Fools, I said, you do not know,

Silence, like a cancer, grows.

Paul Simon

The Sound of Silence[1]

Israel Folau, the cross-code seventy-three-cap Wallabies fullback, has had his contract terminated by the Australian rugby union authorities following his post on Instagram “warning” homosexuals (and other apparent sinners) that “Hell awaits” them. “Israel was warned formally and repeatedly”, said a Rugby Australia chief executive, “about the expectations of him as [a] player for the Wallabies and NSW Waratahs with regards to social media, and he has failed to meet those obligations. It was made clear to him that any social media posts or commentary that is in any way disrespectful to people because of their sexuality will result in disciplinary action.”

Folau told reporters following a service at the Truth of Jesus Christ Church that he “share[d] it with love” and “First and foremost, I live for God now. Whatever he wants me to do, I believe his plans for me are better than whatever I can think. If that’s not to continue on playing, so be it”. A three-member panel is due to convene on May 4th where a code of conduct hearing will decide whether his sacking will be upheld.

This issue brings two of my positions into ostensible conflict: those for free expression and secularism, but I submit, and hope to demonstrate here, that this conflict only arises from too narrow a conception of both. In the modern world, the concept of free expression cannot be solely confined to freedom from curbs from the state, and secularism must always entail the protection of freedom of religion as well as freedom from it.

As a close follower of southern-hemisphere rugby, the degree to which its players demonstrate their religiosity on the pitch does not escape me. This is common on this side of the equator too, and most often manifested in talented Fijians, Samoans, Tongans, and other indigenous Pacific Islanders, good enough to be contracted by the top-tier rugby-playing nations and clubs. This is no mystery, given that Christianity was disseminated wholesale in the years of Empire, as Niall Ferguson wrote in his book of that title: “As for the missionary impulse that had sent thousands of young men and women around the world preaching Christianity and the gospel of cleanliness, that too dwindled, along with public attendance at church. Christianity today is stronger in many of her former colonies than in Britain itself.”

The playing-field manifestation of this religiosity is most reliably observed on the scoring side of the try line. Players will, I dare say more so than in football (though the theatrics of that sport make it practically unwatchable for me[2]), lift their chin to the sky and either point to it, bring their hands together or face their palms skyward too, or make some other religious declaration of gratitude. The utter absurdity of this theistic conception is palpable. Given that more than nine million children under the age of five die every year (that’s over twenty-five thousand a day), largely from preventable causes, what kind of a god would intervene in the outcome of a pass, kick or tackle on a field of grass so that one player might cross a painted line carrying an oddly-shaped ball?

If players can reliably be expected to maintain their faith in the face of questions like these (or in their absence for not having considered them, which is perhaps more likely), we can make some reasonable assumptions about the nature of their other religious beliefs, and how whether they have given any time to consider them logically, or against the ethics and scientific knowledge of modernity.

There exists a worthwhile question as to why Christians almost invariably cling so strongly to the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, but for whatever reason this is, it is a clear fact that Christian homophobia is vastly more common than Christian condemnation for weaving different threads in the same cloth, planting different seeds in the same field, or any number of other absurd Pentateuchal proscriptions. Thus, it would hardly be outlandish to suppose that the specific view held by Folau—that the souls of homosexuals are bound for an eternal torment in hellfire—are held by vast numbers of other Christian rugby players, many of whom will be the genetically-adept indigenous Polynesians who had the discipline and drive to escape their humble roots and pursue their dreams of professional rugby in countries rich enough to reward them handsomely for their talents and exploits. The pertinent feature setting Folau apart, therefore, is not the beliefs he holds, but rather the beliefs he expresses.

A useful thought-experiment for understanding the modern requirement for a wider conception of free expression comes thanks to the premise of the 2009 movie Surrogates. Bruce Willis plays an FBI agent in a world where most people live their lives connected via a “stem chair” to their “surrogate”, an android through which they can see, hear, feel, smell and taste the physical world, without incurring any of its risks to their biological bodies, vulnerable to entropy, injury and mortality.

At this extreme end of an unsettling spectrum, we can wonder what free speech would mean if the government of this society imposed no limitations on the expression of real people, who would be free to say whatever they wished, though this would in practice be limited to the confines of their homes as they never ventured outside, but imposed strict restrictions on the speech of their surrogates, through whom they had their only experience and interaction with the world outside. Such a freedom wouldn’t be worth the word.

