Rugby union player and devout Christian Israel Folau views on homosexuality has caused a maelstrom of controversy. On Instagram Folau was asked, ‘What is God’s plan for gay people?’ His reply, ‘Hell. Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.’ has been heavily criticised in both mainstream and social media.
Many commentators have called for Folau to be penalised by Rugby Australia and have called for major sponsors of the game to withdraw their sponsorship. In response to the controversy a Qantas spokesperson said ‘as a sponsor of Rugby Australia, we’re supportive of their approach towards tolerance and inclusion, which aligns with our own. We’ve made it clear to Rugby Australia that we find the comments very disappointing.’
There have been some claims in the media that Qantas is considering pulling its sponsorship of the sport, however there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this apart from the above statement and social media posts directed at Qantas.
Another major sponsor, vitamin company Swisse, tweeted: ‘Israel’s comments are based on his personal beliefs and while we respect him as a player, we do not share his views.’ Rugby Australia has indicated its intention to discuss the issue with Folau in the coming week. This could be seen in the context of Rugby Australia’s desire to manage the issue and to appease its major sponsors.
Corporations such as Qantas and Swisse are entitled to withdraw their sponsorship as they please, but is it a misuse of their power to use their sponsorship dollars to censor the personal social media accounts of players? Had Qantas had a direct sponsorship relationship with Folau the withdrawal of sponsorship might be justified, but at how many degrees of separation does it stop being acceptable for corporations to censor? Or does an organisation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion bind employees of those organisations in what they can say in their personal capacity?
Questions such as these highlight the morphed idea of tolerance. Tolerance has morphed beyond the definition outlined in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty to a demand that people not offend. The classical liberal definition of tolerance prevented the state or civil society from silencing speech. By contrast, the new definition of tolerance requires silence; laws such as 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act make causing offense unlawful.
It is highly probable that a Shorten Labor government will attempt to legislate against homophobia with an 18c style law. Such a law would be problematic in a liberal democracy because liberal democracies are full of competing and conflicting ideas.
This conflict of ideas can be seen in a recent video produced by SBS’s television program The Feed. In the video SBS presenter Jan Fran initially defends Falau’s right to free speech but then refers to Folau’s views as being ’16th centuryesque’, says that he prays to a ‘non-existent god’ and asks ‘whether those who curse their parents should be put to death’. Those comments could all be deemed offensive to Christians.
A liberal democracy tolerates the broad range of conflicting ideas. When ideas conflict, offence is often inevitable. One can either believe the traditional Christian view that homosexuality is sinful; or can believe that traditional Christianity is an outdated homophobic religion. Depending on one’s views, the alternative view is likely to be offensive. Tolerance isn’t about everyone agreeing or being silent if they disagree, it merely requires that all views are allowed to be heard. When tolerance requires the absence of offence it becomes necessary to only allow one position to be heard. That position is the ‘tolerant’ position. Under the new offence-free definition of tolerance, one can either tolerate the traditional Christian position or the LGBTQ rights position. One will need to be censored. When this happens, tolerance just becomes another form of intolerance.
Journalist Andrew Breitbart once famously said that, ‘politics is downstream from culture.’ So, while pressuring corporations to pull their sponsorship to censor controversial views may not be an attack on free speech, it creates a culture that’s hostile to it. Where culture goes, politics will follow. People should be free to criticise Folau’s views on homosexuality, but when they do so they should avoid undermining the culture of tolerance on which their own free speech relies.