By Keisha Ray, Ph.D.
In a recent episode of his late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel, father and comedian, included a segment in which real physicians mock parents who do not vaccinate their children in a mock public service announcement. Because Kimmel said it best, here is a long quote from his opening segment:
“If you are one of these anti-vaccine people you probably aren’t going to take medical advice from a talk show host…and I don’t expect you to. But I would expect you to take medical advice from almost every doctor in the world…See the thing about doctors is they didn’t learn about the human body from their friends’ Facebook page. They went to medical school where they studied all sorts of amazing things like how to magically prevent children from contracting horrible diseases. ”
Kimmel then states that unvaccinated children can infect other children and says “but you know that’s according to doctors, so take that with a grain of salt.” Keeping with the doctors don’t know anything theme, Kimmel makes the claim that people who don’t vaccinate their children because they know more than doctors shouldn’t go to the doctor for any other reason. This includes cutting their head open because why would they want to go to someone who knows less than they do, “oh and by the way you should also let your kids smoke, why wouldn’t you? The only people who say not to are doctors and they don’t know.”
The actual mock PSA includes multiple real doctors stating the benefits of vaccinations and stating how many years they had to go to school to prove that they know what they are talking about. Then the PSA takes a comedic turn. Multiple doctors then repeat that there is “no reason not to vaccinate your kids” with one adding “which is why I cannot f****** believe that we have to make this PSA” followed by laughter. Another doctor chimes in with “I thought we settled this in the fifties?” Then another doctor says, which I found particularly amusing, “remember that time you got polio? No, you don’t because your parents got you f****** vaccinated.”
Like many others, practitioners and non-practitioners, bioethicists and non-bioethicists alike, I had a good laugh at this segment. In fact, I probably laughed harder than I should have, but I’m sure the only people that found Kimmel and his segment amusing are those who are not anti-vaccinations. In fact many people did not find Kimmel’s jokes amusing. After receiving a lot of criticism on Twitter, from who can be assumed to be anti-vaxxers, Kimmel aired another segment on a later show that included some of the angry tweets he received. So if those people who already see how ridiculous the so called anti-vaccination movement is are the people who are pro-vaccinations, then what is the point of mocking anti-vaxxers?
Comedians are underrated social commentators, so when a comedian like Jimmy Kimmel zeroes in on an aspect of American culture we laugh, but what are we supposed to make of it? I look to Richard Pryor and his comments on race for some answers. When he put jokes about police officers’ poor treatment of black people in his stand-up routines, he wasn’t saying anything that black people didn’t already know, so his true audience were people who either did not know about this kind of treatment of black people or those who denied that black people were treated this way by police officers. There’s no formal research to show what impact Pryor’s comedy had on changing race relations in America, but I do think that it is at least safe to assume that his celebrity status brought awareness to the issue.
Perhaps awareness is all that we should expect from Kimmel’s (and other comedians) mockery of parents who do not vaccinate their children against disease like measles. Perhaps using laughter to bring attention to actions that almost an entire profession believes to be potentially very harmful, yet supported by silly and unfounded reasons is all that we can do. We can use outlets like comedians who have a national platform to shine a light on how ridiculous parents sound when they say they have not and will not vaccinate their children.
Another reason why we mock anti-vaxxers could be the “shame them into doing what’s right” approach. We’ve tried to convince them by showing the benefits of vaccinations to their children and to other children, particularly babies who are too young to be vaccinated, and it didn’t work. We tried showing them how deadly these diseases can be and how easily you can be infected with the diseases, and still nothing. So if science and the professional opinion of medical practitioners doesn’t do anything to sway them, let’s humiliate them and show them how irrational and illogical their actions are. Hopefully, this mockery will show them the error of their ways and assuming that most people want to their actions to be guided by reason (a very big assumption on my part), they will change their behavior so that it is guided by reason.
The down side of mockery is that it could just make the problem worse. Just as much as people laugh at comedians, we also criticize their jokes, especially when they hit too close to home (think of how many people did not like Richard Pryor and thought him to be crude). Mocking anti-vaxxers can just add fuel to their unscientific arguments and give them a target—in the form of a tv personality—for their angry comments.
Mocking strangers is also a problem. For example, if I mock my sister’s new hair cut because it does not make her look good, there’s a chance that because of our personal relationship she will take my mockery in good stride and know that I have the best intentions for her. She will know that my mockery means “next time you cut your hair, you should not get that hair cut” and maybe next time she won’t get that hair cut. If I approached a stranger in the market and began mocking her hair cut, I may get a punch to the face or I may be called some choice words, but it is very unlikely that she will change her hair because of this encounter that she had with an outspoken women in the market. Because we are mocking an entire group of people, in which we have no immediate and personal connection to, mocking anti-vaxxers could not do anything of value or what would be even worse, mockery could make them believe in their case more.
There’s also the likely option that mockery is just blowing off steam. It’s a way for the opposing side, in this case pro-vaxxers, to share a chuckle with like-minded people. Or our mockery is just a mask for our fear of a resurgence of diseases once thought to be eradicated with simple medical intervention. Either way, laughter does have health benefits. Even if it cannot cure measles or shame parents into vaccinating their children, I say let the mockery continue and take solace in the years laughter is adding to our lives.