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Richard Kyte: Is getting vaccinated a personal choice?

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MUG -- Richard Kyte

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

When Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was asked to share his reasons for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine, he declined. "I think the vaccination decision is a very private health matter for me, and I'm gonna keep it as such," he explained.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had a similar explanation for his stance on vaccination: "I feel it’s a personal decision. I’m just going to worry about that with my family. I’m going to keep my feelings to my family and myself.”

What’s interesting to me is not their reluctance to get vaccinated — when nearly 30% of the general population is unvaccinated, you would expect some professional athletes to be among them. What is interesting about Cousins and Jackson is their explanation for not talking about it: The matter is private and personal and therefore not open for discussion.

Does that mean the criticism they are receiving from many fellow players, coaches, fans and especially the media is misplaced? After all, when something is a personal matter, the decision — and the reasons for that decision — are one’s own.

For those who are constantly in the public eye, setting boundaries is important. They need to be able to wall off certain parts of their life from public scrutiny. They need to be able to say, “There are things I talk about at home or with close friends but not with anyone else. Those things are off limits.”

For the most part, we know what those things are: they might concern one’s private thoughts, one’s hopes and dreams, one’s loves or regrets; they might concern one’s relationships with friends, spouse, or children; they might concern one’s health or the health of one’s family.

It is hard to draw a bright line and say everything on one side is personal and everything on the other is public. But the key thing to remember is that when something falls into the personal side, then it is up to the individual to determine whether to keep it private. If Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady elects to share details about what he eats for lunch, that’s fine. But if somebody else, when asked about his dietary preferences, says, “No comment,” well, that’s their decision to make.

When it comes to such matters, if someone says “It’s personal,” the right thing to do is to back off. To keep pushing is to be nosy, rude or insensitive.

So, is the decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine one of those things? Does it fall into the category of the things about which it is nobody’s business but my own?

Yes. And that’s too bad.

There is nothing in the nature of things that makes some matters private and others public. It is all a matter of what we have decided, what conventions we have established over time. It also depends on the context and the expectations that go along with that context. In the case of professional athletes, especially celebrity-status athletes such as Cousins and Jackson, the expectation is that very little is kept private. Fans have become accustomed to athletes talking freely about their religious beliefs, their mental health struggles, their sexual orientation, who they are dating and even what they ate for breakfast.

At first blush, then, it seems disingenuous to claim one’s reasons for refusing to be vaccinated is off-limits. After all, next to the sorts of things fans are accustomed to hearing athletes talk about freely, there is nothing about vaccination, per se, that makes it seem especially personal.

Except for one thing: Vaccinations have become a political issue.

In a rational world, politics would be an arena for open ethical deliberation. We would ask others, and could be expected to be asked by others, questions like the following: Are the policies we support fair? Can they reasonably be expected to benefit, or at least not harm, those who may be affected? Are they based in a sound understanding of truth? Are they motivated by genuine concern for the well-being of all?

In such a world, vaccinations would be among the many issues we could be expected to discuss publicly, to defend our choices and to change our minds if our reasons prove inadequate to the occasion.

But in our upside-down, topsy-turvy world, politics has become the most intensely personal matter of all, and one’s attitude toward vaccines has become a primary marker of political identity. The only relevant thing is what team one is on.

If you ask a football fan to defend their favorite team, they can easily come up with reasons, but ultimately, the reasons don’t carry any weight. It’s just attitude. It’s what they prefer, what they happen to like.

And that’s where we stand today with the choice to receive or refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. It is an expression of attitude, a declaration of what team one is on. People can argue about their choices, but their reasons don’t change anyone’s mind.

When politics becomes a team sport, reasons don’t matter anymore.

The political has become personal. And that’s too bad for all of us.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of “The Ethical Life” podcast.


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