MILES LITTLE – Israel Folau. Free speech and its limits?

The skilled and charismatic Rugby player Israel Folau has caused a stir at many levels by posting the unambiguous message that certain categories of sinner will go to Hell. His attitudes to gay people have surfaced before and since, but this time the response has been sharp and censorious at official levels. His contract with Rugby Australia has been cancelled. Why were such strong responses provoked in a supposedly pluralist society?

Israel Folau has set a cat among pigeons by announcing that various sinners will go to hell. The sinners include atheists, fornicators, liars(!), adulterers and gays. It was a bald declaration, unalleviated by any qualifications. Opinion promptly divided. The Rugby governance decided that such language ran contrary to the Rugby Code of Conduct, and cancelled his contract. Others, including team-mates and Pacific Island players from other teams interpreted Mr Folau’s language as a declaration of his Christian faith, a faith to which many of them subscribed with equal commitment. In this way, two contrasting discourses were generated, one claiming the right to proclaim the consequences of a particular faith, the other invoking the wrongs of intolerant condemnation made public by a public figure identified with a sporting code.

Free speech is a shibboleth, one of the terms of discourse used to distinguish liberal, democratic societies. Like all such unifying concepts, it carries problems and self-contradictions. Speech is an act in itself, and hate-speech, abuse, discrimination, threats, slander and defamation are all potentially excluded from the canon of freedom. The law may intervene to penalize their intrusions into public space. In Mr Folau’s case, his judgements were considered too intolerant and threatening for Rugby’s declared attitudes, to an extent that justified invoking the law in order to cancel a lucrative contract well before it was due to expire.

It seems impossible to doubt that Mr Folau is sincere in his beliefs. Should he therefore be legally condemned for making them public in a country that proclaims its pluralism and its commitment to free-speech? Does a right to believe anything we want really exist, and, more pertinently, is there a right to use these beliefs as threats or condemnations? We tolerate religious differences, anti-vaccination campaigners, alternative medicine practitioners and political differences without necessarily sacking people who have beliefs that we cannot accept.

So what is it about Mr Folau’s announcement that jars with so many people? Do they feel threatened by the promise of Hell to come? Do they feel ashamed because they haven’t got the faith that Mr Folau obviously has? Or do they feel that, in pluralist societies, such a monistic stance threatens the welfare of the democracy – whatever that may mean? Maybe all these reactions are intermingled, and the distaste reflects a habit of tolerance that has come to define certain aspects of the society we think we are – or at least should be.

It is interesting to explore a counter-factual, and try to imagine the public and official responses to the same message worded differently. What would have been the response if the post had been worded along these lines. “My faith warns me that sinners may be condemned to Hell. My sense of the brotherhood of man makes me worry that so many would miss out on salvation. The Bible specifically warns drunks, homosexuals, adulterers…Please reflect on your life and turn back to God”?

Perhaps Mr Folau would find that kind of statement too moderate. But it is his immoderation that some people find repugnant. He wants to save souls, but apparently without the love and the forgiveness that are such powerful elements of the New Testament. His declaration is a highly personal interpretation of a punitive view of Christianity that conceals the enormous complexity of possible other interpretations. It is its fundamentalism that jars, and the narrowness of its perspective. In another community, it might be applauded, but in a context where gay marriage has just been sanctioned its intolerance challenges custom and law.

The Bible can be read in many ways. I am no theologian, but I have been struck by the messages of forgiveness in the Gospels. Perhaps Mr Folau might have referred us to the Gospel according to St John (Chapter 8), in which Jesus forgives a woman taken in adultery, after dispersing the crowd come to stone her by challenging anyone who was without sin to caste the first stone.

Pluralism may be worth supporting. Anti-pluralism in the forms of nationalism, populism or authoritarianism stifle freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It may seem paradoxical, but pluralism is only liberating if there is governance that prevents it from drifting into relativism. And this is the key point that underpins our uneasy responses to Mr Folau’s posting. We want him to be able to say safely what he thinks – but we ask him to say it in ways that ensure the safety of others. Words are acts that can affect others in damaging ways. Those who do not accept his view of revelation should treat him with respect, just as he should treat them with respect. Whether the decision to end his contract is right or wrong, the argument about it reminds us of the tenuous and shifting grounds on which we build our expectations and our interactions with one another.

Miles Little is a retired professor of surgery, who started a bioethics centre at the University of Sydney in 1996.

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