Society

One Same-Sex Marriage, a Conscientious Objector, and Three Failed Arguments (Part Two)

Introduction

A few weeks ago, I began a short series examining several arguments that have been put forward by Australian advocates of same-sex marriage, many of whom think that conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry should not be allowed to withhold their creative talents from a same-sex wedding. In my first post, I critically engaged the claim that a dissenting wedding operator is analogous to a racist business owner who refuses to serve certain people based on the colour of their skin. As anybody who read that piece will know, I found the argument sadly wanting, even as I acknowledged that efforts like mine to rebut it aren’t likely to make a substantial difference to the overall trajectory of the debate. Nevertheless, I continue in the hope that conducting discussions on the basis of a shared commitment to reason and civility — not to mention a sincere and open pursuit of the truth — remains a worthwhile enterprise. This is particularly so in a liberal democracy, which can only properly survive if such conduct is not just accepted, but practiced.

Religious Expression and Journalistic Fallacies

In this post, I want to tackle a slightly different attempt to legitimize restrictions upon dissenting wedding operators. Like the focus of my previous piece, this argument is based on the alleged analogy between opposition to SSM and forms of conduct that are widely (if not universally) condemned. Unlike the analogy between race and SSM, this one is concerned with narrower questions regarding acceptable (and indeed, unacceptable) manifestations of religiosity.

On the day the results of Australia’s SSM plebiscite were revealed, the journalist Michael Bachelard wrote a piece for the Fairfax press, in which he averred that “religious freedom is, and should be, limited”. This basic thesis formed the backdrop to his specific point: namely, that there is no reason to allow a wedding vendor to refuse service to a same-sex couple on the grounds of a sincere religious belief. In fact, he claimed that there are obvious reasons why such practices should be prohibited, and went on to cite several examples of religiously-inspired activity that is nonetheless deemed illegal. Among them were the Jesus People and Children of God (cultish groups that have engaged in the violent sexual abuse of women and children) and certain Muslim sects that practice female genital mutilation (hereafter, FGM). Bachelard seemed to think that because Australian law already prohibits sexual abuse and FGM — even if they are practiced by sincere religious individuals — there exists clear and principled precedent for restricting the ability of a religious wedding operator to refuse to service to a same-sex wedding.

At a glance, the argument appears to be quite persuasive. But to take a well-worn cliché: looks can be deceiving. Beneath its superficial cogency lie several problems, which taken together prove to be fatal. Bachelard’s claimed analogies aren’t really analogous at all, at least in the relevant sense. Quite the opposite: as we shall see, there are a number of crucial differences between Bachelard’s selected examples, and the case of a dissenting wedding vendor.

Excursus: Pre-empting a Predictable Objection (Yet Again)

I will examine those differences shortly. But before I do that, I want to briefly highlight another erroneous element in Bachelard’s argument. At one point, he criticises the (since aborted) attempts by Liberal Senator, James Paterson, to introduce a SSM bill into parliament, which would have given conscientious objectors in the commercial wedding industry the right to refuse service to a same-sex wedding. Bachelard contends that everyone ought to abide by anti-discrimination laws, “in the name of a civilized society, in not discriminating against people for who they are” (emphasis mine). Bachelard wants to say that a religiously conservative wedding vendor who does not wish to service a same-sex wedding is in clear violation of anti-discrimination law — and is, to that extent, engaging in self-evidently unlawful activity, just as the abusive member of the Jesus People is when he molests children.

