By David Nichols and Kaustav Misra
The Biden administration’s vaccination requirements for employees of federal government and large businesses accelerates animosity toward the unvaccinated, especially “anti-vaxxers.” A U.S. Census Bureau survey finds 10.4 percent of American adults will “probably or definitely not” get vaccinated. They’re in danger of becoming the new pariah.
Like the Dalit of India or Burakumin of Japan, this new global pariah risks marginalization to the least contact with the rest of us. They’re reduced to no work or off-site work, no education or self-education.
This pariah contaminates any space it enters. When a cockroach enters a kitchen, it becomes the kitchen with a cockroach. Similarly, the uncleanness from the pariah’s touch, even his breath, alters everything. The pariah represents, by mere presence, a threat to my ability to maintain a comfortable world and to pursue, unhindered, my basic goals.
An unsettling feature of the “untouchable” caste phenomenon in other countries is anyone can fall to it by bad behavior. A trap door suddenly opens, resulting in a fall to society’s cellar. The offending person is without a job, possibly avoided by family members. Now, bad behavior is the absence of a vaccination card.
This new pariah invites a parallel to racial discrimination. Racism typically invests in biological reifications. Racism often targets a supposedly inferior lineage thought to be beneath the rest of us — latently savage or naturally dangerous. The anti-vaxxer also represents a biological threat. You are biologically different from me. I cannot trust you to keep your natural evil under control through quarantine, social distance or mask.
Media outlets tell how the anti-vaxxer fits into a political polarization of society. But people across the political spectrum have reasons for resisting vaccination. Name your boogey: Tuskegee, mental decline, fertility loss, birth defects like autism and distrust of government or medical organizations. Some people cannot get vaccinated because of an underlying condition.
The political trope of the anti-vaxxer occupying the conservative side of the seesaw obscures the reality of the pariah polarization. Historically, a pariah helps establish one of two poles — an unacceptable outside in orbit around a sacred axis. The sacred axis is the geographical space where the most cherished labor happens — sometimes the work of the temple by the priestly caste. The pariah gets pushed to the other end — the refuse heap, village latrine and locale for the most unclean work. Globally, the center is a consistently safe platform to exercise freedoms we hold sacred. The anti-vaxxer stands opposite, increasingly marginalized, with eyes turned menacingly toward the center. Polarization isn’t just political or religious, but economic. The freedom of the market can turn awry.
Nothing sends someone to the periphery more effectively than the scapegoat. The pariah is exorcised, sent to the wilderness as a purge for the community. Scapegoating is the unsavory maintenance of hegemony. We want society, culture and economics to function like a well-oiled machine, for everything to fit in equilibrium. The pariah is the un-wholesome remainder.
The anti-vaxxer may deserve the brunt of this utilitarian calculus of exclusion. The goat may return from the wilderness angrier and with friends.
About the authors: David Nichols is associate professor of philosophy at Saginaw Valley State University. Kaustav Misra is associate dean at Central Connecticut State University School of Business.