To vaccinate or not to vaccinate, that is the question . . . or is it, actually?
This week I witnessed a public conflict between pro- and anti-vaccination individuals and groups for the first time. The vitriol associated with this issue troubles me enormously, particularly as I look ahead, as I suspect we are all going to see a lot more of it in the days to come. Vaccinations generally, and COVID-19 vaccinations particularly, is a topic that many people hold very strong opinions about, one way or the other. Some people are emotionally tied to a particular position, others pragmatically aligned for or against, and surprisingly (to me), some people say that they don’t really have an opinion or don’t care about the matter at all. Most of you will already know I am pro-vaccination, something I’m happy to acknowledge.
My father said to me, and more than once, “never bring up politics or religion at a dinner party”. He always added, “or anywhere else, for that matter”! I am wondering now whether we may need to add vaccination to that list.
There are various elements of the debate that all of us may acknowledge or support, for instance, safety of the community, freedom to live, individual rights, or the safety of children. This support may be expressed quite differently between people, and with different strengths of conviction. For people who hold to a particular view, the opposing view may be nearly impossible to understand. This is going to create real difficulties for us as a community, a school, and a society.
A fundamental right of every Australian is the right to free speech. We do not live in the kind of society George Orwell sketched in 1984 where the government requires thought- or speech-compliance and conformity from all its citizens. As a democratic principle, I doubt the notion of free speech has many detractors. But the exercise of freedom of speech can create enormous conflict when views are strongly held and uttered, and the opposing view is equally passionately supported. Striking a middle ground requires hard work, compromise, and a willingness to concede that someone else’s point of view is sacred to them, just as we believe in the rightness of our own opinions.
Sadly, I think that vaccination is going to generate significant social unrest in Melbourne, across our state, throughout Australia, and probably beyond our shores in the weeks and months to come. It seems increasingly clear that we are moving into a world where people who are COVID-vaccinated will enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than those who are not. The unvaccinated may well face significant limitations and constraints on the way they wish to live, and may end up comprising a sort of caste. They may also feel socially excluded and shunned.
I find this prospect really worrying. Anyone who holds very strong anti-vaccination views, for reasons that make sense to them, will share my concern, and may well feel a considerable degree anxiety, stress, or anger at the prospect of having a different future from their vaccinated neighbours and friends. For those who are strongly or pragmatically pro-vaccination, the view they have of their future makes perfect sense to them: they have made what they are sure is a safe and responsible choice and deserve the freedoms we all used to take for granted.
So why spend 500 words laying out what is probably obvious to most, perhaps all, of you reading this?
The reason is that I think we may likely have some of these strong and opposing views in our school community. If we do, we will most likely also have debates that can become volatile. Words get said, actions get taken, things that can be corrosive to our sense of a united community, which is one of the most powerful things that has supported and helped our students, our staff, and our families through this extremely difficult last 18 months.
I have felt the unity of our community strongly during the pandemic and know how important it has been, not just to me but to all of us, staff, students, families, friends. It has buoyed us up and helped us cross the stormy seas of COVID-19 in way that my colleagues at other schools do not report. I believe we must hold on to this sense of shared purpose for the sake of our young people particularly, but also for our whole community, because this pandemic is certainly not over yet.
I want to make some suggestions about how we can approach what may be very different points of view from people we know, and in a way that preserves our commonality. How can we respond to radically different opinions when these differences cannot be reconciled to the views we hold?
I see the Compass Point of “Respect” as the foundation of our response. We can respect the right of someone to hold a view different from our own. We can respect the right of someone to think differently to ourselves. We can respect the right of someone to make different choices. It does not mean we must agree with them. It does not mean we are bowing to their views. It does not mean our own view must change or that it has less value. It means we agree to disagree, respectfully. I appreciate there is more to this with regard to COVID-19, with its touchstones of health and wellbeing, safety and freedom. But respect needs to underpin all our relationships and interactions, in and out of school, and the issue of whether or not to get vaccinated is no different, just potentially more difficult to manage.
I will be talking to our secondary students about this, reinforcing the value of respectful debate, diversity, and difference. It will be reassuring to know that in our school, we all are willing to acknowledge the enormous value we place in the diversity within our community, the value and importance of each of us, and the right of each of us to make our own choices, even when others disagree.
Factis non verbis