Such activity would of course be unjust if it were done on the basis of the italicised portion of the quote above. But is someone who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding really “discriminating against people for who they are”? As I sought to show in my previous essay, that refusal is grounded in one’s beliefs about the true shape and nature of marriage. It is not about the identities or attributes of the participants per se, but about the structure of the event in which they are participating. Indeed, as I also demonstrated in that earlier piece, the parties to an event and the event itself are logically distinct; to oppose the latter does not require a person to hold any animus against, or evince bad faith towards, the former. Dissenting wedding operators who have been hauled before judges and anti-discrimination boards have made it abundantly clear that they are more than happy to serve gay and lesbian couples for a variety of occasions. In addition, the recent ruling by a Californian judge in just such a case suggests that not only is a refusal to service a same-sex wedding not a genuine instance of unfair discrimination; being compelled to provide that service may actually constitute a violation of the rights of the wedding vendor in question. So it’s not at all clear that what Bachelard assumes (which is precisely what he does) is correct. This will be important as we proceed, lest anyone is tempted to rest on the facile riposte that conduct of this kind is unjustly — and obviously — discriminatory.

Same-Sex Weddings, FGM and Sexual Abuse: Some Crucial Dis-analogies

Let’s return, however, to Bachelard’s alleged analogies, and why they fail on multiple levels. To begin, there is a wide gulf in the degree of harm experienced by those who have supposedly been wronged. I would argue that the examples in Bachelard’s article are, in fact, vastly different in their effects. For example, a girl who endures FGM suffers injury in a way that a same-sex couple — who might be faced with the indignity of a religiously conservative florist refusing to arrange their wedding bouquets — does not. Apart from the excruciating pain of the procedure itself, a victim of FGM will likely experience a combination of some (or all) of the following symptoms, often for many years: painful periods, excessive bleeding, labour difficulties, infections, urinary problems, unhealed wounds, or even death.  Of course, a same-sex couple confronted with an unwilling wedding operator is likely to feel aggrieved and embarrassed. No one would want to deny that such an experience could well leave one feeling quite humiliated. Nor would one wish to trivialise such experiences. But the question of degree or proportion is paramount. Certainly, it’s difficult to equate that kind emotional hardship — which may be rather ephemeral, depending on the circumstances — with the acute, long-term physical and psychological suffering a young female experiences as a result of a forced clitoridectomy.  The severity of the one is, I would suggest, far outweighed by the other.

This is not to say that such differences are sufficient in themselves to secure dissenting wedding vendors a reprieve (even if they should give us pause to wonder whether Bachelard has been too hasty in grouping these examples together): if publicly manifesting one’s religious beliefs leads to harm (whether physical or emotional), then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how severe or enduring that harm is. One may argue that even if they do differ in degree, they might nonetheless fall under the same broad rubric of “harm”; as such (so the argument might go), they should be liable to penalties commensurate with the severity of the offence.

But in this instance, a difference in degree is accompanied by, and connected to, a qualitative distinction. Whilst measuring the harm experienced by the victim of FGM or sexual abuse is relatively straightforward, at least in legal terms, things are not so easy in the case of a same-sex couple claiming emotional or dignitary harm as a result of being refused service by a wedding vendor. The former case involves material injury to one’s person — in other words, harms that can be publicly identified and verified. They possess a tangibility that injuries associated with supposedly insulting conduct by another person lack. Indeed, the relationship between a certain act and one’s subjective experience of offence or emotional distress is more remote than the tight, causal connection between the practice of, say, FGM and the experience of personal suffering. Whilst the latter is, by its very nature, bound to cause harm, the extent to which the former causes injury is based on the internal states and perceptions of those who may be in a position to make such a claim. This renders the notion of dignitary or emotional injury far more slippery: whilst the consequences of FGM can be readily defined and substantiated, it is much more difficult to obtain proof of emotional harm that can be publicly countenanced.  This is not to say that it does not, in general, exist, or that those making such claims are lying. It is merely to argue that they are far harder to capture legally than actions that quite clearly violate the liberty of another individual by causing material — and, supervening upon that, psychological — injury.

