A few years ago, I walked by an old Episcopal church on Capitol Hill that had a large banner hanging across its front entrance. Written on the banner was the phrase, “conversation not conversion.” The phrase regularly surfaces to my consciousness whenever I encounter someone with whom I disagree or who is simply different. It reminds me to listen, empathize, and allow a connection to be made.
This has been helpful particularly during the past six months as I have engaged in countless intense discussions regarding vaccines and vaccination policy in the United States with individuals on all sides of the issue. Only in a handful of cases have the exchanges ended badly, to the point where the conversation was broken due either to a misunderstanding, a poor choice of words that resulted in bruised feelings, or a refusal to just agree to disagree.
There is a human tendency to believe that one’s way of thinking and acting is the right way, that one’s way of being is the best way, and that one’s truth applies (or should apply) to all. This tendency leads people, organizations, and countries to assume that the primary reason to engage others is to convert them to the rightness of their ways and belief system.
The idea that conversation, in-and-of-itself, without any preconditions or expectations, particularly with those you disagree with, dislike, or fear has tremendous value is often seen as naïve or a waste of time. Sometimes it is even viewed as risky because it leaves one open to being converted or betrayed by the other. The idea of engaging in a conversation unmotivated by the intent to convert or “win” is sometimes seen as a sign of weakness.
The advantage of conversation as the endgame in the debate on vaccines and vaccination policy is that it allows room for discovery and perhaps different perspectives to emerge. Unfortunately, neither the ability nor willingness to have a civil, open, and mutually respectful conversation seems to exist at the moment between the so-called “pro-vaxxers” and “anti-vaxxers” and all those who fall somewhere in between. Often, there tends to be lot of noise, but little conversation.
Some of this inability and unwillingness originates from a way of thinking perhaps best exemplified by the following quote from Dr. Paul Offit: “I think it is not important to have a debate about the science with someone who clearly doesn’t know the science.”
I take the opposite view. On vaccines and vaccination, I don’t think we have a choice but to continue to converse and debate—mainly because so much is (and so many are) at stake, and, oh yeah… the science isn’t settled. Not by a long shot.