Shame: An ineffective tool in motivating the unvaccinated

Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent

In the fall of 2020, I was infuriated to see then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rushing to seat Justice Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court just 35 days before the 2020 election. After all, he was the one who refused to even hold hearings on Merrick Garland, a moderate choice by any measure, because the 2016 election was nine months — considerably longer than 35 days — from Garland’s nomination by President Obama.

“Shame is a cage,” said one colleague to whom I was ranting about the hypocrisy.

She had a point. Once you stop feeling shame, you are truly free to do whatever you want. Say one thing, do another. Refuse to seat one Supreme Court justice, rush to seat another. Get drunk and curse in front of a bunch of kids at a baseball game. If you don’t feel shame, there are no consequences for those actions. If there are no consequences for your actions, you are truly free.

Sen. McConnell is just one particularly glaring example, but we all seek out reasons to do hypocritical things without consequence. I personally love the convenience of Amazon Prime, despite thinking their destruction of small business and mistreatment of their employees is a crime against humanity.

Since shame puts people in a cage, it’s also a horrible motivator. No one has been convinced to change their mind by having a dunce cap put on their head. So why would anyone believe that shaming the unvaccinated for their decision to not get the jab would motivate them to do so? Instead, it has the exact opposite effect.

You see it on the social media accounts and public testimonies of the unvaccinated, railing against mask mandates and the CDC. They’re all saying the same thing — “You won’t take away my freedom by putting me in the cage of shame.” They’ve planted their flag. It isn’t going to work, so stop trying.

I realize it isn’t very beneficial to only talk about what doesn’t work. We are still in a pandemic, and it has largely become a pandemic of the unvaccinated. If we are going to get out of this, we need more folks to get the jab, plain and simple. So let’s look at what could work.

Another thing we’ve heard from unvaccinated individuals is that vaccination is a personal, medical decision. This is absolutely true, which means their decision is going to come from individually motivating factors, like conversations with their loved ones and the medical professionals in their lives. Personally, the decision to get vaccinated was easy for me. My wife is a medical student, whose third year of school was dominated by talk of the virus. Since she works in a hospital system for her clinical rotations, she was vaccinated early. Her experience and expertise led me to get vaccinated when it was available to me.

Those who have loved ones who they want to see vaccinated should approach those conversations delicately, with an open ear and an un-shaming pitch for vaccination. “You don’t care about grandma” isn’t going to cut it. It’s time to open your ears, ask question and find the things that may help guide the unvaccinated toward changing their status. I have a loved one who was waiting for full FDA approval before vaccination. My response was nothing but encouraging. “Sounds great! I’ll let you know as soon as that happens. Glad you came to this decision.”

I understand that I’m now shaming the shamers, telling them that the way they’re going about convincing people to get vaccinated is counter-productive. Obviously, you have the freedom to get on Twitter and rant about whatever you like, and your anger is understandable. What about your freedom to go where you choose without worrying about getting a breakthrough case? What about your child’s freedom to do the same? After all, children under 12 can’t get the vaccine.

We all want to return to “normal,” whatever that is, and the quickest way is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

But if that’s what we want, it’s time to put shame on the shelf.

Conner Kerrigan is a communications professional, criminal justice reform advocate and contributor to the Missouri Independent, which first published this essay.

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