This brings me to a further dis-analogy: that which concerns the distribution of rights and possible harms between the two parties. In the case of religious leaders practicing FGM or sexual abuse, there is a clear, even radical, asymmetry of rights or entitlements. The right of vulnerable individuals not to be violated by the activity of others automatically negates the alleged “right” of the person perpetrating those acts to manifest his religious convictions in this way. The sacrosanct nature of one’s person is part of the bedrock of our legal system. It is regarded as morally and legally inviolable, such that an act that attempts to impinge upon that status is necessarily deemed unlawful. Religious motivation, however genuine it may be, is irrelevant in these circumstances — as are any claims of “harm” that might be “suffered” by the perpetrator if he were compelled to cease his activity. Moreover, whilst the injuries associated with Bachelard’s examples are readily apparent in the case of the victims, corresponding claims made by perpetrators would be so intangible — so indefinable — as to defy verification.

However, there seems to be a much closer balance between the alleged rights or harms of a dissenting wedding vendor and those of a same-sex couple wanting to wed. Whatever rights a same-sex couple may claim in this context, and whatever alleged distress they may have experienced as a result of being rebuffed — these must be weighed against the rights of a person to maintain integrity and cohesion between inner conviction and outward expression. On the one hand, we have noted that claims of emotional injury or dignitary harm are theoretically problematic. Even on the assumption that such notions could be defined coherently and measured intelligibly, it does not follow that precipitating conduct should be penalized (in the way that conduct causing material or bodily harm ought to be). Indeed, as the American legal scholar, Andrew Koppelman (himself an advocate for SSM) has pointed out:*

“The dignitary harm of knowing that some of your fellow citizens condemn your way of life is not one from which a law can or should protect you in a regime of free speech”.

On the other hand, dissenting wedding vendors can also claim that they possess certain rights. Religiously conservative wedding vendors can assert that having to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding potentially violates their deeply-held convictions: engaging in activity that implicitly legitimizes a ceremony of which a person disapproves forces them to dis-integrate their views and their conduct. It is at least arguable that the religiously conservative cake-maker (for example) has the right not to participate in something he regards as immoral, in order to avoid complicity. We might recall what I said earlier about the Californian judge, who recently ruled that forcing a Christian baker to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple was a violation of her right to freedom of speech and expressive conduct. In addition, Bachelard’s argument ignores the possible harms such vendors may have to endure, regardless of the choice they make. Those who do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding are, in many instances, confronted with the prospect of two unwelcome alternatives: violate their consciences and sacred convictions; or succumb to often hefty financial and pecuniary penalties.

Active and Passive Manifestations of Religion: A Fundamental Difference

There is one final difference between Bachelard’s chosen examples, and that of the dissenting wedding vendor. It centres on the direction of activity between the two parties, and the asymmetry between passive and active manifestations of one’s (in this case, religious) beliefs. I have hinted at this difference already, in referring to the kinds of violations of which a practitioner of FGM is guilty, but which appear to be absent in the case of a religiously conservative wedding vendor. However, I think it important to flesh this out a little more.

In the case, say, of an acolyte of the Jesus People abusing a minor within their spiritual community, we have a clear example of one individual acting upon another, thereby curtailing his right to liberty and freedom from degrading treatment. Indeed, I think most would agree that the act, by its very nature, violates the victim’s person, and, in most cases, harms them materially. The religious believer in this instance manifests his convictions in an active manner; he commits a certain act against another individual, which necessarily restricts or smothers their rights. In that sense, it’s a zero sum game: the active party imposes himself upon a vulnerable, unconsenting or unwilling recipient, which entails the simultaneous extension and restriction of one’s freedom of action. As I have already noted, it is for this reason that such behaviour, whatever its inspiration, is rightly considered unlawful — and indeed, criminal.

