The woman’s distress is real. Over several hours I watch her pace and curse and sweat, racked by the kind of angst you would expect from somebody due a fatal diagnosis or whose loved one had been lost at sea.

The human instinct is to comfort – and I do try – but I already know it’s pointless. There’s nothing wrong. She is consumed with outrage at something that never happened.

The fact that I can so easily dismantle her concerns only reinforces her sense that she is one of the gifted few who can see the horrible truth beneath what the rest of us know as reality.

I am a brainwashed servant of a conspiracy involving the government, big pharma and the mainstream media. She is a crusader on a holy mission. She is also, of course, an anti-vaxxer.

I have given up on the idea that facts alone will change a zealot’s mind. Just as I have abandoned any notion that being a good, decent and intelligent person will immunise you against conspiracist paranoia.

Being obliged to spend time around devout anti-vaxxers has disabused me of the comforting idea that they are either disingenuous or rightwing nut jobs.

Yes, there are those on the right who exploit those ready to believe the world is not as it appears, but many of those I’ve spoken with would be horrified to be labelled right wing. They identify as LGBTQI+ allies, advocate for action on climate change, and honestly believe all the misinformation they’re spreading.

While there are undoubtedly rightwing elements involved my experience is that there is no coherent ideology linking these conspiracists. This is what makes them so frustrating to argue with.

Whenever a fact is reached, the discussion will shift to a different belief system, through coruscating levels of excruciating, nonsensical detail unearthed from online research.

This is a form of fundamentalism where what you believe isn’t as important as what you don’t believe in. Whatever is happening, isn’t happening. Whatever reality is, they’re opposed to it. Which, I suspect, makes the movement uniquely dangerous.

Looking at the images from Melbourne this week, as nooses are strung from streetlights, it can be hard to accept many of these protestors are – or were – good, decent people. But this is a key part of the problem. Being a good person excuses so much in the name of a noble cause.

A sense of righteous zeal means they feel they are at war, and so are justified in the most extreme actions. They can harass, they can abuse, they can spread half-truths in the name of their holy mission. They are doing this for the rest of us, fighting an injustice that nobody else can see. I hear a lot of “Why isn’t somebody doing something?” and “Why aren’t people angry about this?”

This devotion to a cause brings with it a great emotional investment. Their noble mission – whether it’s being anti-vaccine or anti-lockdown measures – is a core part of their identity.

Being mandated to receive a vaccine means suffering a great psychic injury – can you still be an anti-vaxxer if you’ve been vaccinated (and survived)? It means cutting out the most vital, zealous part of themselves.

When I tweeted about my recent experiences with the conspiracists, two things became clear. Many people found it confronting to acknowledge that anti-vaxxers or QAnon obsessives might be driven by noble motives.

How could good people string up nooses on Spring Street? But where some found outrage, others found comfort. For many, these ideologues aren’t distant characters on the evening news. They are our colleagues, our friends, our family. Many of us will be spending the festive season alongside someone with at least one foot in the rabbit hole.

I don’t know the way forward. I would argue for a long-term focus on critical literacy in our education systems. People who know how to read the media, with its biases and omissions, will be less fearful of it and less vulnerable to cranks. I would also argue for a greater focus on basic civics.

If we are to protect – or rebuild – our liberal democracy, people should understand how it works. The Trump election of 2016 empowered conspiracists by legitimising their ignorance – as if knowing nothing was a particular kind of purity or genius. I dread to think what the Trump election of 2024 might bring.

In the medium term, I suspect this particular issue will subside as the majority of Australians are vaccinated with no great impact other than the suppression of a pandemic. Many will continue to believe there was no pandemic, just as many continue to believe humanity never set foot on the moon. But the heat will fade from these beliefs as the trauma of the pandemic recedes. They will matter less.

As for the short term – how do we avoid setting fire to the family Christmas tree? It might help to focus on the person we love, rather than their arguments. A conversation shouldn’t be a battle for status or points, but a chance to find elusive common ground.

We don’t have to agree to understand each other.

In his excellent book Conflicted, journalist Ian Leslie offers a raft of useful advice about making arguments productive, a key point being that to disagree well we need to give up trying to control how the other person thinks or feels.

This is a lesson most parents learn eventually. You can tell your kid there’s no monster under the bed, but you can’t stop them feeling like there is.

All you can do is turn on the light, let them do the work and hope they eventually come to the right conclusion.



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