Happily, our world is not the one of Surrogates, but the analogous steps towards it in the proliferation of online interaction over other forms will not doubt have already occurred to you. Steven Pinker offers a positive note on this, elucidating both edges of the sword in Enlightenment Now: “Electronic media are commonly cited as a threat to human relation-ships, and certainly Facebook friends are a poor substitute for face-to-face contact with flesh-and-blood companions. Yet overall, electronic technology has been a priceless gift to human closeness. A century ago, if family members moved to a distant city, one might never hear their voices or see their faces again. Grandchildren grew up without their grandparents laying eyes on them. Couples separated by study, work, or war would reread a letter dozens of times and tumble into despair if the next one was late, not knowing whether the postal service had lost it or whether the lover was angry, faithless or dead”.

Given that much of what we express now is so at the whim of leviathan-like corporations such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, it is high time we came to understand that the modern war for free expression has battle grounds drawn both privately and publicly. Though the most consequential end of the debate lies where the state draws its lines, as it holds the power to punish individuals with sanctions upon their liberty (and their lives in some parts of the world), we should not lose sight of the sanctions upon livelihood wielded by the private sector on individuals who depend on it.

Furthermore, any principled defence of free expression has in mind its consequential and pragmatic ends, and there are few better examples than a line from John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

If we truly want less homophobia and fewer homophobes, we must understand that this will not be achieved by banning them from expressing their opinions. All banning them will do is force them to only share their opinions with others who hold them, driving the conversations underground, where, unexposed to the spotlight, they will fester. There are likely hundreds or perhaps thousands of top-tier rugby players who share Folau’s views on homosexuality, and like Folau, I would expect that the great majority of them are otherwise thoroughly good people (no doubt in part thanks to the role of sportsmanship that remains and is enforced from within in the sport itself). Two other recent examples are England’s Billy Vunipola and Ireland’s Bundee Aki, who both “liked” Folau’s contentious post (though the latter claims he did so “mistakenly” . . . “without paying any attention to the content”). It is an old truism that religion makes good people do and say bad things, and I have no reason to believe that Folau is an exception to this rule.

Thus, we should acknowledge the opportunity that such a policy costs us. Imagine what it would mean for a Christian rugby player to publicly change his mind on homophobia, and how positive an influence that could bring, not least to the indoctrinated children who idolise him and aspire to one day emulate him on the international stage. Not only are such players now less likely to interact with others who do not share their views, out of an understandable fear that they too will lose their contracts and livelihood, they are also now less likely to announce a change of mind as it would axiomatically reveal the mind from which they changed.

The best challenge I have received to my position on Folau’s sacking came from Peter Kirkham on Twitter, who argues that as one’s sexuality is no more a choice than one’s race, Folau’s comments are akin to an Instagram post warning black people that Hell awaits. There is no fallacy here; the argument is a strong one, and I obviously accept that challenging homophobia is no less a worthy cause than challenging racism.

However, as a pure matter of fact, we simply do not have the problem in the developed world (anymore) of scriptural justification for racism. The racists who remain (and I am under no illusions about the phenomenon’s prominence, especially having read some horrendous results of Google search analysis in Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s excellent book Everybody Lies) are almost invariably racists for other reasons. Homophobia, contrastingly, is ubiquitous among otherwise good people only because they believe in a religion whose holy book proscribes it. Make no mistake, religion is no excuse for homophobia, but it is a pertinent cause. For this reason, we must consider the question I posed earlier, and embark on a road which might actually achieve its answer’s objective. Do we want less homophobia and fewer homophobes?

If we honestly answer in the affirmative, we must maximise the likelihood of homophobes encountering the best remedy for their beliefs: the spotlight. My positions on liberty, free expression and secularism are mutually-sustained, though arrived at from different sources. I follow Descartes’ natural scepticism and Hume’s dictum on evidence to conclude that as we cannot know anything other than the fact of our own existence beyond all doubt, we must proportion our beliefs to the evidence. I follow Mill’s natural next step in holding that we should thus all be free to pursue what lives we wish so long as we do not infringe the pursuits of others in their own, and I am with Rawls in considering a just society to be one in which the caprice of one’s nature should not dictate the degree to which their rights are infringed by the state or other individuals.

I also recognise that the only society which can ensure these positions is a secular one, where people are free to manifest their religion however they wish, so long as in doing so they do not infringe the rights of others. An expression of an opinion infringes the rights of nobody, and we should be very careful about endorsing the policies of both states and private organisations whose decisions have far-reaching and retarding consequences. We need more speech, not less.

 


[1] I only recently discovered the thoroughly excellent Disturbed rendition of this classic song, and its haunting interpretation, along with the impressively versatile vocals of David Draiman, prompted me to finally look up the lyrics. I’d never appreciated how beautiful they are, and how they can apply to so much.

[2] I can even bring myself to understand the gamesmanship in attempting to milk a free kick or penalty, but cannot grasp why football players insist on pretending that they are in the throws of the worst pain imaginable, writhing as they do on the ground like salmon gasping for breath, only to walk off moments later as though nothing had happened. Few things succeed in angering me from a screen, but this is one of them.


 

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