However, the religiously-inclined wedding vendor who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding is engaged in passive abstention. Here, the question of (religiously-motivated) imposition is irrelevant, for it simply does not exist. The vendor seeks to preserve coherence between inner conviction and outward activity, whilst avoiding duplicitous, hypocritical or morally inconsistent behaviour, and does so by refraining from participation in the event. In other words, he merely omits to do something. As the American columnist David Brooks (another advocate of SSM) has recently written, religiously conservative wedding operators who refuse to participate creatively in a same-sex wedding aren’t trying to restrict others’ (in this case, gay) rights; nor are they imposing themselves on other people. They are simply asking not “to be forced to take part” — i.e., they seek leave to abstain from contributing materially to something with which they disagree. Where someone who practices FGM assumes an active, dominant role in the relationship with the victim of such a procedure, a Jack Phillips or a Barronelle Stutzman is simply “withdrawing” from certain activity. This does not affect the hypothetical same-sex couple in the same way that sexual abuse, say, affects its victim: apart from the relative difficulties surrounding the notion of dignitary harm, the couple in this scenario is not restricted or coercively acted upon, as the passive parties in Bachelard’s initial examples most certainly are.

Indeed, whereas the individuals in Bachelard’s opening examples necessarily violate the integrity of another’s person, the same cannot be said of the hypothetical wedding vendor. In arguing for limits to expressions of religious belief, Bachelard presumes that anything less would lead to the unwelcome expansion of pernicious activity, under the guise of maintaining religious liberty (Bachelard even dismisses countervailing calls as “bogus”, clearly implying that those who advocate in this direction are cynically using religious freedom as a veneer to advance oppressive practices). This, of course, would explain why he has framed the debate with examples that most people are likely to see as clear and violent threats to civil liberties. But again, he overlooks key features of the active-passive distinction I have tried to highlight. Religious practices such as FGM and cultish sexual abuse are what we might term inherently “expansionist” — that is, they expand the range of the perpetrator’s activity at the expense of his victim. By contrast, the actions of conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry are “preservationist”: as Brooks’ earlier observation suggests, they seek merely to preserve what they believe could be undermined through participation in an event that contradicts their basic convictions. Limiting freedom of religion in the former instances goes without saying, given their active tendency towards the suffocation of rights and the generation of suffering. The notion that similar restrictions should be applied to the latter is, at the very least, a contestable proposition.

Final Reflections

Bachelard’s argument is likely to appeal to those who already agree that withholding commercial wedding services to a same-sex couple is an egregious example of invidious discrimination. It’s also bound to appeal to many of the uncommitted, who aren’t likely to ask whether his contention has any merit, or whether it’s fair to group an unwilling baker (say) with child rapists and mutilators of the flesh. In that sense, Bachelard’s not unlike the targets of my last piece on this topic, since they also sought to draw connections between superficially similar acts. Intentional or not, his rhetoric has the effect of circumventing a person’s critical faculties: having first been confronted with examples of religiously-motivated violence, the unwary reader is lured into docile acceptance of the proposition that the sacred convictions of religiously-sensitive wedding operators should be met with the same kind of righteous fury. This is simply guilt-by-association, but without the label.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not arguing that there should be no limits on alleged expressions of religious belief. What I have written here should make that clear. But I also think that there are principled reasons for allowing some religious freedoms whilst disallowing others. That, too, should be clear from what I have written. But the problem, as I see it, lies in the basic orientation of a piece like Bachelard’s. Underlying the words themselves is the fundamentally negative belief that religion is, and has been, a largely malignant influence on society. Whether one is referring to an imam who mutilates young girls or a dissenting wedding vendor, it is important that manifestations of religious or spiritual belief — especially those in the public arena — be kept on a taut leash. That leash, of course, is to be held by the secular state, which (to change the metaphor) must corral such expressions so that the baleful forces of superstition and religious bigotry do not corrode our modern, progressive way of life. If anyone objects to this project, their claims can safely be dismissed as a rear-guard action, aimed at  shoring up the last vestiges of religious privilege. Or so the assumption goes, anyway.

But it’s time to conclude. Despite his own certainty on this question — one might call it a kind of secular zeal — Bachelard’s claimed analogy breaks down at almost every relevant point. He is left with the mere shell of an argument, which not only fails to advance a good-faith dialogue, but positively frustrates it. Unfortunately, given the times in which we live, his offering is likely to fuel efforts that further restrict the right of religious conservatives to live in harmony with their deeply-held convictions.

