Guest columnist James Boddy: We dismiss freedom of choice at our peril

  • In this April 26, 2021 file photo, a nursing student administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center at UNLV, in Las Vegas. AP

Published: 2/1/2022 1:47:35 PM

Perhaps you’ve noticed the extraordinary degree of vitriol currently being projected onto people who’ve chosen not to be vaccinated.

Recently, Lou Conover opined in these pages that “at every level of society we should be free to discriminate against the unvaccinated.” Expressing a similar sentiment, Robert Weir labeled the unvaccinated “a foolish but vociferous minority” with a “warped belief that ‘freedom’ includes the right to spread disease.”

Perhaps when reading these columns, a small part of you hesitated. Perhaps a voice inside said, “Wait ... I thought we were against discrimination in this Valley? I thought inclusion was for everyone, regardless of point of view?”

We’re all frustrated and fed up with the ongoing pandemic. We all want it to be over, yesterday. But abandoning our longheld values is not the way to get there. Before you dismiss this argument as yet another vociferous outpouring from a member of the foolish minority, please know that I write this as someone who made the choice to be vaccinated.

There’s a tendency in human beings — magnified in times of stress — to find a target to blame. We look for an identifiable group to “other.” Then we dehumanize that group, projecting all our fears and anger onto them. This is what we’re now doing to the group of people who’ve chosen not to be vaccinated.

Language matters here. Even the phrase “unvaccinated” implies people who are lacking something, are less than. In the popular imagination they’ve become the unclean, the source of infection. Never mind that the data says you can catch and spread COVID whether you’re vaccinated or not. Never mind that in many cases people have legitimate health reasons that have informed their choice: an allergy to vaccine ingredients, a history of adverse reactions, a health provider who has recommended caution. None of this matters in the public consciousness. The unvaccinated are bad, the source of all our woes.

We’ve been here before as a society: the Salem Witch trials; McCarthyism; post-9/11 Islamophobia; and at the start of the pandemic, anti-Asian sentiment stoked by leaders who should have known better.

To illustrate the perilous road we’re on, take a moment to replace the word “unvaccinated” with “Communist,” or “Mormon,” or “obese.” Would we accept columnists explicitly advocating discrimination against these groups? Of course not. We might find it hard to find common ground with them, to understand their choices or their worldview, but we would rightly reject calls to discriminate. We’d call this hate speech.

Freedom of thought and expression, of religion, of choosing what’s right for oneself and one’s family are fundamental principles of this nation. They are central aspects of our founding story. We dismiss them at our peril. A colleague of mine based in Hong Kong told me of the moment he was contacted by the authorities after becoming an inadvertent COVID close contact. He was given 15 minutes to pack a bag before being taken by police car to a government internment camp, where he spent the next 14 days in a cramped, airless room. His protests at having a newborn child in the home, and a partner who needed his support, were waived away. It’s not hyperbole to note that it’s a truly slippery slope from here to there.

My recommendation for a way forward? Follow the better angels of our nature. Seek to understand not judge. Get curious about the reasons why someone might choose not to be vaccinated. Accept that people are entitled to health choice. Engage them in an open-minded dialogue if they’re willing. Then recognize that this pandemic will be over when we collectively decide it’s over — a moment that will come far sooner when love and reason prevail, not fear and hate.

James Boddy is a former human-rights barrister, now working as a leadership and organizational development consultant. He lives in Northampton with his young family.


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy