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Raul Pertierra on Ugatan 2021


UGAT Elder Raul Pertierra's musings on Ugatan 2021: Pagbabalik-ugat/Postcolonial moments in Philippine Anthropology: (dis)engagements, (re)territorializations, and (re)explorations


I intend to present a short discussion of why some Australians are against compulsory vaccination. I use this as an example of how anthropology can examine a contemporary issue in an increasingly complex and global world. Gone is the former subject of anthropology (i.e. small local isolated premodern societies) but the discipline can still offer insights into an evolving trans-global reality. Moreover, while my topic is Australia, this phenomenon is present in most other countries, even if each society manifests it differently. It seems that difference and similitude are globally interconnected in their local manifestations. It is this similitude in difference (or difference in similitude) that anthropology has always proclaimed.

I see dissent regarding compulsory vaccination as involving several distinct but related justifications. This dissent is an expression of the crisis of modernity

While most Australians accept the need for vaccinations, a small segment is strongly opposed to it. The opposition to compulsory vaccination is found in many countries, indicating that global factors are at work, even as these differ from one country to another. Australia is normally a law abiding society and often heavily policed, thus this strong opposition by a varied set of actors merits close scrutiny.

Ralph Linton in a famous article written in 1937, argued that Americans have long been drawing from global connections, from night apparel to a semitic deity. It seems that globality is much older than we thought. But present globality is different as part of an experience of everyday life made palpable by the pandemic. It is a synchronic globality, while for Linton's Americans, it was not only asynchronic but unacknowledged. The covid pandemic has tranformed a hitherto vaguely acknowledged global reality into a fact of every life. This explains why opposition to vaccination is felt simultaneously in many parts of the world.

A remarkable feature of vaccination protesters is the wide variety of reasons for dissent - from vaccinated individuals who sympathize with dissenters, new age hippies against modernity, religious zealots who see it as interference with God's plan, doubters about the scientific reliability of covid vaccines, defenders of traditional propylactics, a mood of anxiety and grievance, an expression of historic Aboriginal rejection to white rule, to more bizarre fears that covid is a medical hoax, a conspiratorial scheme to control citizens through the power of big pharmaceutical firms, or the fear of a machinic future determined by algorithms and AI. What brings these varied protesters together?

While some politicians have expressed support for protesters (and indeed inflamed their cause), the majority support the policy of compulsory vaccination. At a more popular level, dissenters see compulsory vaccination as an infringement of basic human rights, as a struggle against a hegemonic socialist plot, as undermining an Australian tradition of larrikinism (Eureka flag), a working class rebellion against bourgeois city elites, an instance of solidarity with right-wing movements abroad such as Qanon and various expressions of anti-establishmentarianism. A common feaure of these rallies include old symbols such as the Eureka flag and calls for a return to a pristine nationalism. These dissenters, like the above, do not share a common ideology,purpose or plan. Why do such a variety of actors agree to act in unison against vaccinations? Is there a deeper confluence of forces that combine to generate these responses?

The growing intrusion of government into the daily lifes of people and defining them as bio-citizens whose well-being is decided by experts in an increasing medicalization of society, is a factor in this dissent.The relationship between the body and the body-politic under the rubric of health and obligations of citizenship are increasingly merged. Public health and responsible citizenship are coterminal.

Globality has not only connected seemingly unrelated communities but also exposed them to a wide varieties of information and world views. The new media is only one of many disparate sources of information that isolates individuals and dislocates them from earlier collective perspectives. Identities are now as often constructed as inherited. Personal networks rather than communities shape world views. Culture consists of individuals choosing their own life paths. Surveillance societies use communication and information technologies to administer and control their members. Surveillance is the underside of an information society. It is used to sort and shift populations, to categorize and to classify, to enhance the life chances of some and to retard those of others.

Datafication has put new weapons in the hands of institutions and corporations in the business of managing people. And it seems to hit harder where people, laws, and human rights are the most fragile. The widespread use of the new communication technology not only provides alternate sources of information but also an excess of meaning and a lack of sense. Never before have people come across so much they do not understand. In a world increasingly without boundaries, culture links diverse groups through complex networks. Culture adds as much to our disorientation as to our location in the world. A common feature of this culture is spectacle, where social relationships consist of images, indicating the power of media. In addition, modernity sees social reality as under permant construction - as something to intervene in and manipulate. This remixability of social reality has become a feature of lived experience. Questioning reality is now an ordinay and common activity.

These are the deeper structures that generate a multitude of diverse and conflicting perspectives as part of an understanding of the world. Most people have accepted the dominant view regarding public health and responsible citizenship but a small minority insist in viewing the world differently. The motivation of people in authority and their misuse of science are seen as instances of a suffocating authoritarianism. The rejection and vilification of this small minority, indicate a refusal to acknowledge difference. Modernity has a long history of vilifying minorities. Their members are seen as undisciplined, uninformed and a threat to the moral order.

Anthropology has always been interested in notions of alterity. Anti-Vaxxers are an example of a globalized alterity. Exploring the source of this alterity and explaining its reasons for being continue a major anthropological interest. Moreover, anthropology has shown that similitude and difference are perspectives of a common reality. Australian anti-vaxxers and Filipinos hesitant to be vaccinated are similar in their difference. They are both alternate visions of the world. It is through difference that similitude is expressed.

Raul Pertierra

Cubao, Q.C.

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