How to understand Marianne Williamson on vaccines, (and why you should)

I have no general brief to make for Marianne Williamson, but she’s come under fire from skeptics for remarks she made during a panel discussion about vaccines on Real Time with Bill Maher, and I think this criticism completely misses the point. I see what she was trying to do on Maher She IS pro-vax. She’s speaking to a very specific audience, trying to move non-vaxers to get their kids the MMR to slow the epidemic. She’s using a textbook persuasion strategy for this, exactly the way we teach it in Public Speaking class (which is why I’m so sure of her actual position). However it winds up being ineffective, in part because it’s a weak method for use in a panel discussion, and in this case more so because she’s not assertive or emphatic enough to get over the noise level, emotional loading, and general stupidity of Maher and guest Amy Holmes from the Glen Beck TV network The Blaze. (Oy! They were SO obnoxious!)

From the perspective of rhetorical criticism, you can’t evaluate an argument without knowing who the speaker is, and who they’re trying to address. Williamson is an ‘odd duck’ occupying a unique niche in the domain of “spiritual teachers” in that she combines “The New Spirituality” with an explicit democratic-socialist politics. If this seems out of the mainstream, it is. A lot of “spiritual” types will balk at the politics, and a lot of D-Soc types will balk at the spirituality. But enough people can fit those pieces together that she has a following, and those are the folks she’s trying to reach.

Though she makes delivery mistakes, the rhetorical plan of her opening statement is actually a minor masterpiece of how you set up an argument for an audience you suspect will not welcome your thesis. There are 3 goals for such a set-up:
1) Establish credibility on the listener’s terms (you can trust me!)
2) Establish points of identification and sympathy (look at the beliefs and values we share; we’re more friends than you might think!)
3) Set up terms of discussion — language and logic frames — that will favor your thesis when you get to it. (Well, you’ve already agreed to the basic principles…)

So here’s her opening, annotated:
Maher whines about the media telling the ‘vaccine skeptics’ to STFU, likens it to the “don’t ask questions” approach to the Iraq War, and asks if that bothered anyone else. Wlliamson answers:

“It bothered me because the implication was if you had any skepticism whatsoever, you were anti-science. (ANTI-SCIENCE IS INDEED BAD). And I think there’s a difference between having skepticism about science and having skepticism about the pharmaceutical industry. (YOU CAN BE SKEPTICAL ABOUT CORPORATE CAPITALISM, BUT YOU SHOULDN’T BE SKEPTICAL OF SCIENCE, AND THEY’RE NOT THE SAME THING) I think that even though my child was vaccinated I think there’s public health issue that over-rides individual liberty here. (MY KID IS SAFE, BUT WE NEED TO PROTECT EVERYONE’S KID.) Even though I don’t want the government as a rule telling me what I can do and can’t do with my body for medical purposes, (I’M NOT STUPID ENOUGH TO TRUST JOHN BOEHNER WITH MY HEALTH) at the same time… I think the government has earned our distrust (IRAQ), the pharmaceuticals have (VIOXX)… This is the problem when institutions lose their moral authority. (VACCINATION IS A MORAL ISSUE) We know that the government has suppressed information and withheld information, we know that the medical establishment has suppressed information and withheld information, (this she phrases poorly; she’s not talking about vaccines, or about any kind of medical science really, but that’s not clear enough) where so at this point, even when they say something we should listen to, (See the judo? YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THEM ON THIS, AND VAX YOUR KIDS!) people have a skepticism and that’s the real problem. (BUT IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT YOU HAVEN’T GOTTEN THE MESSAGE YET) This is what happens when we don’t believe our government enough and we don’t believe our medical establishment enough. (IT’S NATURAL THAT DISTRUST OF CORRUPT POWER IS BLINDING YOU TO SCIENCE) The answer is not to tell we’re kooks, but for them to get their act together so that they are more trustworthy again. (AND I’LL TELL YOU HOW THEY CAN GET THAT TRUST BACK, IF I HAVE THE TIME.)”

No, YOU may not have interpreted it this way, but then she’s probably not talking to you. She’s talking to people who might attend this upcoming event she’s organized featuring Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Lisa Bloom, and Cenk Uygar.

Hint: Watch this clip from the end of the ‘Overtime’ of the Maher show that appeared on his blog, but not on the air.

That’s her answer to the government and the healthcare system getting their act together so they’re more trustworthy again.

On 2/10/15, Respectful Insolence  commenter Jen Phillips wrote:
“I really don’t get the distinction between ‘skepticism about science v. skepticism about the industry’. If you think the science behind vaccination is sound, but opt out of the vaccine due to distrust of the industries who did the studies, aren’t you expressing skepticism about the validity of their science after all? ”
No, not at all. First, Williamson isn’t necessarily addressing folks who have opted out by getting an exemption. She’s smart enough to know that’s a really steep hill. She’s aiming more at fence sitters — people doing delayed schedules, who haven’t taken the kid in because they’re still waffling, folks with kids on the way trying to sort out stuff they’re just beginning to ay attention to. And, again, her peeps are basically socialists — which, pretty much by definition good things will come from bad companies. They love their iPhones, but hate the way Apple has them manufactured in the 3rd world. Basically, ALL corporations are bad because they extract surplus value from wage slavery, and engage in questionable marketing/promotion strategies. Marxists love scientific progress. They also don’t go in for conspiracy theories. The trouble with pharmaceutical companies isn’t that there’s some ‘Big Pharma’ cabal doing evil with malicious intent. It’s a structural feature of the economic system that can only be addressed by systemic reform (e.g. single-payer full-coverage universal health care… and maybe nationalize the pharmaceutical companies while we’re at it.

