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Opinion: Can we disagree about vaccines, masks and the virus without condemning each other?

Could there be room for honest differences of opinion, or is dissension from the mainstream narrative blatant selfishness?

Are we ready to brand the 29% of Americans who say they are unlikely to get shots as “selfish” — or give them any of the other broad-brushstroke labels: reckless, ignorant, uneducated, anti-science?
Luca Bruno, Associated Press

In any dissolving marriage, there’s a moment where a critical pivot happens — when partners move from a sense of confidence the other person cares about their relationship to a place where they reach an ominous conclusion: “Obviously, you don’t seem to care, do you?”

In recent years, we’ve seen similar conclusions reached across a variety of issues, with conservatives hearing things like: “Clearly, you don’t seem to care about ...” fill in the blank (poor people, gay kids, the health of the planet, etc.).

In the other direction, I’ve heard many conservatives accuse liberals of “not caring” about American democracy. And Americans in general accuse politicians of “not caring” about the people they are elected to serve.

Whatever the context, this is a crushing accusation. It assumes a posture that signals not only that other people’s ideas are wrong, but that their hearts are wrong — maybe even that their character is somehow irreparably flawed.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen this same ominous shift happening in discussions of health, even among those in Utah. I’m not the only one who has appreciated Gov. Spencer Cox’s attempts to strike a distinctly “Utah way” of navigating tensions around the pandemic. Earlier this year, for instance, the governor was quoted as saying: “We need a measure of grace and patience with each other. There are some people that will want to wear masks for much longer. Don’t mock them, don’t make fun of them, all right?”

And for those who had never worn masks, the governor added, “That’s OK, too. We don’t need to pile on those people. We’ve all made mistakes through this. We’ve all been critical of others when it turns out our side was wrong. We can do so much better together.”

But like many others in America, the governor’s tone has sharpened. In reference to the possibility of masks coming back, he said with understandable fatigue, “I’ve got to be honest with you ... I’m really tired. I’m really done with it. And I’m not real excited to have to sacrifice to protect someone who doesn’t seem to care.”

Cox is not alone. Deseret News contributing writer Daryl Austin decried what he called “ignorance masquerading as expertise and selfishness parading as courage” among those opposing vaccination. And The Washington Post quotes one parent, Steve Moore, who said of the unvaccinated, “To be selfish about it like that is hindering the rest of us from going back to living normal lives.”

There’s no question that many selfish people exist in this country, but are we ready to brand the 29% of Americans who say they are unlikely to get shots as “selfish” — or give them any of the other broad-brushstroke labels: reckless, ignorant, uneducated, anti-science?

Within an atmosphere of such tension and anger, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that it’s become uniquely challenging to understand differences on these sensitive and contested issues. Writing for the National Review, Brandon Michael Dougherty notes, “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics — or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all.”

But, surprise, vaccine skeptics are full of more than just “fear and anger.” They hold different views of healing, different views of disease management and what it takes to prevent illness. If that comes as something of a shock, perhaps it’s because any perspective departing from mainstream narratives has been in many ways suppressed and labeled dangerous for more than a year, which leaves at times only the loudest proponents of those views getting any attention.

As recent data confirm, many Americans simply continue to hold different cost-benefit ratios about the potential options available. That was reflected in the recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey that showed more than half of unvaccinated adults (53%) said they believed getting vaccinated posed a bigger risk to their health than getting infected with the coronavirus. Contrast that with 88% of vaccinated adults who said getting infected with COVID-19 is a bigger risk to their health than the vaccine.

Could that be an honest difference of opinion? As in, an honest-to-goodness difference in conclusion between people who are otherwise thoughtful, good-hearted and — yesequally concerned about their community and country? Or is this disagreement, as more people on both sides of the debate are now tempted to believe, indicative of blatant selfishness, ignorance, naiveté or blind faith?

Please don’t misunderstand: It is possible to disagree vociferously and profoundly (and to even consider another perspective dangerous) and to do all this without condemning others as incapable of caring. And for the sake of our American compact, I pray we can do just that.

Jacob Hess served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since his book with Phil Neisser, ”You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).” His most recent book with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, is ”The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”