17 February 2022
Replying to the Anti-Vaxxers
A question of argument.
By Robert Kilconner
“Canadian backwoodsmen… What do you expect… False news eggs them on… Numbers speak for themselves… What numbers? Well I don’t know exactly but I have a friend in the NHS and they say… Right wingers of course… Mainly Trump supporters… My aunt says… Bang ‘em up… Natural selection, I call it… Don’t let them work ‘till they’re vaxxed… Not capable of listening… Why can’t they just think for God’s sake… Pass the chardonnay”
Recognise it? Yes, you have probably said it yourself and those who live in the Victorian terraces of Highgate and Camden probably come out with the same mantra at least once most days of the week. It is one of the noblest sounds you can hear in the civilised world, the sound of the intelligentsia berating those who are simply not thinking. Not in an unkind way, of course. It is not their fault that they come from the backwoods of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Paris or Essex and that their ancestors married their own grandparents. No, heaven forfend that we should sneer at old established cultural practices, even by implication. It is just the sound of the better educated pointing out to the less fortunate the error of their ways and, after all, if that is not a duty, what was that upmarket degree for?
Commentators will tell you that the modern trend is to replace argument with slogans picked up from the social media and populist politicians. They are partly right, of course; we do indeed follow soundbites rather than reasoning things out for ourselves but that isn’t just a modern phenomenon. Mere pressure on time has always meant that most people follow a party or fashion fairly blindly without thinking thorough the issues for themselves so that their views become those of their tribe. As W.S. Gilbert put it:
“Every little Englishman who is born alive
Is either a little Liberal or a little Conservative”
so things were much the same at the height of the Victorian age.
Getting led away and failing to think for yourself, that is the problem which the mantra at the head of this article purports to address and of course the criticism is aimed by the speaker at the anti-vaxxers, happily condemning the mote in the eyes of others. It will not occur to him, or her, that there is a mutuality about this and that the mantra itself is thoughtless and a rant rather than argument. Because, of course, the anti-vaxxers do have a point. You may not think it is a very good point, and it may well be that it is outweighed by other considerations, but a point it is and as such it should be met with argument and analysis rather than with abuse.
Let us try to look at it from their point of view. The first proposition is that governments are making the vaccine compulsory. Yes, I know that there is a difference between dragging people off and jabbing them and saying that they cannot hold various jobs or participate in the community in various ways without the injections, but in reality that is a lawyer’s difference. If you require vaccination as a condition of the way people live you are, to all intents and purposes, making it compulsory for them. To pretend otherwise is just pettifogging.
The second proposition is that some people who would not have caught the disease will be damaged by the injection. We all know that you feel grim after it. That means that your metabolism is affected in some way and the odds must be that there are a few who, because of particular vulnerabilities, will suffer some permanent damage. So far the evidence is that that is very rare, but be wary of assertions that it does not occur at all which are a little too self-serving and cannot be substantiated evidentially; the fact that the injections are relatively recent and that Covid itself has long term effects must introduce a sliver of uncertainty.
The third proposition is that it is not much of an answer to the anti-vaccination argument to say that those who are vaccinated should rejoice because they themselves become protected. We live in a society which generally allows citizens to take risks and, although there are exceptions – such as the obligation to wear a seatbelt – it is an important feature of our culture that they be permitted to do so. If that was not the case many activities would have to be banned and, although there are those who would support that either on the basis that the State should be able to dictate to citizens measures for their own good or that it would keep healthcare costs down, that is not generally an approach which commends itself to the public.
No, the real question is the extent to which the State should be able to force individuals to take a step which could conceivably damage them in order to safeguard the health of the community as a whole. The focus here is on the words “the extent to which” because there are already many obligations and constraints which an individual is obliged to accept for the good of his or her fellows. Many amount to no more than minor inconvenience but others, such as the obligation to accept conscription in a time of war, are very significant indeed. Is acceptance of the apparently very low risk of vaccination too high a price for the benefits it confers on society by containing the pandemic?
Most of us have had our vaccinations and would say that in the balance of a very slight risk of damage against public benefit, the latter far outweighs the former. That is probably right and it is certainly how the argument should be put. Ranting on about Trump supporters, backwoodsmen, and the rest of it will convince no one and by descending to the lowest level will simply add fuel to the fire of what is already an overemotional debate. Cool it and argue it sensibly, Ladies and Gentlemen.