Anyway, back on Maher, the loud-mouths blab away, and it’s four minutes before Williamson gets to speak again. She begins with a bit of ‘people have had concerns about vaccines for decades, which I understand’ (hailing the non-vaxers, but defusing the autism scare), then gets to her point:

MW: “It’s an upside of the American mind that we don’t buy everything we’re told, necessarily. It’s a downside when we think nothing we’re told could possibly be true. So I think there’s a skepticism which is actually healthy on this issue of vaccinations.”
[Maher tries to interrupt, but this time she cuts him off and plows ahead.]
MW: “But on this one the facts are in about measles. We had eradicated it. We need to get our kids back safe.”

Except the end of that sentence is cut off by Maher, literally drowning out the word “safe”. He realizes Williamson has just stabbed his his anti-vax schtick in the heart, and will keep twisting the knife if he lets her keep talking, so he starts off on a long rant about ‘long-term reduced immunity’ bollocks, then hands off to Blaze-ing Amy for some nonsense about the over-protection of children, and it’s blah, blah, blah for the rest of the segment Williamson doesn’t get to talk about vaccines again. At the very end, she applauds when Maher cracks on Monsanto, and makes sure she gets 30 seconds to extoll the healing power of spirituality:
MW “People who have been diagnosed with life challenging illnesses who attend spiritual support groups live on average twice as long after diagnoses, and that has been established by the most prestigious academ….” [Fade to black before she can finish.]
Yeah, you can find a number of those studies on PubMed, and IDK what the journal reviewers are smoking to miss the lack of proper controls. So it goes.

As I noted above, I wouldn’t say Williamson ‘scored’ here – even her intended audience might not have really ‘heard’ her above the noise, or put the pieces the pieces of the stream of thought together amidst the fragmentation of the ‘debate’, errr dogfight rigged to Maher’s advantage. More importantly, she really only got far enough to state the thesis. That’s not enough. The strategy requires proper supporting material, and a strong restatement of the thesis at the end – so it appears fully rational and properly justified. Basically, the idea is you get the audience to ‘nod their heads’ as you provide the supporting case, which is also giving them time to let the whole thing sink in. Then, at the end, you need to reinforce it, and it’s connection to the ‘on your side themes’ you offered at the beginning… There was no chance for Williamson to do any of that, and of course, I don’t know if she would have. Perhaps she will more to say about the subject at the event with Sanders, Kucinich, Bloom, and Uygar. (?)

But I’m not here to lionize Marainne Williamson. I’m in the group of folks who dig the left-wing politics, but can’t stomach the ‘spiritual teaching’ or ‘age of miracles’ stuff. And the poster cards with the saccharine affirmation statements just make me want to puke. But in the war against a potentially deadly measles outbreak, I’ll take any ally I can get, especially one with a tactic that might work on folks ‘the usual suspects’ aren’t able to reach.

Three, actually:

1) In the center of calling out to her anti-capitalist audience, Williamson said, “I think there’s public health issue that over-rides individual liberty here.”
BOOM. Find me another public figure who has stated the issue to clearly and unequivocally. That’s what we need more people to say, and it’s not going to help anything to slam anyone who says that. (Even if they’re just doing it to sell seminar tickets and books.)

2) Williamson has just demonstrated how you craft an effective appeal to left-leaning fence-sitters. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anyone in the SBM/skeptic circle to come out with the kind of anti-capitalist language she used. But the ‘objective scientist’ can still say ‘I understand why you don’t trust big corporations’ and use the strategy of separating that generic distrust of the profit motive from the specific products produced by capitalism. The problem is not the thing, or the science behind the thing, or (especially) the employees who make the thing (labor); the problem is the system under which the thing is made and the way some things are sold. Establish that common ground (you are not a kook for raising an eyebrow at how Merck does business), and the thesis becomes a much easier sell:
There’s a public health issue that over-rides individual liberty here. The facts are in about measles. We had eradicated it, but socially irresponsible behavior has brought it back. We have a collective moral responsibility to get ALL our kids back to safety.

3) If you have an argument that can flip even 10% of an audience leaning the other way over to your side – or move any significant chunk of the audience from passive agreement to action – you don’t worry AT ALL about feeding the conformation bias of your opponents. Because they’re already against you, 90-10 is a lot better than 100-0, and you can only go one step at a time. (In any real political campaign a 10% flip on leaners is absolutely huge.)

P.S. Just posted to Willimason’s FB page from a self-labelled “long-time follower”:

I was appalled and surprised at Marianne’s endorsement of mandatory measles vaccines on Bill Maher’s Real Time last week.”

But ‘long-time follower’ turns out to be a troll for a far-right-wing “health freedom” group of anti-vax quacks. Maybe Williamson scored some points after all.

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