Calling Unvaccinated People 'Stupid' Endangers Us All | Opinion

"Stupid is as stupid does."

It's a sentence I've seen posted repeatedly over the past few weeks by many of my friends, most of whom are generally decent and reasonable people. And yet, suddenly, these good people feel no compunction voicing their utter disdain for some of their fellow Americans—specifically, for the unvaccinated.

It has become de rigueur to insult those who haven't gotten vaxxed against COVID-19 in the most insulting terms. Making fun of unvaccinated people who die from COVID has become something of a sport. We make it clear that we have no sympathy for those who chose poorly, regardless of their reasoning. They get what they deserve. These stupid people are the ones holding us back from returning to a normal and unfettered existence.

It has to stop, if for no other reason than that it endangers us all.

Of course, I get it. For those who are vaccinated, it can be difficult to understand why so many people would completely reject something that can save lives. After all, report after report tells us that the majority of those currently hospitalized are unvaccinated at this point.

I, too, am struggling with this. A lovely 50-year-old woman I knew many years ago died of COVID complications last week; just a few months ago, she had posted on social media that "Unmasked, unmuzzled, unvaccinated, unafraid: together we win." My heart fell when I read her post after her death, and I was struck with the debilitating sadness of it all. Had she been vaccinated, it is quite likely she would still be here.

But it didn't cross my mind to call her stupid or to mock her. And it shouldn't cross yours, either—not just because it's mean spirited and cruel but because it's counterproductive and puts lives at risk.

If you're angry that some people aren't vaccinated, shaming them and labeling them stupid or intellectually inept isn't going to make them want to get vaccinated. It will have the opposite effect.

When was the last time you were mocked or humiliated into changing your mind?

This penchant to shame people or insult them for not following our lead is an utterly cruel characteristic of a growing segment of our society, and it says quite a lot about who we are as a people. We are callous and self-righteous. Though we constantly go on about how much we care about homeless people or communities of color or migrants at the border or women in Afghanistan, the truth is that our compassion is highly selective. If it doesn't serve a political agenda to demonstrate empathy, then it need not be demonstrated at all.

It's understandable that some of us get angry when people seem to reject the obvious. But what is obvious to us may not be as obvious to others.

Is it really so difficult to understand that some people, while not fully opposed to the vaccine, are simply hesitant or not quite ready to be vaccinated? The group of people we like to refer to as anti-vaxxers—those who oppose all vaccines—is actually quite small. And yet we've made them entirely culpable for the fact that we can't return to "normal."

Anti-Vaxx Protestors New York
A judge issued an order temporarily blocking New York's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for medical workers after a group sued, saying it was a violation of their rights. A small group of anti-vaccination protesters gather outside of New York-Presbyterian Hospital on Sept. 1, 2021 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We have neither patience nor understanding for the vaccine hesitant, and so we call them anti-vaxxers and shut down the conversation. This is the opposite of what we should doing: When it comes to those who are nervous about the vaccine, we should be listening to them and engaging them thoughtfully and respectfully.

We also have to be transparent and honest when it comes to disseminating information about vaccines and COVID. It goes without saying that the pandemic, the mandates, and the vaccines have all been politicized and used by both the right and the left to score political points for their side while demonizing the other side. Given the rampant misinformation at the beginning of the pandemic and the consistently mixed messaging from medical and government institutions, perhaps initial hesitancy and skepticism (within reason) are a sane response.

And labeling these impulses "stupid," we aren't helping the situation; we aren't saving lives. Instead, we're driving people away with our hateful rhetoric.

Worst of all, many people who aren't yet vaccinated aren't actually opposed to it; they simply have a hard time getting vaccinated. The "unvaccinated but willing" make up 10 percent of the American population. Many of these people aren't vaccinated for simple reasons: They lack transportation, they can't get to the clinics during operating hours because of their demanding work schedules, they are undocumented and are afraid to show up for a vaccine, or they don't have insurance or access to a doctor who can answer some of their specific questions about side effects and potential interactions with medications they are taking.

These aren't stupid concerns. These aren't problems worthy of mockery and disdain. They are legitimate issues that merit our time and compassion.

But judging from the public discourse, it seems it's much easier to dismiss nuanced approaches to vaccines and instead label everyone stupid. Calls to educate these people are often met on social media with statements like, "It's hard to educate the willfully ignorant."

This kind of mockery is simply mean-spirited. And it fractures our communities in ways that will have long-term negative effects.

We must learn to overcome this mean streak. Our lives depend on it—literally.

Monica Osborne is a writer and former professor of literature, film, and trauma studies. She edits The Speech Project at The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, and is the author of The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma. Follow her on Twitter: @DrMonicaOsborne.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.