When I was in high school, there was this tough ex-military type who taught us world history. He was a really cool teacher because he seemed very interested in the subject matter. When the intervention in Somalia started, he and I had a very good discussion on why Somalia was not so much about humanitarian relief as it was about a strategic position in the Middle East. It was a government-less country, so it was in the best interest of the United States to set up a few bases there and prop up a government in order to be able to intervene elsewhere in the Middle East without having to beg other governments for permissions or favors.
One day, a kid in class wouldn’t stop talking to his buddies. The kid was all pumped up over their upcoming football game and the teacher ordered them to cut it out. The teacher, by the way, still dressed very properly and cut his hair short. He was still a well-trained soldier, for all intents and purposes. Well, the kid didn’t listen. When the teacher said, “Not another peep out of you,” the kid decided to actually peep. Like, he really just said, “Peeeeeeep!”
“Is this really the hill you want to die on?” the teacher asked. He didn’t wait for an answer and ordered the kid out into the hallway. I was confused by that statement, and it wouldn’t be until recently that I heard it again.
I heard it again from a former basketball player on a radio show. The show guests were talking about a different basketball player who had decided to say some very homophobic things. When asked to defend his homophobia, the player cited his religion. To that, the former basketball player asked, “Is this really the hill you want to die on?” He went on to explain that there were many other sins committed by many other people, sins that were proportionately worse than homosexuality. Somehow, he explained, people are okay with an adulterer or a couple having sex before marriage, but those same people kind of lose it when a man fancies men or a woman likes women.
It has always been interesting to me which battles we take on and which things we let pass. My fight with the anti-vaccine people has been going on since 2009 when I got a lot of criticism and threats from anti-vaccine people over my criticism of Desiree Jennings. I found in them an enormous and dangerous bear that needed poking, and I made it part of my life’s work to do so. (In fact, if I only had one stick, I would break it in half in order to poke them twice.)
A few years after that, a close relative committed suicide. For several months, suicide prevention and gun control became a battle. I did research into those subjects and thought up ways to try and prevent suicides from happening, and guns from getting into the wrong hands. It was also around that time that I started inching closer to the thesis I am currently working on.
Then, just last year, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I traveled to Mexico to help him navigate the surgery and recovery for tumors in his large intestine. He had lost a lot of weight and looked really sick. This was the same man who could lift engine blocks and ride dirt bikes. All of a sudden, he was close to 100 pounds and very sick. The surgery was a success and he recovered well. Even with his colostomy, he has gone back to work and has gained back most of the weight he lost. After that episode, cancer prevention became my thing.
And then I see what goes on in Baltimore every day, and my thesis is revolving around it… So I’m back to gun control, injury prevention, criminology, and applied epidemiology. All those things are battles that I’ve decided to pursue professionally, and they’re all based on my personal experiences. But these are the big things in life. There are also little things, and those I choose carefully.
Just the other day, a student in one of the classes in which I am a teaching assistant wanted help after class. I stayed to help but she was being disruptive. After several attempts to get going on helping her and a handful of other students, I decided to just stop and walk out. I told them that I would be helping them in some other way at a later time because it was obvious that they were not in a position to learn at the moment.
I didn’t make a fuss. I didn’t yell at them like I wanted to. I just up and left. Arguing with entitled, “cream of the crop,” young adults is not the hill I want to die on. While I could stay and defend that hill, it would have been pointless to do so. They would not have learned, and I would have just wasted my time.
You have to choose your battles carefully.
With the recent political turmoil, I continue to wonder why people — some very smart and very capable people — choose some fights and not others. I’m talking about people on both sides, by the way. For example, a picture was being floated around by right-wing “news” sites of a couple of senators listening to a speech before a joint session of Congress. They were sitting and paying attention. However, these fake news sites were spreading the picture around with a caption that the two senators were sitting down while the rest of the chamber stood and applauded the wife of a fallen soldier. “Can you believe it?” they asked.
Well, if you look at the picture carefully, everyone around the senators was sitting down and looking straight ahead. The wife of the soldier was in the audience with them, so they wouldn’t have been looking towards the front. They would have been looking to the side. Additionally, plenty of other pictures were available of those two senators applauding during the actual situation. For some reason, plenty of people believed the lie. (Well, I know the reason… They want to believe that those two Democratic senators don’t care for the military, or for a grieving widow.)
Likewise on the other side of the political spectrum. A picture of an advisor to the president sitting on a couch with her feet up on the couch (no shoes) was circulating on social media. Plenty of people were outraged that she would have such “disrespect” for the Oval Office. They were incensed. They were angry. Yet everyone missed the fact that the picture was taken at a moment when presidents from Historically Black Colleges and Universities were in the Oval Office to ask for help from the president for their schools. They were not listened to and were used instead as a photo op by the Administration in order to counter the optics of it being a racist, xenophobic administration. Furthermore, a federal program to help HBCUs was moved out of the Department of Education and into an office within the White House, giving the president more control over how they get helped… Almost guaranteeing that they won’t get any.
That was the true thing to be outraged and angry about, not whether or not the president’s advisor had her feet up on the couch. But plenty, and I mean a lot, of people focused on that. They were on my social media feeds, on television, and on the radio speaking about her lack of respect for the Oval Office. Rarely did anyone mention when her transgression happened, or what was going to happen to the aid promised to the HBCUs. That was the hill they chose to die on.
But that’s us silly humans, aren’t we? There have been more gun-related deaths of American citizens at the hands of toddlers than terrorists since the attacks on September 11, 2001. So we set up the Transportation Security Administration to fondle us and go through our stuff at the airport. We set up counter-terrorism units to listen to our phone conversations and read our emails. We deny entry into the US for humanitarian reasons to people fleeing war, famine and pestilence. (Those are three of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, for those of you keeping track.) And we have people freaking out over Muslims so badly that they go on to shoot Indian immigrants.
We just don’t assess risks and benefits as well as we can, or we should.
Then, with all the things the current Administration is doing — with or without Russian help — we have people focused like a laser beam on the next idiotic thing that the current president puts out on Twitter. Meanwhile, environmental protections, civil liberties, and rights of minorities are being eroded. And there are plans in the works to take banking regulations back to how they were before the Great Recession so that predatory loans can start up again because we haven’t learned.
But, no, we don’t focus on that. We are outraged that a sentient bag of Cheetos uses his tiny hands to write tiny messages online, ignoring the things being hidden from us by those trivial bits of “news” put out not just by fake news sites but now also by the 24-hour news channels. We are fed tiny nuggets of things to make us hate people on the other side of a debate by dehumanizing them. “Look at those libtards,” they say. “They probably just got back from burning flag,” they add.
“Look at those Klansmen,” the other ones say. “They probably just got back from burning a cross on some immigrant family’s front yard.”
All the while, the things we should really pick up the phone and call our representatives in the government (at all three levels) are not being detected by our radars. And, so, we decide to die on indefensible hills, carrion to be consumed by the vultures with fancy suits and ties. Sad!
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
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