The Discordance of Mandates

October 2021

We have learned that the COVID-19 vaccines don’t prevent infection, disease, or transmission. Vaccine passports and mandates, already objectionable for contravening the principle of voluntary consent (among other reasons) are therefore more immoral still on account of being patently disproportionate. They represent naked discrimination, spiteful mechanisms for reward and punishment. It is true that many of us were persuaded to take the vaccines by appealing to our altruistic inclinations, but if one’s own degree of protection offers no great assurance that one won’t make others sick, too, then that well-intended altruism was regrettably misinformed.

If the benefits the shots confer are principally limited to a possible reduction in symptoms among those individuals who become infected and diseased—for a temporary period with diminishing efficacy—the decision to have recourse to them should remain entirely private and strictly voluntary. Requiring them of others for their own good is paternalistic. To further demand people take them to relieve the health care system is a perverse inversion of the relationship between doctor and patient.

On the basis of an online straw poll of members conducted without consultation or debate, the executive of my faculty association committed to communicating to our administration a very favourable outlook on the implementation of mandates for access to campus. The very organization that faculty members would normally turn to when their rights are violated would, in effect, campaign for their potential violation—and furthermore advocate for the denial of education to a portion of our students. I also observe that my institution’s August 27 welcome message to the university community for Fall 2021 mentions vaccination twenty-three times—completely oblivious to how creepy that sounds. Whether the university acts to implement a mandate, however, is likely entirely dependent on whether the provincial government decides to impose one. It’s not a decision the university wants to take responsibility for on its own, I gather.

As a political theorist, I could take this space to reflect, for example, on the logic of democracy according to Alexis de Tocqueville, whose writings I am teaching this term. He argues that the love of freedom that initially inspires democracy eventually descends into an insatiable passion for equality as the regime slides into despotism. Tocqueville argues that people in a democracy prefer rules that are indiscriminately imposed upon everybody. Once the majority loses interest in respecting individual rights it will determine that there is nothing it cannot or must not do using state power. Forget mere bodily autonomy; the will of the majority will go straight for your soul and demand that you not only obey but agree. Not even your conscience will be permitted to withstand its reach.

I won’t use this space to wade into the safe-and-effective debate or other pertinent controversies surrounding the origins of the novel virus and its variants, the nature of this novel therapeutic, case counting and other numbers, naturally acquired immunity, the politics and prudence of lockdowns, what vaccine passports portend, and so on. I would, however, like to address how utterly befuddled I am regarding the position prevailing among my colleagues in favour of a policy like mandates on campus. Their fervour for a mandate seems inconsistent with their usual concerns, commitments, and positions. It strikes me that they have forgotten many of their own values and intellectual resources.

Usually, my university rightly prides itself on its reputation for being accessible, inclusive, and accommodating. In calling for mandates, we betray all these fundamental commitments.

I am bewildered that my colleagues have embraced a policy that involves governments or private entities imposing themselves aggressively and intrusively upon other people’s bodies. Usually, feminists know that this is wrong. Members of the LGBTQ+ community do, too. As do peoples who have been historically dispossessed or treated as possessions. Many students attending my institution come from families that came to Canada to escape oppressive governments abroad. There are also individuals whose personal health circumstances are being cavalierly disregarded. To gain an exemption in many situations where mandates have been imposed, you must get the shot to find out that you shouldn’t have gotten the shot. It’s an absurd but inevitable consequence of the number of unknowns regarding these untested treatments in combination with so much zeal for them.

Someone might respond that these mandates don’t technically force anyone to do anything and therefore don’t constitute coercion—except that my institution and my colleagues are usually very attentive to imbalances in power relationships and how they can be abused, and how conditions of duress compromise people’s moral agency and violate their dignity, safety, and mental health. Usually, coercion is defined not only at the brute level of the direct application of force, but at several degrees removed, such that the apparent or felt threat of coercion or discrimination, or the fear of repercussions for non-compliance, are themselves recognized as violations tantamount to coercion and thus inherently unjust.

Usually, my colleagues have no trouble remembering and applying the lessons of Arendt, Chomsky, Foucault, and other intellectual heroes and giants. The distinction between the vaccinated who are supposedly safe and the unvaccinated who are allegedly unsafe is exactly the sort of binary many of my colleagues would usually rush to deconstruct. Usually, my colleagues are offended and mobilized by any sign of marginalization or othering. Usually, they don’t restrict their concerns to categories of persons possessing, exhibiting, or ascribed non-voluntary qualities. Usually, my colleagues are quick to signal their allyship with those who are being marginalized and excluded, calling for non-compliance with discriminatory policies and accusing those who comply of complicity. Moreover, in their own rhetoric, they are usually not shy about escalating accusations of marginalization and exclusion to make statements about erasure or analogies to genocide.

