You Can’t Lead With A Forced Jab: The Cost Of Coercion Over Conversation


You might have already made your mind up on vaccinations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still crucially important conversations we can all participate in, writes Fenelle McLaurin.

We have witnessed a watershed moment in Victoria. Vaccine mandates, protests, and the government’s shut down of the construction industry reveal an urgent need to have thoughtful, honest and charitable conversations about tensions surrounding vaccination and freedom in Australian society.

Shutting down conversation, unhelpful labelling, and refusing to listen to one another will only serve to further embed division in our society.

I hold we urgently need to move away from coercion towards conversation and that ancient art of persuasion. Canvassing the dominant views in the mandate debate seems as good a place as any to start.

There are, broadly speaking, those in favour of vaccine mandates (whom we can presume have been vaccinated themselves); those who have been vaccinated but who object to mandatory vaccination; and those who are unwilling or reluctant to receive an available COVID vaccine (who also presumably oppose mandated vaccination).

The broad argument in support of mandated vaccinations holds that liberty for all could not exist alongside an absolute freedom of the individual, and that the risk to the community outweighs individual freedom in this regard. I expect that most Australians would agree to this general principle to at least some degree.

For example, it is clearly the case that we accept a range of restraints on our individual freedoms as members of society. I am not free (that is, if I am caught, I will be restrained by the State) to drive 100kms per hour in a 50km zone. This is because, quite aside from any damage I may do to myself, I will be putting other members of the community at an unacceptable level of risk.

This is just one example but of course there are a whole host of areas where we see broad community acceptance of restraints on our behaviour as individuals because of impacts on the community.

Those in favour of mandated vaccination draw on this line of thought to support why they think all citizens should a) get the vaccine in the first instance and, failing that b) be forced to receive it against their will by coercive measures. For such people, it does not materially matter whether citizens receive a vaccine out of free choice or out of coercion. The important thing is the end result: greater COVID protection across society.

For others though, respecting and upholding principles like medical autonomy is a cornerstone of Australian society. Such people often accept restraints on their behaviour for the good of the community, but they hold it is quite another thing to be forced to have a foreign substance injected into their bodies. They may think either that there is no situation in which vaccines should be mandated, or else that the current situation does not meet the threshold for such justification.

Many people who have chosen to receive a COVID vaccine fall in this camp and oppose the mandated vaccination of their fellow citizens. They value the role their own views and assent played in their vaccination and object strongly to anyone being made to receive it against their will.

Finally, there are those who are hesitant or unwilling to receive one of the available COVID vaccines. Concerns from these groups typically arise from the speed of clinical trials, the limitations on safety and efficacy data available, the mixed messaging of the government, the politics surrounding vaccine research, and most recently, the coercive measures to force citizens to receive a substance into their bodies which they do not presently want.

In a group already affected by issues of trust between governments, pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession, mandating vaccines confirms their initial reluctance.

On top of this, vaccine mandates are also creating an added question where none needed to exist: namely, should I refuse a COVID vaccine out of a defence of freedom?

With few other options available to people to express their views via the usual democratic processes (protests are prohibited, there is little variety of opinion in the mainstream media, and parliaments have been suspended), vaccine refusal in the face of mandates has become, for some, the most realistic way to object to the modus operandi of the political regime. Such people perceive mandated vaccines as a potentially fatal blow to the liberal democratic state they cherish and wish their children and grandchildren to inherit.

The various perspectives I have outlined are by no means complete or decisive, but they are all worth discussing precisely because people are thinking about them. However, if we as a society cannot manage to even talk about these differences without hyperventilating or name calling, then we will be adding to our problems in a very serious way.

I submit the cost of mandated vaccinations is embedded community division, a breakdown of government-citizen trust, acquiescence to the law without acceptance, the fostering of a breeding ground for civil disobedience, the further stretching of an already stretched social fabric, and serious blows to our democratic state. This hefty bill should give us cause to ask what other strategies are available to our government and society?

As Plato observed in The Republic, you cannot persuade those who won’t listen, and from my experience, very few people can genuinely listen if they are being coerced. Instead, I hold conversation and persuasion will ensure the best outcomes overall and are more fitting of the dignity of our citizens.

Conversations take time, trust, and mutual respect; an approach much more in line with our Australian values than coercion. There are so many worthwhile, engaging discussions of profound consequence we could be having right now, if only we can manage to let our guards down a little and listen to one another.

Fenelle McLaurin is a freelance writer, researcher and philosopher. She works in Ethics at Australian Catholic University and has an academic background in the liberal arts and political philosophy. Fenelle is passionate about fostering authentic dialogue and robust engagement in pluralist societies. She and her husband are kept busy raising their young family in Sydney.