Vaccine mandates have been a constantly recurring discussion since vaccines became widely available in the US. But the debate over Rep. Jordan’s statement isn’t just about vaccine mandates — it’s a deeper discussion about what it means to be American.
What does it mean to be American (or un-American)?
Although we often have a strong and immediate reaction to descriptors such as “American” or “un-American,” they can be exceptionally difficult to universally define. These words hold multiple, distinct meanings at once, meanings that vary from person to person. That’s because the word “American” has become more than a physical descriptor; it also describes a set of values and ideals.
But that set of values and ideals varies depending on who you ask, which can lead to confusion and conflict when we impose our own definition on other people.
With so many distinct ideas of what it means to be American, we are unable to discuss them all here. Instead, we’ll look at how different people apply their definition of “American” to the conversation around vaccine mandates:
To some, being American means making sacrifices to ensure the safety of your fellow Americans. In the context of vaccines, this means embracing individual responsibility, supporting robust government action, and trusting the experts. We cannot manage this crisis solely at an individual level, so vaccine mandates can fill in the gaps.
To others, being American means valuing and prioritizing individual freedom. Individuals have a responsibility to ensure the safety of themselves and their family in whichever way they feel is right. The government should not impose far-reaching vaccine mandates, which intrude upon an individual’s autonomy, and instead allow people to make their own decisions.
Given these conflicting ideas of what it means to be American, what it means to be un-American also differs:
If you believe that taking joint action to ensure public health and safety is American, advocating against vaccine mandates is un-American.
In the same way, if you believe that individuals having the autonomy to make their own decisions is American, advocating for vaccine mandates is un-American.
We are all guided by our values
These definitions of what it means to be American (or not) are built on people’s fundamental values. And when our values differ, so too will our definitions of what it means to be American. That doesn’t mean that one definition is more right than the other — just like with symbols, each interpretation of the word “American” is equally valid and true because it feels valid and true to its user.
So when we impose our own definition of what it means to be American onto someone with a different set of values, it might be easy to conclude that they are un-American. However, the vast majority of people are doing their best to live up to their values and be good members of society — good Americans — just within their own definition of the word. In fact, they would almost certainly consider our assessment of them to be unfair –– just as we would if our contra partisans declare us un-American for living our values.
And although their values might differ from our own, this mutual pursuit means that those “un-American” people are not evil, but merely striving to live their version of the good life, just like us.
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