Usually, my colleagues know better than to simply trust large corporations to care for the well-being of ordinary people or refrain from corrupting elected officials or government agencies. They would usually be on high alert when people are saying that the wealthy and privileged, motivated by obscene profit-making and power-seeking, are harming them with impunity, but nobody seems willing to believe or listen to them. Usually, my colleagues are supremely sensitive to questions of safety. The safety profile of these novel treatments remains uncertain and concerning. For information regarding adverse reactions, we find ourselves relying on problematic reporting protocols and practices, unreliable databases, and anecdotal evidence finding audiences only on unofficial channels, swiftly censored.

When they study oppressive governments abroad, my colleagues usually appreciate that you cannot simply rely on the mouthpieces of the state and its agents in the state-owned or state-sponsored media for information. They usually know to consult alternative media outlets and dissident voices on social media—especially when heterodox professionals are being sidelined and maligned. Of course, there is always a risk that they’re unreliable, too, but you don’t just dismiss them contemptuously. My colleagues usually comprehend what kind of situation they’re looking at when state officials and an obsequious media speak with one voice, declaring everything diverging from the official messaging to be misinformation, subjecting it to mockery and hostility. To be fair, though, our media outlets still criticize our governments in a couple of ways: asking legislative representatives why they aren’t being more authoritarian, or why they aren’t surrendering more of their authority to bureaucrats.

“Trust the science” is a phrase we have become used to hearing. What we’re being asked to trust, however, isn’t the Platonic Idea of Science Itself. It’s a technology, created by people trained in applied sciences, themselves susceptible to all the motives and failings of human beings. Technology is about power, not truth, and science is not properly understood as an object of faith. Usually, my colleagues know that you do not blindly trust technology. Sometimes it does not deliver as promised. Sometimes, even when it works exactly as advertised, we come to regret its use. The entire environmentalist movement is premised upon concerns and regrets like these.

Lastly, mandates are proving themselves part of a pattern or trajectory of policies that are already leading to a disturbing show of force by police powers in Australia and elsewhere. Should similar measures or worse make their way here, will my colleagues cheer them on, too?

I’m sure that many of my colleagues think mandates are just obviously right in some straightforward fashion. Why are people so stupid and selfish? Why doesn’t everyone think and act in lockstep? Don’t they realize this is how we get back to normal? We have been subjected to unrelenting fear and rendered vulnerable and desperate for more than a year and half now. Many people have been told that their lives are officially inessential for the duration, and that takes its toll. The psychological impact of the lockdowns amid ongoing uncertainty, confusion, distress, and distrust goes a long way to explaining why people are behaving unrecognizably.

I like to imagine that my colleagues are generally sincere in the advancement of their moral outlooks and political critiques. I just don’t recognize them at present. I’m perplexed. It’s one thing to respectfully disagree with their moral and political positions, as I sometimes do; it’s another thing to find oneself astonished that they no longer respect them themselves.

Those who have convinced themselves to demand mandates have undoubtedly already found sophisticated ways to argue themselves into that position, from which it would be hard to excavate them. I’m sure by some circuitous route the case is made that mandates are somehow more inclusive. Criteria for inclusion nearly always entail some exclusions—suppressing the voices of those who don’t subscribe or comply, isolating those individuals and rendering them powerless.

Mandates might be defended using theories of social rights, I suppose, but social rights have always been a sham; they ascribe rights to a fictional abstraction while stripping actual persons of them while pretending to still care about them. When actual people can no longer say no to something, anything may be done with or to them on behalf of the collectivity, too often to the ongoing advantage of those in charge.

Policies like mandates are premised upon the promise of the relief from bodily suffering, the very spectre of bodily suffering itself in the abstract, conjectural and hypothetical, well beyond instances of actual sickness. Counteracting that claim is challenging within a democracy, particularly in a place like Canada where our reverence for, deference to, and dependence on medicine is substantial—even though we all know that our health care system routinely falls short of our ideals in practice. Any hesitancy to affirm and impose medical imperatives may be immediately construed as a misanthropic desire for people to suffer or to die even though the worst forms of misanthropy inevitably follow in regimes that disregard bodily autonomy, dispense with individual rights, and impose heavy-handed technological rationalism in the name of the common good.

A minority of scholars are indeed ideologically eager for or professionally invested in the advent of global governance as an all-encompassing system of control—but for good! If vaccine mandates can play a small part in bringing that about, then they’re too brilliant a tactical maneuver to forgo. Just as modern totalitarian governments have always found artists willing to serve as propagandists, they have long enjoyed the compliance and collaboration of academic elites across the arts and sciences. But one does not need to go nearly that far to explain where we’re at. Some academics will place their trust in prominent public experts because they imagine their own expertise deserves public trust, too. Others merely sense which way the wind’s blowing and want to be on the winning side, whether for perks or to avoid inconvenience.

Surely the call for mandates isn’t a part of some grand design—that’s crazy-sounding speculation open to the accusation that it politicizes the science. Still, the science does not justify mandates, either. Therefore, mandates themselves politicize the science, too.