*Please note that the article to which I have linked was not penned by Koppelman, but by the legal academic, Sherif Girgis, who quoted the same excerpt that I did. It appears the original piece is no longer available for viewing online (it was originally published in the Southern Californian Law Review).

 

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Worshiping the “God” of MTD: Modern Idolatry, Ancient Roots

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a certain magazine, but it was not published. So you, dear readers, may enjoy it now. 

A little over a decade ago, the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, examined the lives of religious contemporary American teenagers, interviewing, among others, young Christians. What he discovered was very revealing.

According to Smith, most of those he spoke with held views about God and their relationship to him, which, whilst bearing a faint resemblance to the religion in which they had grown up, were, in many ways, dramatically different – owing more to contemporary cultural and spiritual norms than to ancient religious traditions. Smith argued that these beliefs formed a kind of spiritual ‘complex’, and was the de facto (and dominant) religion amongst teens in the United States. Smith christened this phenomenon, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (or MTD for short).

The concept of MTD needs some unpacking. Smith contended that religious teens held to several fixed points in their creed: God, generically defined, wants all people to “be good, nice and fair to each other,” with goodness here being defined in a vague sort of way; God also, governs the world at a distance, though he might not intervene all that frequently; when he does intervene, it is to help people solve problems that confront in their lives; the chief aim in life is to develop a positive self-image – something that God is supposed to guarantee; and that ‘good’ people will go to heaven. For the teens Smith interviewed, these elements were axiomatic, amounting to belief in a laissez-faire god, whose interventions are chiefly therapeutic, who asks people to practice a fairly banal kind of morality, and who guarantees – based upon adherence to that morality – a place of enjoyment in the hereafter.

What was really astounding was Smith’s discovery that most of his subjects had not developed their ideas independently; rather, they had imbibed them from the religious communities of which were a part. This led Smith to contend that they were simply reflections of a wider phenomenon, prevalent in mosques, synagogues and (importantly) churches. If that is so, then MTD encompasses many more people, not just those Smith interviewed.

* * *

Whilst the modern world – with its consumerism, deep individualism and transactional view of so much of life – is particularly conducive to the propagation of something like MTD, we should not make the mistake of thinking that some “golden age” of religion lies somewhere beyond the range of our own historical grasp. And, more to the point, neither Christians individually, nor the church corporately, has been immune to the phenomenon. I am reminded, for example, of the great popularity that the Prosperity “Gospel” has achieved in many putative Christian communities: trust in God, and all your (material) dreams will come true! A generation or two ago, families may have gone to church, not because they discerned a divine summons to be a part of a new, spiritual community, but because of cultural constraints. The real goal, it seems, was not obedience to God, the ground and centre of all that is, but cultural integration and local respectability. Similarly, when Christianity was the dominant civil religion in the West, developing contacts within a local church community could do wonders for an aspiring businessman. Again, God was seen an instrument, and religion merely functional – lacking, perhaps, truth and significance in itself, and reduced to a means towards a more fundamental (in this case, economic) end.

Such a phenomenon stretches back even further, all the way to the very dawning of Christianity. About two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul had to wrestle with a raft of problems besetting the church in Corinth. Called to live out a life of holiness and obedience before the God that had liberated them, the Corinthian Christians had tried to fuse the Gospel with pagan ideas of religion and spirituality. Far from seeing the Gospel – and the God who stood behind it – as something to which they were called to yield, the Corinthians viewed it as something that could be used to get ahead. This is reflected, amongst other things, in what Paul says about personality cults (1 Cor 1:10-12, 3:1-9), sexual immorality (5:1-6), and self-aggrandizement through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Chs. 12-14). In all these ways, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating God as secondary, as little more than an instrument that could be manipulated for other ends.

It is for these reasons that contemporary individualism can only ever function as one type of explanation for the phenomenon of MTD. Sure, it can well flourish in such an environment: a spiritual creed that emphatically places the individual at its centre certainly plays well to our present age. But if what I have said is true, then using God, or the divine, for oneself is not merely the preserve of the modern age; using God as an instrument – a kind of secondary tool – is something to which people in every age are prone. Perhaps, beneath the varied manifestations of superficial spirituality and counterfeit piety lies the primal reality of the humanity’s propensity towards idolatry – of reducing the transcendent God to a human fabrication, which can then be tamed and exploited. Paul, of course, knew this well, when he excoriated humanity for its tendency to exchange the glory of the immortal Creator for bits of his creation (Romans 1:20-23, 25). Even the Corinthians, living so soon after the events of Easter, had constructed for themselves an idol that bore only faint resemblance to the God of the Gospel that Paul preached. Whether it’s in its ancient or modern guise, idolatry succeeds in turning God – and the spirituality that flows from him – into a mere function of a person’s own psychological interests and desires.

* * *

How different this is from an authentically Christian view of God and ourselves. As I was thinking about MTD, three main differences stood out, which together have profound implications for the construction of a genuine Christian spirituality. First, MTD seems to reflect a very ego-centric view of spirituality and religion, and is to that extent well-suited to our present, individualistic age. This is seen particularly in the way it shapes a person’s ethical outlook. Whilst MTD makes room for fairness and niceties, it promotes a kind of ‘no-cost’ morality, which will only go so far as the needs and interests of the individual will allow. As Smith discovered even this system of morality was, for many of his subjects, another means of attaining subjective wellbeing: ‘do good, feel good’, in other words. Neither (divinely-mandated) goodness, nor the image-bearing objects of that goodness, are ends in themselves; on the view of MTD, they are instruments for the more self-centred goal of bolstering personal self-esteem.

Christian ethics is much more radical than that, for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is founded upon the figure of Jesus himself, who gave us a model of sacrificial service before God and others. Where MTD uses the self as the yardstick of what is right and good, for Christian spirituality, it is the character and life of Jesus that grounds all ethics. Similarly, where MTD is focused primarily upon the individual, Christianity is focused, in large part, upon others. Many of Jesus’ parables have this flavour about them. He talks, for example, of the “wise and faithful” person as characterised by a willingness, in deference to God, to serve others with what he or she has (e.g., Luke 12:42ff).

It’s hard, too, not to think of what Paul says when he writes to the church in Philippi. The believers there should adopt an attitude like that of Jesus himself, who “made himself nothing”, “taking the…nature of a servant”, and “humbling himself…to death…on a cross” on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5-8). This represents a far more comprehensive, far more sweeping, approach to the ethical – indeed, the righteous – life. It is a life that revolves, not around the needs of self, but around the needs of others, even if that means sacrificing what is cherished or treasured. True Christian spirituality asks a person to order his or her life around an enduring commitment to the needs of others. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation in Philippians points to the dramatic nature of this commitment, as the Christian seeks to emulate Christ: it must lead to an imitative willingness to put aside any claims one might have, whether those claims relate to one’s status, possessions, comforts – even, according to the passage, one’s own life.

On the other hand, the kind of ethical change that authentic Christian spirituality demands – indeed, enables – moves far beyond the essentially affirmative formula of MTD. Given that MTD rests on the individual’s moral estimations for its ethical centre, it can never be truly transformative. Jesus’ well-known exhortation that one must be “born again” in order to “see” God (John 3:3) points subtly in this direction: the present, transient world can never provide the resources for a genuinely spiritual life; one must “begin again”, as it were, with the life of the Christian representing such a break from the past that it can be described as a new birth. In this, we must remember the centrality of the figure of Christ: he functions, not only as the paradigm for authentic Christian living, but as the foundation making it possible in the first place. Christian orthodoxy calls for a complete re-ordering of a person’s life, ethically and spiritually, as a person’s old nature is left behind, and a new nature is adopted (Col 3:5, 10). And this can only come about because of the pioneering work of Jesus himself. It is, of course, through him that one may undergo that change, as one is taken from the realm of sin and death and corruption, and placed under the aegis of him who sets the pattern for true, image-bearing living. MTD, by contrast, makes no room for the fundamental renovation of a person’s nature, nor can it; it can only encourage superficial change at best.

The second main difference I discerned is deeply related to the first. The ego-centric nature of MTD implies that God is also treated as a means to an end. God is reduced to a kind of “cosmic butler” (Smith), there largely to satisfy our wants and resolve our problems. God is ‘consumed’, so to speak, providing a product – in this case, spiritual harmony and psychological peace – to people whose main concern is to derive from religion whatever they can to help them along in life. Again, it’s difficult to overstate the difference here from a genuine Christian view of God. If true religion calls for service to others as a clear demonstration of piety, then it also sees obedience to God – from which flows the call to give of oneself to one’s fellows – as the greatest good. What the Gospel does is upend our relationship to the transcendent. God is not a “cosmic butler”, but the Lord of the cosmos; Christ, as the one who uniquely reveals this God, is the master; his claim over our lives – leading inevitably to the summons to self-giving love – is total and comprehensive. Moreover, he is not some kind of instrument, or the means to a more fundamental end, precisely because he is, in himself, the ultimate end and fulfilment of all things. He is utterly transcendent — sovereign over everything — whilst also constituting the existential ground of all that is. As Paul put it, when he preached to the pagans of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christian spirituality remains adrift unless it is tethered to an acknowledgement of God as the One upon whom everything exists, and from whom all life flows. He is the beginning and the end, the source and the summit, of all existence. Trying to use God to reach something that one sees as the ultimate goal (as MTD implicitly does) is like a person who, having lost a torch in the middle of the day, decides to use the brilliance of the sun to search for it – hoping then they will be able to find that little source of light, and use it for the illumination they so desperately seek.

At any rate, the deism of MTD ironically undercuts whatever comfort one might seek from this kind of god. He is a distant deity: neither greatly concerned with the world’s affairs (save for wanting to guarantee psychological stability in certain people), nor driven to do anything, fundamentally, about it. He is the absentee-landlord of eighteenth-century deism, with a little bit of Oprah-inspired therapeutic wisdom thrown in for good measure. This brings me to the third main difference between the creed of MTD and authentic Christian belief. Whilst the God of Christian theology and tradition is transcendent, he is most certainly not distant. For it is in his transcendence – his freedom from all constraints, both material and metaphysical – that he is able, at the same time, to be intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Reading through, say, John’s Gospel, shows us the twin truths of God’s supremacy and closeness, upon which a robust Christian spirituality may be built. He is, on the one hand, the Creator of all things, who through his Word has fashioned and animated this world (John 1:1-3). But he is also the heavenly Father, who condescends to those who are his, welcoming them into the intimate fellowship of the Trinitarian community (John 14:23; 17:26). What follows is an abiding, deep-rooted joy, based upon the enduring presence of the Creator himself. It is, in other words, the goal and focal point of true spirituality. With its offers of superficial succour, tied as they are to the vagaries of a person’s psychological state, the God of MTD represents a parody of what union with the divine is meant to look like.

* * *

MTD, then, is simply the latest in a litany of creeds and spiritual ‘packages’ offering the mirage of piety and religious devotion. At any rate, if we were to follow its underlying logic, we’d be left with a domesticated deity, denuded of his sovereign majesty. Any claim he might want to make upon us would be empty, since we would ultimately be at the centre of our spiritual lives. Such a relationship appears to be a far cry from what both Scripture and Christian tradition have affirmed about the Creator: he who brought the worlds into being with his command, who declared that he is the self-existent “I AM”, and who confronted Job in the storm. The temptation towards idolatry which confronts every age is something that also confronts the church as it seeks to represent God faithfully and genuinely.

