OPINION

Refusing the COVID-19 Vaccine.

Vaccination, safetyism, and the art of the conservative virtue-signal.

Many conservatives enjoy mocking the left for their frequent “virtue-signaling.” The term has been defined in different ways, but at its base, virtue-signaling describes any effort (implicit or explicit) to communicate one’s belonging (real or imagined) to a group through claims calibrated to that group’s membership. In particular, it describes appeals that convey some sort of moral superiority to those outside the group. The purest examples of virtue-signaling tend to be actions that the virtue-signaler frames as transgressive or culturally dangerous, but are actually expressions that conform to the dominant ideologies in our culture.

[V]irtue-signaling serves to remind one’s opponents that opposition does, in fact, exist.

A few examples are in order. Wearing a mask that reads “VOTE” to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 as you enter your polling place is a virtue-signal. First, the message is framed as an urgent one, even though the act of voting is commonly held as a virtue by Americans. Second, the mask masquerades as a means to encourage participation in democracy. But everyone else at the polls is there to vote already, so presumably, they don’t need to be convinced by the mask. Instead, the VOTE mask is a way to signify your support for the Democratic party and their candidates—the party that endlessly represents voting as if it is a form of dangerous transgression. Another left-wing virtue signal is the sign you may have seen around your neighborhood that says, “In this house, we believe…” followed by a bunch of widely-held platitudes that are either false, stupid, reactionary, or obvious.

But conservatives virtue-signal, too. Less than those on the left perhaps, but conservatives virtue-signal. This is because for all the criticism directed at virtue-signaling as a means to pander to ideological compatriots, people also signal virtue to send a message to those outside their own group. In those cases, virtue-signaling serves to remind one’s opponents that opposition does, in fact, exist. A great example would be the recorded instances when crowds at athletic events have learned that the National Anthem won’t be played (in genuflection to the “Take a Knee” protests), they have elected to sing it anyway. Or, when students organize visible displays of prayer in public schools that disallow it.

The growing wariness on the right about getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is quickly becoming a way that conservatives signal their virtue for exactly these purposes. Although I get a flu shot every year, I confess I have decided I will not get the COVID vaccine. I have searched my thoughts for what lies at the heart of this reluctance because I am not a fool, and I don’t want to take unnecessary health risks for the sake of scoring political points or feeling good about myself (which is the ultimate goal of all virtue-signaling). Below, I offer an explanation of why I will forego the vaccine.

But first, I want to begin by establishing for the reader that I am not a lunatic.

I believe that widespread immunity to COVID would be a good thing, if only to reduce the death rate among elderly people and other groups with special risks. I also believe that COVID would make me quite ill if I got it, although all of the data show that I would almost certainly survive it and make a full recovery. While I am greatly concerned about the willingness of governments across the country to enforce legally-questionable requirements like mask mandates and business closures, I personally don’t have any problem with wearing a mask (except mild annoyance at how it fogs up my glasses). I am happy that an effective vaccine has been developed, and I am proud that (as with so many great scientific breakthroughs) it was largely American ingenuity and drive that produced it. I do not believe that taking the vaccine entails any significant side effects, and I’m not with the crazies who think that Bill Gates is using it as a means to microchip us.

Nevertheless, I will not be getting the vaccine. To me, rejecting the vaccine is an affirmation of reason at a moment when reason is suffering a great deal of abuse.

Regardless of where one sits on America’s political spectrum, the current national mood is defined by anxiety, paranoia, and haste. Whether that concern stems from the Great Reset, the repeal of the Second Amendment, the alleged rise of alt-right, or the silly notion that President Trump will refuse to leave office, people are proposing sweeping legislation and reform with comparatively little rational reflection and deliberation. While the “warp speed” at which the vaccine was developed is laudable, there is no question that it went through an abbreviated approval process. Despite this fact, most medical and government authorities are encouraging rapid, widespread implementation. Resisting the vaccine is one way to pump the brakes on this increasingly hurried form of policy-making, which jumps from one urgent crisis to the next.

Hospitalization of COVID-19 patient.

Hospitalization of COVID-19 patient.

COVID-19 AND THE CONTRADICTIONS OF ‘SETTLED SCIENCE’

Public skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine stems from the fact that key representatives of at least three major institutions have failed Americans in the last year: medical experts, government officials, and the media. All of them vacillated in terms of the advice they gave the public. In some cases, this was because they apparently weren’t sure what to do. In others, the inconsistency was clearly due to an elitist outlook that assumes the rules don’t apply to them. Either way, their actions did not inspire public confidence in the authorities. Skepticism about the vaccine is a rational response when the experts and officials consistently send mixed signals regarding the severity of the risk.

[T]he equivocations of the experts and public officials have ensured that first, the possibility of ever going back to “normal” is much diminished, and second, it’s unclear that they even want to do so.

Perhaps more than anyone else in the early stages of the pandemic, citizens looked to the medical community. These “experts” told us at first that a typical mask was useless in stopping the spread. Then, after reversing course, they told us that some face covering (no matter its composition) was absolutely critical—going as far as to suggest that people who resisted that advice were bad people in general. On top of all that, Anthony Fauci (a leader on President Trump’s COVID Task Force) admitted this week that he lied to the public about key information due to opinion polls. This compounds people’s mystification as to why Fauci will wear a mask while throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game, 90 feet away from the nearest person, but when he sits down immediately next to friends in the stands, the mask comes off (figuratively and literally).

But it wasn’t just Fauci. Remember how we were told that the virus was heat-averse and that the summer weather would likely stop most transmission? By summer, we were told that we would have to wear masks until a vaccine was available. And now, ten months after medical experts first told the public that masks were ineffective, the restrictions continue. But when the approval of the vaccine was announced, only days after the presidential election, the news was immediately followed by experts maintaining that the restrictions will need to persisteven after much of the population is vaccinated. Although hospitals have not been overrun, and the medical community has refined very effective protocols in treating those who contract COVID-19, regulations meant to reduce infection rates have not eased. At a certain point, it is rational to assume that these precautionary efforts are serving purposes that extend beyond health concerns.

Government officials did no better than the medical community in securing public trust. In March of last year, we were asked to observe a lockdown for “two weeks to flatten the curve” of infection rates. That turned into more than a month as the draconian measures dragged on, ruining the Fourth of July. Now, with the spring of 2021 weeks away, the incoming Biden administration insists the worst is still ahead of us and speaks not a word about when prevention measures might be lifted. And of course, there were also the reports of restriction-happy politicians flouting the rules at will. One of the main incentives for healthy people to get vaccinated was so we could go “back to normal.” But the equivocations of the experts and public officials have ensured that first, the possibility of ever going back to “normal” is much diminished, and second, it’s unclear that they even want to do so.

[Those] who now implore everyone to get a brand new vaccine to a newly discovered virus have done very little to inspire the confidence of the public.

All of this is to say nothing of the media’s selective alarm at the risk of transmission and their selective vitriol for those who might increase it. Their hypocrisy about who will be allowed to flout the rules can’t be missed. A few dozen maskless protesters at the Michigan statehouse were scourged as a threat to civil society, but thousands of maskless protesters and rioters in crowds were valorized by those same media outlets who did the scourging. We saw this again during the presidential campaigns: President Trump’s huge rallies were depicted as “superspreader events” and more evidence of his dangerous “anti-scientific” views, while Biden was lauded for “following the science” and staying in his basement. Of course, when the media usurped the power to decide the outcome of the election and announced a Biden victory en masse, there was no chiding of the spontaneous formation of maskless crowds partying in the streets of Manhattan or Washington, DC.

The vaccine’s distribution is itself becoming a way to signal virtue. How else to explain the number of medical professionals who are saying that racial and ethnic minorities should be prioritized in getting the vaccine? This bias was explicitly stated in a variety of outlets, but a medical expert quoted in the New York Times serves as a shocking example: “Society is structured in a way that enables them [white people] to live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.” After years of chasing phantoms of formal, institutional discrimination in our society, our health officials and their media now propose such discrimination as a form of justice. (As a white male, I see some irony in this. Some of the people who say that I shouldn’t have equal access to the vaccine will be the same people who will be scandalized by my refusal to take it when my turn finally arrives.)

