To Vax or not to Vax?

[This is a fairly radical re-write of the original article. Although some things were clear to me, they weren’t to others, which meant I didn’t manage to write it well enough to convey the simple core without losing nuances. So here’s another go… Thanks to all of those who provided constructive feedback.]

An imaginary interview with Peter Merry to try and explain why the societal divides about COVID and the vaccination question are so charged.

Host: Welcome!

PM: Thank you!

Host: As a philosopher and someone very engaged in societal issues, can you explain to us why the two sides of the COVID vaccination debate seem to be so polarised?

PM: Let me say first that the reason for me attempting to share some of these insights is to see if we can understand the dynamics and the people involved in them better. A polarised issue like that of COVID and vaccinations can go two ways. It creates a potentially creative tension between the poles. If we are able to hold the tension open and be curious as to its nature, we create the conditions for a breakthrough that would transcend and include the two poles. However if the two poles pull apart and we collapse the tension into opposition, then we regress into aggression and accusation, losing the opportunity to discover more integrative insights and solutions.

Host: So to clarify, you are not taking sides here, in terms of pro- or anti-, but looking to explain what is going on between these two positions?

PM: Yes, that’s right. And as I think we have all realised by now, it is a complex issue, people’s reactions being full of all sorts of different motivations. So we need to tease out this question of motivation a bit more – where are these various reactions coming from? It’s not as simple as pro- or anti-. Both sides contain a diversity of motivations and perspectives. To see through this, we need to understand a bit about how we as humans develop through our lives in terms of how we see the world.

Host: So different worldviews are creating different expressions of the pro- and anti- positions?

PM: Yes. There are four main worldviews informing the two poles. They are worldviews we as individuals and collectives evolve through during our lives. Using Integral philosopher Ken WIlber’s terms, we will call then ego-centric, ethno-centric, world-centric and kosmo-centric.

Ego-centric is focused, as the name would suggest, on the individual’s own self-interest. Ethno-centric focuses on the in-group that one feels identified with (and competes against other groups). World-centric focuses on the picture as a whole from a planetary perspective. Kosmo-centric see life as a dynamic interconnected process with patterns that permeate the whole universe. As individuals we may be informed by multiple worldviews at the same time. This table attempts to describe how the different worldviews would express the pro- and anti- positions.

Host: Ok. So each side includes some quite different perspectives!

PM: Yes, and that’s really important. Because some people will talk about the anti-vaxx or the pro-vaxx position. But there isn’t one position. I’ve just described four above and we’ll make even another distinction in a minute. In fact the people holding World-centric and Kosmo-centric worldviews may well feel they have more in common with someone on the other side of the argument who has made their decision from a World- or Kosmo-centric worldview than with someone taking the same position as them for ego- or ethno-centric reasons.

Host: No wonder there is so much noise and confusion in the discussion!

PM: Yes, and I’m going to introduce one more of the core dynamics underlying the debate. To do so we need to go back to some fundamentals of life. There are two core dynamics for any entity in life – its need to maintain and express its own identity and its need to have relationships with others. Let’s call them agency and communion (terms borrowed again from American philosopher Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory). We see them show up as individual and collective, freedom and responsibility, self-expression and relationship. Every thing in life, for it to be a “thing”, has defined boundaries and identity. In order for it to survive it has to keep those boundaries intact and its identity strong. To play its role it has to be able to express itself. That’s its agency. At the same time, it has to be in constant relationship with others, to fulfil its needs that it cannot fulfil itself, and to fit in to the whole that it’s a part of. Co-operation and collaboration are at least as important to survival as maintaining integrity. That’s communion.

Host: So a bit like yang as agency and yin as communion?

PM: Yes, you could say that. It’s a fundamental polarity in life. They both need each other.

Host: Ok. So how does that apply to people’s attitudes to COVID vaccinations?

PM: Well, these dynamics play out in humans of course, as much as they play out in everything in life. We each have our own identity and need to feel the freedom to be able to express that identity and play our role. That’s our agency. At the same time we need to have relationships with others – be it the baker, doctor, farmer to help us meet our needs, or more fundamentally someone of the other sex to be able to reproduce (even if that is through an anonymous donor, we still need that other person). That’s our communion. As individuals we tend to have a preference for one of these two elements, agency or communion. If we tend towards agency we emphasise the importance of the individual, their rights and freedom. If we tend towards communion we emphasise the importance of the collective, our responsibilities and cooperation. Our preference is of course influenced by the cultures we grow up in.

