As I get older (maybe not necessarily wiser), I feel that as a society, we are becoming far less tolerant and yet far more sensitive – something of a paradox, possibly linked to a decline in personal resilience and a lack of quality and robustness in public discourse. And for a country that is both a secular state and a liberal democracy (and definitely not a theocracy), there has been a surprising amount of debate in Australia recently, about the need for a new or revised “freedom of religion“.
Much of the commentary has been prompted by the thoughtless and potentially harmful remarks by a professional sports player, who espouses a particularly fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Because the very public expression of his personal beliefs led to the termination of his employment, this has been interpreted as a curtailment of the player’s freedom of religion.
Without getting too legalistic (and there is an administrative review pending), the player’s public statements were out of line with the social values and civil rights espoused by his employer – to the extent that they could bring this particular sporting code into disrepute. It was also a repeat incident. At the very least, these comments could have led to a reduction in the employer’s revenue from sponsors or spectators. (And let’s consider that his comments drew so much attention because he had the privilege of a public platform, one which came as a result of his employment status and his professional profile.)
According to this player’s particular creed, his human-constructed belief system permits, condones and even encourages the use of language that bullies and belittles people who don’t adhere to his own views on sexuality, lifestyle choices or even “belief” itself. While much has been said about the homophobic nature of the said player’s tweet, let’s not forget he also targeted atheists in the same context, simply because they are non-believers.
As I frequently tell customer call centres, who often like to blame the “system” for their own organisation’s failings, a system is only as reliable as the people who design and run it. So, if being an adherent to a particular belief system means you have to hold and profess abhorrent views, especially those that are out of step with civil society, then clearly there is something at fault at the heart of that mechanism.
I recently heard a speech by a retired judge on human rights and civil liberties. He referred to an aphorism attributed to John Stuart Mill, in connection with his treatise “On Liberty”, and the harm principle:
“Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins”
In other words, you may be free to say what you like, but Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative freedom means that (despite Voltaire’s standpoint in defence of free speech) even your verbal punches are not permitted to interfere with or harm someone else’s rights – yet alone instill in them a fear for their personal safety and human dignity.
Nowadays, some might say that too many people are prone to having a metaphorical glass jaw – that they take offence too easily, and seek to find malicious intent in any views or comments that they find objectionable or that do not accord with their own world view. Equally, people can (metaphorically) stick their jaw out, seeking to provoke a reaction by drawing attention to themselves, so that they can claim “foul” when they bang up against a countervailing fist. The boundary between personal rights and freedom of expression is becoming increasingly blurred.
When it comes to calls for the special protection (and even promotion) of religious freedoms, I have something of a problem. Quite apart from the entrenched social prejudices inherent in many organised religions, it seems incongruous that such institutions can claim tax benefits as charitable bodies, and receive public funding while enjoying exemptions from certain anti-discrimination laws.
Although we don’t have a law against heresy in Australia, we still have blasphemy laws in most States. Even though they are rarely invoked, the fact that they exist reinforces the notion that far from needing a “freedom of religion”, religious beliefs are somehow already seen to be above the law. Surely, in a multi-cultural, secular and pluralistic society, religious beliefs will have to take their chances alongside (and rub up against) the rest of human constructs and natural systems – science, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, sociology.
Next week: Startup Vic’s Health Tech & Med Tech Pitch Night