How to deal with vaccine resisters
The conspiracy originally took root in the United States but has spread to Europe Joseph Prezioso AFP

Look, I get it. I do.

After months of a medical miracle being rolled out across the nation, after months of incentives and public and private encouragement, and while the specter of death still haunts the land and a new and even nastier variant threatens to take us back to the horrors of last year, there are still some among us who still refuse to get vaccinated. Everything we've seen, everything we've suffered—and they still cannot be convinced to do something that's fundamentally in their best interest.

It's OK to be angry and frustrated and fresh out of patience. Vaccine refusers put their own lives at risk as well as the lives of many others. It's not smart. It's not fair. It's wrong. Worse yet, it's often driven by politics more than anything. At least some of them are thumbing their nose at the very idea of public health, because their guy failed. It's as offensive as it is perverse. So if you're not interested in ever hearing from such people again, much less listening to them with empathy, no one can blame you. Certainly, there is no reason to bear with toxic personalities, if doing so will harm you.

And yet, I am going to suggest that most of us shouldn't write vaccine refusers off entirely. Not everyone has to engage with them all the time, but there are reasons, good reasons, to at least consider the perspective, as wrongheaded as it might seem.

The first is practical, or if you want to be fancy about it, teleological: Doing the right thing to get a desired result. Doctors establish judgment-free zones in talking about vaccines not because they're not appalled. They do it because it works. It might not work all the time, or even often. Humans are wild, irrational bipeds who make wrong choices all the time. But listening with an open mind is the only thing that works at all. Throwing the cold water of judgment is only a way to increase resistance.

That's an important consideration when you remember that not everyone who talks tough about not getting a vaccine will see that refusal through. In a just-released poll, Public Religion Research Institute found that 13 percent of Americans are hard no's on vaccination, about the same number as in March. But the number taking a "wait-and-see" stance, or who say they will get a vaccine if required, has shrunk from 28 percent to 15 percent. Some people can be convinced. That hard kernel of resistors is likely to shrink, too, as the delta variant sweeps through more unvaccinated areas.

Vaccination is not a physician's only concern. Sometimes a respectful exchange about vaccines doesn't result in a patient getting the shot—but it does wind up with them following medical advice on another issue. Doctors listen patiently for a reason.

We also have to ask at a certain point the question of character ethics. Do we really want to be the kind of people who just turn our backs on others and say "Let 'em die"

I asked my wife that question. "Sometimes," she said. Fair enough. It gets old, she said, being the ones understanding entitled blowhards, not the other way around. But I think most of us would recognize that after some reflection, a stone-cold shrug in the face of mass death cuts against the morality of citizenship we hold dear. Democracies cannot survive when some lives are worth caring about, others not. That makes for unpleasant business, surely, but nobody ever said democracy was for the weak-willed.

It is important to remain in conversation even with terrible ideas to some extent. That's the liberal American character. The minute we start thinking that certain positions, and certain people who hold them, are not worthy of consideration, we become not a liberal democracy, but a nation of authoritarians leaning left and right. I'm confident that most of us would prefer to think of our mental and moral characteristics somewhat differently—that we're more open or compassionate, I mean.

If anything can be described as holy in liberalism, it's listening with empathy, free of judgment, even as we disagree. It is an act of imagination that is sacred. It forces us to develop new ideas about the people we hear out, rather than concentrate on the rightness of our own position. What drives people whose idea of liberty or bodily purity are so important from our own that they value them above their faith, lives and children? What cognitive choices and emotional affiliations must they make to get to such a place? The answer is surely dark and rotten, just the kind of soil from which a generation of politics will grow. Liberals and leftists and radicals will have to come up with creative responses to what is taking ever-deeper root in the conservative movement, and that begins with understanding what's going on in their heads.

So be angry. Be frustrated. Yell at the clouds. I do all three every time Ron Johnson opens his mouth about covid. But don't ever stop listening to the vaccine refusers entirely, even if you have to block Uncle Jim Bob on Facebook. Because they've got something to say, and however unpleasant it might be, you need to hear it.1

Rev. Daniel Schultz is an activist, minister and writer in Wisconsin. Follow him @pastordan.