We need to talk about humiliation

The Government’s rhetoric about getting vaccinated has hardened. The conversation started with relying on intellectual arguments to convince people that getting vaccinated is the right thing to do through presenting data. It then moved to a persuasion stage, trying to understand the influence of emotions, and working through trusted connections to have conversations designed to comprehend the position of the unvaccinated person, to answer questions, to reassure them, to correct any misunderstandings and to suggest that they have perhaps been mislead, to explaining that in the greater scheme of things, getting vaccinated is the least risky thing to do. At least, that is the position we hope they arrive at.

Let me acknowledge the burden this is placing upon those tasked to have those conversations, or who take it upon themselves to do so. The straightforward conversations have probably mostly been done by now, and I worry about people putting themselves in line for some pretty toxic pushback.

The Government is now outlining real consequences for those who remain unvaccinated in the coming weeks.

Although we are still in the persuasion phase, the balance is tilting

There are many emotions at play at the moment. There is grief, sadness and fear that the old Alert Level system that has served us so well is on its way out. There is a lack of clarity and confusion about how and when the Covid Protection Framework will protect us, and what it achieves: where is it leading us to?

In an interview last week, I spoke about enabling people to change their minds and receive the vaccine without losing ‘face’.

Face is a multi-faceted term, inextricably linked with culture and other concepts like honour and its opposite, humiliation

Humiliation is the emotion you feel when your status is lowered in front of others. Research shows it’s a multi-dimensional, unpleasant experience: it seems to involve feelings of powerlessness, a loss of self-esteem or status (dishonour), and feeling small.

Being called out in public and being corrected and told that you are wrong are experiences that can lead to humiliation. Just think back to a time when you stumbled over a word when reading in class at school, and when your teacher corrected you and the class laughed – how did that make you feel?

What’s worse, mapping this experience onto a cultural history of being told you’re wrong and worthless and a personal history of being told you’re wrong, and you can see where a strategy that, inadvertently, leads to humiliating experiences can rapidly go off the rails.

The behaviour associated with feelings of humiliation includes retaliation. We have certainly seen anger – not all explained by humiliation, but perhaps a certain and important proportion of it. But the more dominant response is one of withdrawal or avoidance. Withdrawal, avoidance and driving people underground is the last thing you want when trying to mount a public health response.

Also, when people perceive that when someone in their network with whom they share a group identity has been humiliated, they seem to go out of their way to protect them from further harm. Think about people who are perhaps less willing to be full and frank with contact tracers.  Could this be part of what motivates them to behave in this way?

So, what can we do?

When people feel humiliated, and you want to re-engage them again, they need a path that helps them to move forward while saving face – or at least not diminishing their status any further, and perhaps even offering a staging post towards regaining it again.

I know that the New Zealand Herald today reported how the Prime Minister considered a system that was used in Germany – where unvaccinated people were offered a pathway to take part in at least a subset of non-essential daily life activities through daily testing that they had to pay for. The Prime Ministers’ argument was that a negative test is less “bulletproof” than being tested, but it was about use, and conservation, of testing resources.

Perhaps we should consider this pathway through another lens. One that frames a centre path, that gives a choice out of the dichotomy of vaccinated / unvaccinated, as a staging post. A centre path that provides some agency, where a wrap-around service and analysis can be designed to minimise risk to our communities. They are going to be using essential services like supermarkets and health centres, vaccinated or not.

People can feel like they are being backed into a corner …

and being tarnished as an anti-vaxxer, when they may need more time and / or resent being given little choice but to take the vaccine and feel humiliated. We neither want to encourage people to withdraw and go underground, with public health implications, or for them to come out swinging, feeding furious polarisation of social media and wider toxic discourse and division in our communities.

At the moment, the Government is walking a fine line between providing incentives to get vaccination and exercising coercive power. I wonder if a middle-path safety valve could be designed, taking strength away from polarised positions that could threaten the social fabric upon which we will need to work together as we enter the next stage of the pandemic – adaptation to future phases. The indications are that few people would take this middle path and if they did, they probably wouldn’t walk it for too long, as they see that the daily inconvenience and costs mount. But it serves as a viable pathway out of a dichotomous choice to a place where public health remains protected and social cohesion doesn’t come under so much fire. And that they eventually decide, on a balance of risk, that taking the vaccine is their way forward after all. 


One thought on “We need to talk about humiliation

  1. Janine van Blerk says:

    Hello Sarb, I agree humiliation isn’t the way to go. In fact, it’s a dismal failure of an approach. It’s creating division and conflict that is dangerous. I hope it is an unforeseen consequence, however, I struggle to believe that any government could be that blind to the effects of its behaviour.

    However, I also don’t agree with your stance in this instance about charging people for their tests and essentially inconveniencing them into another behaviour, I.e. getting the injection. I have serious doubts about the validity and reliability of the ‘tests’, despite the government’s rhetoric.

    I don’t think punishing/coercing/shaming/blaming people for asking critical questions of their government is wise; it’s certainly not democratic. We need people to question everything the government does. They are there to serve us, they use our tax dollars and they make rules for us. They need to be held on a very short leash and people should not get punished or blackmailed for it. History teaches us this imperative time and time again, and we still don’t learn.

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