WWhat should we do with people who refuse to be vaccinated or who continue to deny that Covid is real? The debate on this topic has raged for months in the US. “Respect them! “scolded conservative commentators.”Embarrass them! “urged some. Others advised empathy for them like victims of disinformation.
But as the emerging Delta variant ushers in the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” uncertainty about how to persuade those resisting the pandemic has given way to anger and despair. This was exemplified by the recent public reaction to a viral news video showing a Louisiana man recovering from a severe Covid-19 infection in a hospital bed, indicating that he still would have preferred to have to be in the hospital rather than accept a vaccine. It was the first time that many of us saw the human face of a puzzling phenomenon that healthcare workers have been telling us about since last year: patients denying the realities of the virus even when they lay sick and dying from it.
As Leo Tolstoy asked of another seemingly desperate social problem, poverty, “what should we do then?” The sociology of fraud, one of my research specialties over the past decade, it offers some answers.
In 1952, the sociologist Erving Goffman analyzed the art of the scam in a seminal essay, On cooling brand. To understand the phenomenon, he identified a cast of characters: first, the “operator”, who perpetrated the scam; second, the “brand”, the target of the scam; and third, the “cool”, an ally of the scammer who tries to comfort the victim once the fraud has become evident “in a way that makes it easier for them to accept the inevitable and return home calmly.”
Goffman observed that all “brands” eventually come to understand that they have been defrauded. But, curiously, they almost never complain or report the crime to the authorities. Why? Because, Goffman argues, admitting you’ve been scammed is so deeply shameful that “brands” experience it as a kind of social death – the painful end of one of the many social roles we all play.
Instead, many “brands” simply deny the scam, claiming they were “in” the entire time. This saves your pride and cheats social death, but allows the scam to continue unchecked, trapping others. By prioritizing their self-image over the common good, “brands” make a cowardly and selfish decision. Goffman is not shy about calling this a “moral failure.”
In 2021, this “moral failure” takes the form of pandemic deniers and Covid-infected anti-vaccines ranting in hospital beds: they have chosen to save face rather than save other people’s lives. They could do this by telling the truth and exposing the scam, saying, “Covid is real, get vaccinated.” Some do. But many will not. It’s hard not to conclude that some are making a conscious decision to protect themselves socially and emotionally at the expense of the rest of us.
Goffman’s work suggests two parallel strategies for dealing with people who have engaged in misconceptions. The first is to let them experience the shame of what he calls “social death.” But the second, and perhaps the most productive, is identifying and deploying “coolers” to persuade those resisting the pandemic to return to the fold of mainstream society.
The most effective “refrigerators” are figures that “brands” trust, people whose opinion they value. Most people are not interested in gaining the good opinion of just anyone. Rather, we care about status and “face” within specific communities that matter to us, what two other mid-20th century sociologists, Herbert Hyman and Robert Merton, called “reference groups”.
They all belong to multiple reference groups, many of which overlap, including their families, neighborhoods, schools and workplaces, and their political affiliations. These groups not only structure our social networks, but they fulfill a control function: we generally trust the information obtained from our reference group and seek the approval of others within it.
Covid deniers and anti-vaccines are like everyone else in this regard: they do not yearn for validation or seek information from everybody. That is why the approaches of “respecting” them, “shaming them” and “empathizing with them” have not worked and will not change anything. Respect, shame and empathy only have validity and impact on specific social networks; the same goes for the reliability of the information. For someone who considers himself part of the “Fox Nation” reference group, the pandemic precautions recommended by the “lamestream media” should be ignored. But if the same information came from Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, it would probably be taken much more seriously.
From a purely pragmatic perspective, it is good news for all that some influential conservative figures are beginning to act as “coolers” in relation to pandemic resisters by encouraging vaccination, even if “coolers” have often been. , as in Goffman’s theory, complicit in the scam. The call to reality has to come from inside the house.
But there are still very few Fox News anchors and Republican politicians encouraging vaccination, masking, and other Covid precautions. We need more “coolers”, and we need them quickly.
One way to do this is by searching other reference groups in addition to the big ones in the media and politics, who are important to the deniers and anti-vaccines of the pandemic. Social media, as harmful as it has been for spreading misinformation, also makes it relatively easy to identify and sometimes join groups that foster anti-vax sentiment.
Within those groups, we can identify influential members who may be turning their backs on Covid denial and encourage them on their journey. We can message them offering support, especially if our reference groups overlap, whether that means sharing the same hometown or practicing the same faith. The more shared social space, the better. We could offer to support them if they control them for expressing their doubts about Covid denialism. Or we could let them know that we would admire them for telling the truth.
Those folks may not have a television audience in the millions, but they nonetheless have the potential to act as “coolers” for those in their target groups, both online and offline. The higher their status within groups, the more influence they will have in reconciling their fellow travelers with the reality of the pandemic, perhaps allowing them to re-enter society, or at least preventing them from endangering the rest of us.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism