko Konda, a Japanese man who married Hatsune Miku, a manga character, in 2018.

Our emotional reactions do not distinguish between fiction and reality, and the same force is at play when it comes to conspiracy theories. “Here’s the thing with feelings – they’re so much easier to control than facts,” says someone in “The Matrix Resurrections” movie.

When emotionally compelling stories are presented to us and we are unsure whether they are being shared with the intent to deceive or not, it can be difficult to tell whether the story is fact, fiction, or a lie. To make reality even closer to the Matrix, social media platforms are perfect ways to confuse what is real. I keep telling someone she can’t believe everything she sees on YouTube. Part of knowing whether something is real or fake, fiction or non-fiction, is familiarity with a given medium, but we have generations of people without media literacy skills.

So what do we do? Unsurprisingly, demanding reasons for one’s beliefs did not work well with my relative. Talking about theology didn’t work either.

It wasn’t until I explained why I cared that she seemed to hear me for the first time. I told him that I was worried about his health; I said it didn’t matter who was right or wrong, just that she was safe. “I know you’re telling me to get vaccinated because you love me,” she repeated over and over, as if to let him in. “Yet,” she said, “you should remain vigilant.” Do not accept microchips. I accepted that I wouldn’t.

I don’t know if I made it in the end. I know I need another narrative to fight the false narrative, even if I don’t know how. For now, all I can do is hope that the conspiracy theory will be abandoned when it no longer serves an emotional purpose – just as I left the cult to pursue my doctorate in philosophy.

Hannah Kim is a professor of philosophy at Macalester College. @thisishannahkim

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