Freedom of choice and peer pressure. Two aspects of our American society that we learn to deal with at a young age.
In most cases the youthful choices we make are reasonably harmless in the grand scheme of things regardless of how earth-shattering they may seem at the time. For me, the choices that provided the greatest level of adolescent angst were those that manifested themselves in a physical way because it was obvious to my peers which choice I’d made: what brand of sneakers or clothes to wear, where to sit in communal settings, and what activities to take part in. The last of those is usually a precursor to the well-worn and excessive parenting query, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff would you follow them?”
Again, in our youth these choices seem mission-critical to us. Luckily they are mostly not choices that can affect the rest of our lives in any horrific way. But they do introduce us to these concepts of freedom of choice and peer pressure that will play a daily part in our lives.
Some of the choices we make as we grow can be important but still lighthearted: which sporting teams to follow and support; what flavor ice cream to eat; whether to shop at Trader Joe’s, Giant, Weis, or Wegman’s; which movie series to watch, Marvel or DC.
Lighthearted or not, making choices prepares us for the bigger life decisions we’ll make as we grow into adulthood – our relationships. Who we want to spend time with in our lives. At home, socially, at work, and at play.
It’s those choices – the web of human relationships we create for ourselves – that are not as driven by outwardly-obvious characteristics as those which provide our peers with immediate insight into our lives. Choosing those people we’ll spend time with based on how they think, what opinions they hold, and what principles they live by provides a little flexibility since most of us do not walk around wearing signs extolling our positions on those subjects. Sure, occasionally we’ll don a shirt with a slogan, but we’re normally limited to one slogan at a time as a laundry list of principles gets confusing and illegible due to space constraints.
It’s this small amount of flexibility that enables us to spread our proverbial wings a bit in these choices and perhaps not bow to peer pressure as much as we otherwise might. I have friends whose political, social, lifestyle and financial opinions are the polar-opposite of mine, yet I enjoy and embrace their friendship because they are good people and I value that difference in opinions so that I am able to question, verify and adjust my own thoughts on matters.
One of the many negative aspects of the events of the last year is how relationships have become strained because of differences of opinion on the best way to navigate this pandemic. And a few of the choices we are making in response to COVID-19 are visible choices and therefore more subject to peer pressure — the use of masks being at the top of that list.
One other choice we are now being faced with that’s not as readily visible but still carries a “mark” is getting vaccinated for the virus. Initially these vaccinations have been available only to specific segments of the population, so someone under the age of 65 and in decent health didn’t have a choice unless their job put them at a subjective level of risk. However, in Pennsylvania we are now in a time when all residents of the state are eligible to schedule an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Meaning everyone has a choice to make.
(Full disclosure: I recently received the first of two doses of the vaccine.)
The mark you receive for getting the vaccination is a card with the date, location and the vaccine name and lot number you were injected with. Regardless of how easily these cards are forged there was speculation at the outset that they might provide a means of identifying those who got vaccinated from those who hadn’t, for the purpose of allowing some people freedoms and denying them from others. For example, if you have a card you could go to work, or attend events or fly on an airplane. This policing to allow or deny your participation would be the work of governments and various other entities.
But it turns out that such structure might not be necessary in times like this because peer pressure takes control. Within the last few weeks I’ve been a part of several conversations about events and activities where the vaccination status of individuals could affect their participation. Where the person or people setting up, creating and organizing the “thing” are considering if they should ask others for their vaccination status and then use that information to determine the level at which these others can participate – if at all.
I understand the intention behind this line of questioning and the desire for people to be safe, as well as the obvious “it’s my game and I make the rules” thinking. But the issue in this case is much greater than our masking initiative. We’re asking people to inject a foreign substance into their bodies – never an enjoyable experience even with the best of intentions – and an experience that media and entertainment has often associated with severe negative connotations. People have reason to be concerned. They have relevant and necessary doubts and questions. Treating them in a way that minimizes these likely won’t produce the desired result.
Again, freedom of choice and peer pressure are two aspects of life we encounter on a daily basis. The pandemic has given us many opportunities to fine-tune our ability to deal with them on both personal and societal levels. Hopefully we can continue to learn to treat each other with respect and have important conversations, because in the end we all want the same thing – to be safe, healthy and completely over this pandemic.