• Folau’s Folly

    The strife that Israel Folau has found himself in, following his statement that homosexuals and others are destined for hell, and calling on them to “repent”, has many consequences and ramifications – and not just for him and those whom he has condemned.

    For rugby fans, the issue is whether the fullback – about to be disowned by Rugby Australia – will play for the Wallabies at the Rugby World Cup. His absence would be a major blow to Australian hopes.

    And for English rugby, the question will be whether other players, like Billy Vunipola, will suffer any consequences for their online endorsement of Folau’s sentiments.

    For students of human rights, there will be issues of free speech. Shouldn’t, they might argue, Folau be allowed to think what he likes and say what he thinks without the “thought police” coming down on him?

    But this, of course, is where it gets complicated. Folau has, repeatedly, used the platform provided to him by his fame as a rugby player to give currency to his views in such a way as to compromise the sport to which he owes that fame. He cannot claim that he was unaware that his employers (and many of his rugby colleagues) were repelled by his views. And, having used rugby to extend the reach and impact of those views, he surely cannot now complain if rugby makes it clear that they do not share them – and, indeed, finds them objectionable – and that they wish to dissociate themselves from them.

    There is also a difference between just holding views and deciding to launch them into the public domain. Folau can think what he likes; it is only when he posts his private views in the social media that they have a wider and social impact – one that is not accidental, but intended – and they become a legitimate target for criticism and comment.

    It is not unusual to find that views like these will attract censure in a number of ways. The law, for example, provides that the public expression of certain kinds of views can attract legal consequences – either because they are seen to be harmful to the cohesion of our society, or because they treat unfairly and denigrate particular groups or individuals, so that their standing in the eyes of others will suffer or they will themselves suffer a loss of self-esteem.

    At this point, Folau’s case introduces a further complication. No one doubts that Folau’s online statements denigrated and traduced certain groups of people, and were intended to do so. But, his supporters argue, his statements reflect his religious beliefs. To preserve his own freedom of religious belief, they say, he must be free to broadcast, even to preach and seek support for, the message that he believes he has received from his God, whatever its detrimental effect on others.

    It is just too bad, they say, if those who do not share his religious beliefs feel offended or threatened by, or are harmed by, what he says. His freedom to proselytise on behalf of his religion should not be limited.

    But a blanket “free pass” for offensive and harmful views on the ground that they emanate from sincerely held religious beliefs could be exploited by almost anyone. A claim that a certain view is an expression of a particular religious belief rests, in any case, on nothing more than the claim of the person making it that his religion requires it of him. Whatever its provenance, it is still a statement made by that individual – and one for which personal responsibility must be accepted.

    It should still be judged by the same standards as are applied by our society to all statements and claims; investing a contentious view with some supposed divine authority on the say-so of the person making it should not render it immune to the judgment that would ordinarily be applied.

    Israel Folau was literally careless about the harm and distress he caused to many (sometimes vulnerable) people – the very antithesis, one might have thought, of a Christian attitude – and is apparently ready to pay the price for expounding his beliefs. We should take him at his word.

    Bryan Gould
    15 April 2019

1 Comment

  1. John Drinnan says: April 17, 2019 at 12:06 amReply

    He breached a commercial agreement and that is how it should be dealt with. The problem is the media – which is intent on promoting his views for the sake of outrage clicks and commercial gains. He is a Rugby player – not a philosopher, The public should not be punished because ot the cyncism of the media, Too many politicans and journalists are baying for controls of speech,

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