Tribalism, Kimmich, Vaccines and Conversion

In the second piece in my series on Christianity and Tribalism, I argued that tribalism consists not of the presence of disagreement but the resentments held towards those with whom we disagree. These are expressed in how we treat, speak of and think about those who think differently from us.

Towards the end of the piece, I highlighted a common tribalistic move in contemporary debates—the injunction to “educate yourself”. On this view, the problem of tribalism is simply the existence of competing ideas. The solution is simply to resolve differences of opinion through catechesis into a closely guarded communis opinio

Only this week, I was sad to see a classic example of this tactic in the discussion around Joshua Kimmich who has, up until now, decided not to get vaccinated due to anxieties around the longer-term health effects (he remains open to vaccination in the future).

The story was the subject of discussion on the Totally Football show. German pundit, Rafa Honigstein, responded to the debacle and began promisingly by commenting that Joshua Kimmich had expressed nuanced and well-founded concerns about covid vaccines. His is a position of hesitancy rather than being anti-vaccine. He donates to getting the vaccine to folks abroad but won’t get it himself. Fair enough, you might think. The tone then shifted as Honigstein commented that Kimmich misunderstood “the science”. Long-term studies, he went on to say, show that side effects, if they appear at all, emerge pretty immediately after the dose is administered. He concluded by stating his hopes for Kimmich to take the opportunity to change his mind, so that he can then change others’ minds. 

I couldn’t help but note parallels to conversion narratives here, only the religious object of fervour appears to be a very particular view of science. Kimmich must educate himself, and change his mind to be a functioning member of the larger group and, once educated or, converted, proselytise others. 

Is this kind of reasoning ever justified by the ends? That’s an open question. Of course, the goal Honigstein and others are working towards is a worthy one, if fairly reductive—a healthy population in relation to covid. And, for what it’s worth, I would probably disagree with where Kimmich’s reasoning ends up. On the balance of evidence collected so far, it seems to me to be a good idea for a young person to get a particular Covid vaccine. 

But I suppose I take issue with the means being used here. However much I might want someone to “change their mind”, this is something that can’t be forced (Oliver Kahn, director of football has stated that, for now, getting a covid vaccine is advisory but not mandatory). If one attempts to change someone’s mind, it’s wisest to attempt to achieve it through the usual means of civil discourse: persuasion. Moreover, it must be done with appropriate intellectual humility. There’s no such thing as “the Science”. After all, one can point to studies and cases where (yes, admittedly smaller numbers of) younger members of the population—so far, mostly young women and teenage boys—have developed nasty and sometimes fatal side-effects (for instance, heart inflammation). This is conveniently not discussed by Honigstein but we would all do well to address these concerns. Is it culturally, if not medically, useful to have a certain minority part of a population that is vaccine hesitant? These kinds of questions are often not allowed to be asked, but should be discussed. 

I am put in mind of the slogan used by British and US forces in Afghanistan—“winning hearts and minds”. I think we talk too much today in cultural debates about changing minds, which is, in the end, the goal of the “educate yourself” mantra. In the process, we lose sight of the need to change hearts, that is, to address the cultural values and deeper inclinations that we each bring to the decision-making process. Most challengingly of all, when we make it all about “educating oneself”, we often miss the fact that it is our hearts that might need changing, especially towards those with whom we disagree. 

Image Credit: Unsplash (Dominik Kuhn)

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