The Proper Tool for Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy: A Change of Semantics

A couple of days ago, I made the pilgrimage to my local Barnes and Noble. The 50% off post-holiday sale was certainly enticing, but my true motivation was to obtain an early copy of the latest National Review issue. While flipping through a mixture of editorials and calls to arms, I stopped on an extremely thought-provoking article, aptly named “Vaccine Mandates and the Body Politic.” In it, Ari Schulman builds a compelling case for why the current vaccination marketing campaign is ill-suited for persuading the unvaccinated. Put simply, the way we are encouraging vaccination today is a highly futile endeavor, because it appeals to all the wrong emotions.

Schulman first lays out his case by acknowledging that vaccine mandates have historical precedence. In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts could set mandatory vaccination laws for its citizens. In that case (Jacobson v. Massachusetts) the court ruled that “individual liberty is not absolute,” and that the safety of a community can triumph over individualistic beliefs.

Fast forward to today, and things look much different. As legal battles play out across the country over vaccine mandates, our local, state, and federal government has been unable to produce anything close to a universal solution. Lacking any clear guidance, many citizens and businesses must default to a position of voluntary choice, creating a whole host of other problems. To this day, many citizens are still unwilling to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and the pleas from their fellow citizens do little to convince them otherwise. As Schulman describes, these messages only appeal to self-interest, and view the community as an amorphous, distant object. “Protect others!” they say, and “it’s for your own good!” Yet, this language is precisely what should be avoided, according to Schulman. By turning the community into “others”, we make those same people appear nameless and faceless and thus, difficult to sympathize with. Moreover, when we overemphasize the personal benefit of vaccines, it can inadvertently encourage more hesitancy. After all, some would say, how do you know what’s best for me?

Instead, Schulman writes, society should stress our personal obligation to the “common good,” and should frame the vaccine in terms of civic duty, patriotism, and the love we have for our community and family. When put into this language, it gives a whole new purpose to our actions, and is arguably more effective at persuading those hesitant to the vaccine. One argument from Schulman’s work speaks directly to this point, and offers a compelling reason to take the vaccine. A father could choose to forgo the vaccine, but what happens when he gets seriously ill and passes away? In effect, he leaves behind a family with no father, an unstable upbringing, and ultimately, he may leave his family saddled with debt and medical bills. Likewise, the removal of a mother from the family causes irreparable damage to a child’s upbringing, and leaves them without a maternal figure in their life. Considering that many hesitant to the vaccine align themselves with conservative politics, this is one way to convince them to receive the vaccine, because it seeks to preserve the family unit.

Additionally, framing the vaccine effort as a patriotic duty is one of the greatest ways to bring us together. Schulman is absolutely correct on this point because individuals will only perform selfless acts if they feel truly connected to their community. Patriotism is helpful in this regard, because most individuals living in this country have an inherent desire to make it a better place. When individuals reject the vaccine, it only allows COVID-19 to linger and destroy our nation’s economy. After all, wouldn’t most people love to see their country performing at its best, with open restaurants, a strong economy, and a common sense of belonging?

This is the time for National Conservatism to shine, not excessive individualism. Our nation is at its strongest when there is strong social cohesion and not an atomized state. Schulman provides an analogue to this idea, showing how polio came to be eradicated in the United States due to a strong community effort, leaving far fewer children disabled as a result. But today, the vaccine campaign is off to a rough start, due to a series of missteps. In the Biden administration’s case, they have emphasized taking vaccines as a “patriotic duty,” but did it really make any airwaves? Moreover, White House statements have offered a grim outlook for the unvaccinated, but they fell short in addressing how that could impact one’s own family. Case in point, a simple vaccinate-or-die plea is woefully inadequate to convince many people to take the vaccine. Likewise, rhetoric that aims to shame people for not taking the vaccine will only alienate people more, and they will drift farther apart from the community we seek to uphold. Ultimately, what will prove to be the most effective is language that invites people to contribute to the community and the common good. Only then will we be able to keep our community healthy and unified to combat the COVID-19 virus.


Author: Connor Wasik

The views expressed are the author's alone and do not represent the official position of the GWCRs


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