Representatives of the medical profession, the government, and the media who now implore everyone to get a brand new vaccine to a newly discovered virus have done very little to inspire the confidence of the public. Quite the contrary: they have done much to undermine it. A part of my resistance to vaccination, then, is that the officials and experts have lost my trust. But even more than their hypocrisy and the constant moving of goalposts, my unwillingness is due to the rapid proliferation of dangerous ideas related to safety and risk—and the implications that those ideas have for individual liberty.

Times Square, New York, empty.

Times Square, New York, empty.

AGAINST SAFETYISM: PERSONAL RISK AS THE COST OF LIBERTY

Perhaps even more compelling than the unreliability of public health experts, the data that indicate about 99% of Americans who contract this illness will survive it offers the most compelling reason to skip the vaccine. Yes, each human life has value, and reducing the loss of life is a noble effort. But our present attempts to do so smack of authoritarianism, and the economic, familial, educational, and spiritual costs of lockdowns are incalculable. Our response to COVID-19 is one example of a disturbing trend some have called safetyism: the idea that all of the inherent risks that life entails must be reduced, that state power must be mobilized to mitigate those risks, and that any intervention that reduces those risks to any degree is justified.

The false promise of a “risk-free” world is unconvincing.

This trend toward safetyism is evident across our culture. You must wear a bicycle helmet. You must be 48 inches tall to ride this ride. Viewers with epilepsy should exercise caution before attending this film. One child with a peanut allergy is enough to ban peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for an entire class. But the advocates of safetyism are hypocritical: they will demand major efforts to circumvent comparatively minor risks (like those alluded to above) even as they resist certain efforts to mitigate major risks when it frustrates their policy aspirations. Abortion serves as an example of this sort of selective safetyism. Some of the people who want to impose every regulation in favor of “safety” also claim that requiring an abortion facility keep a staff member with hospital admitting privileges is an egregious infraction on individual autonomy. This cherry-picking of which safety risks require state intervention is itself one of the most pressing threats to liberty as it has been conceived in the American tradition.

Refusing the vaccine can therefore be considered a symbolic refusal of safetyism. A virtue-signal, if you will. It is an affirmation that living as a free person requires some assumption of risk. It is a rejection of the idea that living in comparative “safety” is worth surrendering our right to govern our own lives to the state—our right to make our own decisions about which risks are acceptable.

Some will say that I should get the vaccine in order to reduce the risk incurred by those who are uniquely vulnerable. Thinking about my aging parents, or my mother-in-law, who is still recovering from chemotherapy, and I see the merit of this line of thought. But I only have the pleasure of seeing them a few times a year, and other precautions can be taken on those occasions. The false promise of a “risk-free” world is unconvincing.

Although refusing the vaccine is rationally justifiable, I would be lying if I said that I don’t derive some pleasure from the frustration of those who want me to be vaccinated. It is true that my lack of immunity (very minimally) amplifies their risk. But I think the minimal degree to which I amplify it is actually beneficial to those who are scandalized by my decision. It forces people who are ready to trade their own autonomy for government-ensured “safety” to reckon with risk—and respond to it. In short, it demands that those who are prepared to surrender a fraction of their freedom exercise their liberty by deciding how and whether to interact with me, instead of demanding that I jettison mine so they can feel safe.

COVID-19 is real. Denying that fact denigrates the many people who have died of it. But the authoritarian impulse that is evident in the official response to COVID represents a greater danger to the nation than the disease itself. Given the circumstances, refusing the vaccine is a virtue-signal that I am willing to own.

Written By:

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston–Downtown, where he studies rhetoric, writing, and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him at adamellwanger@gmail.com, on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger, or @TheHereticalTruth on Parler.