THE terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’, in a political sense, date back almost 250 years, to the height of the French Revolution.
In 1789, members of France’s National Assembly met to draft a new Constitution, and were roughly made up of two factions.
Those who supported the King’s power sat to the right of the presiding officer in the assembly hall - and were thus dubbed right-wingers; generally conservatives content with the status quo.
The revolutionary anti-monarchy delegates sat to the left of the presiding officer - and were thus left-wingers; generally liberals seeking a change to the status quo.
So far, so comprehensible.
But even back then, there were objections to this pigeon-holing of people neatly into two distinct boxes, with no room for life’s grey areas in between. A right-wing baron harumphed: “I tried to sit in different parts of the hall and not to adopt any marked spot, so as to remain more the master of my opinion. But I was compelled absolutely to abandon the left or else be condemned always to vote alone and thus be subjected to jeers from the galleries.”
And thus the politics of division were born, long before the binary world of social media sought to divide us even further.
Nowadays, the jeering isn’t done from the galleries, but on Facebook and Twitter.
The sects of people who view themselves as ‘left’ or ‘right’ seek solace and take comfort in their own tribe, reinforcing their opinions on a wide range of issues from abortion to Palestine, to public spending, to Leo Varadkar’s decision to attend a concert, while hurling barbs at the other wing: the sworn enemy.
I firmly believe the vast majority of people, like me, stand bewildered in the midst of these jousts, watching these people play their juvenile name-calling games, with never an attempt to understand the other’s view. In fact, the stats bear this out: it’s been estimated 92% of tweets come from just 10% of Twitter users.
Irish Twitter, in particular, is dominated by liberals of a left-wing hue. Which is how we have arrived, in 2021, at a bizarre situation whereby the small number of people who choose not to take the Covid vaccination have been tarred as ‘right-wing’ extremists.
Let’s stop and analyse that for a moment.
So, being a conservative who prefers the status quo on some social issues makes you want to say no to the jab? Preferring lower taxes and less spending on things like social welfare makes you an anti-vaxxer? Being against abortion means you believe Bill Gates is using vaccinations to control pour minds?
It’s arrant nonsense, of course.
People who choose not to take a vaccine do so for a variety of reasons, and are of all political hues and none.
But that is the level of debate we have reached with much of the discourse on vaccinations.
This demonisation of people choosing not to take the Covid jab is having a debilitating effect on society, creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario.
Worse than that, it risks overshadowing the success of our brilliant vaccination roll-out - one of the best in the world. And even worse than that, it will not convert a single vaccine waverer or naysayer to change their mind.
If you’d announced a year ago that 90% of Irish adults would be vaccinated against Covid-19 today, you’d have been advised to take a long lie down.
Not only were vaccines still a work in progress then, but polls suggested perhaps 75% of adults here would take them.
A concerted campaign across politics, public health, the mainstream media, and through word of mouth has seen the take-up of jabs soar to extraordinary levels.
More than 90% of Ireland’s 3,763,440 adults have agreed to the vaccination - a staggering number.
Drill down and the figures are barely believable: Just abut EVERY person over 60 - an age cohort that contains an awful lot of conservatives - has been jabbed, and 97% of people in their fifties.
We are even well over the 82% mark for people aged 25-49, while 71% of people aged 18-24 are now fully vaccinated, and rising.
Ireland, unlike many of our neighbours, has even increased the roll-out to 12-15 year olds, and seen an excellent uptake here too.
This is unprecedented stuff, worthy of a giant slap on the back.
The vaccination war has been won, utterly, convincingly, by the side of science.
Yes, you can still catch Covid when fully jabbed, and you can still be hospitalised and fall quite ill, even die; but the odds of each of these happening is much smaller - and people took that on board after more than a year of living in fear of this new virus.
Many of us were vaccinated because we feared catching the virus. Others who were less concerned did so because they wanted to help the country get back to normal. Some also got jabbed because they feared missing out on flights and concerts in a post-Covid world.
We are perhaps talking about 300,000 adults who have chosen, for various reasons, not to be jabbed. Do I hope they change their minds? Yes. Is the way to do that through gentle persuasion and by pointing at the ongoing safety of the vaccine? Yes.
So smearing them all, falsely, as raging right-wing nutjobs achieves what exactly, aside from laying bare your own prejudices?
Some of those refusing a vaccine proclaim themselves as right-wing, for sure, but you only ever see a handful of them protesting about it - a tiny minority of that 300,000. And, in fact, early polls suggested that the followers of Sinn Féin were less likely to get the jab than people who favoured more centre/right parties such as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
So is it left-wing to turn down a vaccine? Of course not. I simply fail to see how refusing a vaccine is in any way a political issue.
(Although I would add that in countries like Germany and France, where vaccine hesitancy, as it’s called, is fairly high, there is a small but significant cohort of anti-vaxxers whose politics are decidedly green, and who do not want anything in their bloodstream that is not natural.)
Of those Irish adults who have so far refused the Covid jab, the majority, I would wager, are of the mindset adopted by some elite athletes in recent weeks: I am young, I am healthy, I am not in danger from the virus.
You could argue this is a selfish attitude, and these healthy young adults - mainly men, I would guess - need to take one for the team, but gentle persuasion is surely the best way to do that.
Others will have been scared by reports of the extremely low minority who have suffered very rare reactions to the vaccine. Some will have a morbid fear of blood and of needles.
If we want to change the minds of these people, there is only one place to start: We have to respect their decisions, not insult and demonise them.