An imaginary dialogue with Peter Merry being invited to a chat show to try and explain why the societal divides about COVID and the vaccination question are so charged.
Host: Welcome to the show!
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: Well, I can certainly share how I see one 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 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.
Host: Ok, in that concept of individual freedom I can feel the COVID tension emerging….
PM: Yes. 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. When we listen to the complaints of those who do not want to be vaccinated, then it tends to centre around it being a breach of the individual’s right to choose what happens to our body, often accompanied by a mistrust of governmental and commercial interests. Many of the related movements will use the word “freedom” in their names and slogans and see a conspiracy against them. On the other side, those who tend towards communion will argue that it is about taking responsibility for society as a whole, that getting vaccinated will help to stamp out the virus and return society to some normality, while also reducing the likelihood of you infecting someone else. They see the breach of their physical integrity as a price worth paying for the good of the whole. This is not about which one may be right or wrong, it’s about understanding one aspect of an underlying dynamic.
Host: It feels to me that this fundamental 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 and those on the more extreme end of the right spectrum 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 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 you 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. Certainly the communion force has dominated at the cost of agency, creating resistance to try and redress the balance.
Host: From what you just described it would seem to me that there are gradations in these agency and communion tendencies?
PM: Yes. Maybe the easiest gradation to see is what one might call ethno-centric and world-centric. 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: So how do we choose – agency or communion?
PM: The trick of course is to create the best balance in the context of the situation. There are ways to appeal to both 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!
Since publishing this there have of course been some quite passionate responses, some more constructive than others. It is a very sensitive issue. A number of points to clarify:
- This is not meant to be pro- or anti-vaccination. It is also not meant to cover all the complexities of the issues. It is meant to shed some light on one particular dynamic that one can also see across other issues.
- It is also not meant to suggest that everyone who leans more towards communion will choose to be vaccinated nor that everyone who leans towards agency will choose not to be vaccinated. It is a tendency that I have observed in conversations with individuals and in the responses of political parties but in no way of course is true for everyone. See the next point…
- I referenced ethno-centric and world-centric perspectives. I didn’t talk about what is referred to as “kosmo-centric”, or Integral and Holistic perspectives. They tend to be a lot more subtle and nuanced than any of the perspectives described above and also exist in certain communities but do not show up that much in mainstream discussions.
- To read more about how I relate to the whole conspiracy topic, check out this post.