Sunday, September 19, 2021
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Sticks and stones

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IN MY youth there were three words that would chill me to the bone. They were ‘spastic’, ‘Paki’ and ‘homo’. They were used to indicate, derogatorily, a disabled person, a person who appeared to be of Pakistani descent, and a person who appeared to be homosexual. The word ‘Chink’, to describe someone who appeared to be of Chinese descent, gained traction. It was a time when inflammatory language was used to spread fear about Aids, contributing to a rising homophobia of that period and the battle then needed to counteract it.

What upset me was not the words but the intentions with which they were delivered. They were used, deliberately, to ridicule, denigrate and ostracise. I had felt that pain, too. I was an emotional child from a broken home. I cried a lot during my parents’ acrimonious divorce. My peers used this to mock me. They would imitate me weeping and call me a ‘crybaby’. This made me cry more. My mother would say, ‘Don’t pay any attention to them. Tell them, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.’ I tried not to let the words hurt but I failed, because while my mother was correct that words can inflict no physical injury, they were designed to undermine me emotionally, and they succeeded. 

Now it appears we have a Prime Minister similarly engaging in a verbal campaign to undermine people, seeding the word ‘anti-vaxxer’ in society to ridicule, denigrate, ostracise and even demonise any sceptics. He has encouraged the public to cast blame on – and feel hatred towards – anyone who questions any vaccination: ‘There’s all these anti-vaxxers now. They are nuts, they are nuts.’ Who gave him that script? Where did that opinion come from? 

The opposition (more accurately described as the egger-onners) have gone even further, calling for laws to punish dissent. Last year, the Labour Party demanded ‘legislation that would include financial and criminal penalties for companies that fail to act to stamp out dangerous anti-vaccine content’. No debate was called for; there was just an assumption that the whole country should unite behind the vaccine orthodoxy that says all vaccines are equal and sacrosanct. Or should we say all drugs that are labelled ’vaccines’ are equal and sacrosanct? Nothing about this position feels remotely scientific, rational or ethical.

In June, I was dismayed to hear Julia Hartley-Brewer taking up the meme. Though a great believer in freedom of speech and expression, she announced that while she was excited to go to the big London protest, she didn’t want to be associated with any ‘crazy anti-vaxxers’. What are your parameters for this, Julia? Is my friend who has fully vaccinated her children so far and has legitimate, well-articulated reservations about the ‘Covid vaccines’ because we have no long-term safety data an ‘anti-vaxxer’? Or perhaps you mean people like another friend of mine, a supremely educated and bright woman, who has eschewed all vaccines for herself and her family since researching their potential harms. I assure you neither of them is ‘crazy’. Is calling someone an ‘anti-vaxxer’ with ill-intended connotations not as narrow-minded and discriminatory as calling someone a ‘homo’ in a bygone era? One is reminded of the inflammatory language used to spread fear about Aids which undoubtedly led to rising homophobia in the 1980s and 1990s. What a huge uphill battle we have fought to counteract that.  

Public officials are entitled to encourage take-up of specific vaccines if they are satisfied with the evidence relating to their safety and efficacy, but they are not entitled to incite hatred towards people who – for whatever reason – decline a prophylactic treatment via injection and wish to broadcast the reasons for their choice. If the evidence for massvaccination against a specific illness is as strong as it should be, there will be nothing to fear from those who dissent from the consensus.

History has shown that fear of the unknown will always drive new ways of segregating society into ‘good/clean/safe/acceptable’ people and ‘bad/dirty/dangerous/unacceptable’ people. Our leaders should be the first to call out and contain this discriminatory practice, not exploit it to achieve their aims. Furthermore, each of us needs to look inside and question our own values and belief systems.  

Throughout our lives we are conditioned to believe that our validation comes from an external source. We await approval. We yearn for acceptance. We create groups and clubs and leagues to belong to, to give us status and value. We collect certificates, we receive awards, we await applause, we seek commendation. What most of us fail to recognise is that the only opinion that has any true worth is our own opinion of ourselves. Without a clear conscience, we do ourselves and those affected by our actions a grave disservice. 

A former MP I greatly respect said to me recently, ‘I may not have been right every time, but I only ever stood for what I believed in. I got many things wrong; but I always slept at night.’ In Don Miguel Ruiz’s life-affirming book, The Four Agreements, the first agreement is, ‘Be impeccable with your word.’ This doesn’t mean saying nice things all the time; it means speaking with integrity, and integrity is about finding the truth in your own heart, not subscribing to groupthink and popular trends. Find out what you truly believe and articulate it with conviction and grace. Don’t jump on someone else’s bandwagon and do their bidding.  

Whatever your view on the overall concept and practice of vaccination, whatever your opinion about specific, individual vaccinations, I implore everyone to stop using this heinous term ‘anti-vaxxer’ as a catch-all for anyone who dissents, by any degree, from vaccine orthodoxy. 

It is language used to ‘other’ people, to chastise, spurn and turn into outcasts those we don’t agree or identify with; it strips society of the humanity that never has it been more important to champion.  

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Anna Wright
Anna Wright is a regular columnist on TNE.

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