Host: So one can certainly see those different interests play out in the vaccination debate. Individual rights versus collective responsibility.

PM: Yes, but we need to be careful not to over-simplify. Because – you guessed it – the four worldviews all have a different take on the agency and communion preference! For example an ethno-centric expression of agency is ready to fight for its right to make its own choices, to protect those that believe the same thing. A good example would be the gun-owning community in the USA, who see their individual right to protect themselves and their beliefs as being above and beyond the collective desire to reduce the number of gun-related killings. An ethno-centric expression of communion would draw up its own rules and enforce them strictly regardless of what other communities do or think. The Chinese approach would be a good example with a clear with-us or against-us polarity and ruthless consequences for those who refuse to fall in line. A world-centric expression of agency would be one that encourages individuals to express themselves to the greatest of their potential while following the rules agreed upon by the collective. One might see the UK’s “freedom day” brought in by its right-wing Conservative Party government as being driven from this perspective – remove all COVID restrictions but still appeal to people’s individual sense of responsibility to do the sensible thing. A world-centric expression of communion would be to appeal strongly to individuals’ sense of care for others while bringing in regulations driven by scientists’ view of what is best for the good of the whole – from a virus perspective, but also from a mental health and economic perspective. The Netherlands’ approach would be a good example of this where the slogan in the background of all the press conferences is focused on tackling COVID together.

Host: It feels to me that this fundamental agency-communion dynamic also plays out along the political spectrum. Is that right?

PM: Yes, well spotted. Parties on the right tend to emphasise more the freedom of the individual and are often focused on empowering the individual to solve their own challenges rather than having the state create all sorts of collective regulations to care for them. Parties on the left however tend to emphasise more our responsibility to the collective, particularly solidarity with those who seem to be less fortunate, and want to give them a helping hand, by redistributing wealth to the benefit of the whole and creating laws that apply to everyone to try and protect the shared commons. It is of course a spectrum – the main worldviews at play in politics are ethno- and world-centric – and those on the more extreme end of the right spectrum (ethno-centric) would generally argue for the dismantling of the state as they believe things are better left to the initiative and self-organisation of the individuals. In the case of COVID that would imply no centralised rules imposed by government and definitely no coercion of any form in terms of vaccination. Those on the more extreme end of the left spectrum (also ethno-centric note!) would argue for more centralisation and government intervention, and forcing any unwilling individuals to come into line so that society as a whole can be protected. In terms of COVID this would of course mean compulsory vaccinations and other legislation to prevent the spread of the virus backed up by serious punishment for anyone who disobeys. This latter approach we can see most clearly in China. The former approach we saw very clearly under Donald Trump in the US, but since the left-leaning Biden has come to power centralised federal government intervention has grown.

Host: It would seem like the communion side is winning the day in terms of COVID?

PM: Yes. When you get a crisis in the collective, like a virus, then it is natural that a centralised government is going to enforce rules that limit the freedom of the individual as they feel a responsibility to the whole. The debate of course is how far they can go without suppressing too much of the natural need for agency. It differs of course per country. In the Netherlands, a country used to relatively great individual freedom, protest against COVID regulations and the vaccination has been consistent. Amongst the right-wing Republican community in the US there has been real resistance to government regulations. In the UK, which has more of a collective tradition, people have generally gone along with it and vaccination has proceeded apace. In China the population have had little choice.

Host: It feels like this all relates to conspiracy theories too…?

PM: Yes. But I am going to avoid that rabbit hole and point you to another article I wrote about that

Host: So how do we deal with this complexity then?

PM: Firstly, don’t collapse the complexity or the tension. We need to try to understand the deeper dynamics in the debate and hold all the perspectives in our awareness to allow insights to emerge that transcend yet include people’s real concerns. The trick of course is to create the best balance in the context of the situation. There are ways to appeal to both agency and communion needs in engaging something like COVID – collective responsibility and individual creativity. Think of it as a pendulum – the further you swing to one side, the greater the pull will be to the other, and the further it will eventually swing to that other pole. Artful governance would keep the pendulum as close to the centre as possible, moving rapidly in short swings between the two poles, constantly collecting data from both sides and integrating the best of both to create a dynamic and well-informed response. That of course is easier said that done!

Host: Indeed! But at least we now have a better idea of what is going on, and what the principles of an ideal response are. You have also given us a way to better understand the perspective that may not be naturally our own, which should lead to a more constructive dialogue and collaboration. Thank you for joining us today!

PM: You’re welcome and good luck!