The challenge for us, I suppose, is to humbly yield to the God who has created us, and upon whom we utterly depend. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by this God, who calls us – summons us – to be his. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of trying to look beyond him for whatever he can provide for us. He is, as I said, the ultimate foundation of everything else, such that there is no ‘beyond’. That way lies the false gods of human imagination, as do all efforts to ‘massage’ our image of the divine according to whatever cultural trends may presently be in vogue. The God Christians are called to follow cannot be tamed by human designs, or be made to fit into convenient packages, for the very reason that he is the One within whose plans and purposes we are called to fit. Such an acknowledgment is part of the very fabric of authentic Christian spirituality. Being a Christian, and pursuing a life of discipleship, requires the willingness to enter into a narrative that is not of one’s own making, one that has been opened up by the epochal work of Christ: a “world” that establishes the boundaries of truth and reality, morality and holiness. It can be difficult and demanding, in that we are not the ultimate legitimators of what constitutes the good. However, with that acknowledgement comes the opportunity to reflect and embody the ultimate Ground of all goodness – to live and act according to our (divinely-intended) natures.

To embody a fully-orbed life of Christian faith, we cannot fall into the trap of ‘consuming’ religion in order simply to satisfy some kind of spiritual dimension. As we approach God – as we approach the crucified and resurrected Christ – we are confronted with One who upends our assumptions about our relation to the divine, and subverts all of the idols that we may have constructed. For God is the One over every dimension, public and private, which compose the rather messy projects we call our lives. When we adopt this kind of posture, and clothe ourselves in this kind of thinking, we will find that those longings for fulfilment, transcendence, completeness and calm – all worthwhile and legitimate in themselves – are paradoxically met. It is a life of death and resurrection, of radical transformation, where one’s old existence is swallowed up by newness of life (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54). It is something that contemporary constructions of spirituality, reflecting as they do the strictures and finitude of the present world, could never hope to emulate.

One Same-Sex Marriage, a Conscientious Objector, and Three Failed Arguments (Part One)

Introduction

They say that history is written by the victors. In the case of same-sex marriage legislation in Australia, it seems that the victors seek to write the future as well. Not content with the passage of SSM into law, advocates on both sides of the political aisle voted down a number of amendments that sought to protect the rights of dissenters from the new orthodoxy. For many of them, mere change of the marriage act was insufficient; complete public conformity now has to be enforced, underwritten by the imprimatur of the state. To be sure, some politicians who voted for Senator Dean Smith’s marriage bill unchanged claimed several substantive arguments in their defence. However, I cannot escape the feeling that for many parliamentary supporters of SSM, a desire for total victory was the primary driving force. That, and a sense of urgency induced by the approaching festive season, ensured that most of the proposed amendments received little more than cursory consideration.

As a consequence, only the most narrow of exemptions — touching directly on ministers of religion or religious institutions — remain in the bill. As for those who do not benefit from the protected sanctions of a recognized denomination, they may well find it difficult — perhaps exceedingly so — to preserve the integrity of their convictions in the face of demands to acquiesce. Photographers who decline to capture a same-sex wedding on film; a civil celebrant who does not wish to preside over a wedding ceremony centred around a same-sex couple; or a parent who does not want to expose her child to sex education that promotes a conception of marriage that contradicts her beliefs: in each case (and unless future amendments are accepted), the conscientious objector in question will have little recourse if they wish to retain the purity of their convictions. Since most opponents of SSM — or, to put it more positively, supporters of traditional marriage — are likely to oppose the change on religious grounds, any confrontation between the new regime and lingering dissent will raise burning questions concerning the legitimate scope of religious liberty in a secular society. If recent flashpoints in other countries are anything to go by, they’re likely to be rancorous affairs — deepening further the fissures that already exist between religious and secular, conservative and progressive.

Of course, for many advocates of SSM, both here and overseas, stringent limitations on a person’s ability to publicly express his or her (religious) convictions in this area is only just: true equality does not exist if even a few, lonely holdouts are permitted to maintain so-called “bigoted” attitudes beyond the citadels of their minds. This is certainly the case where commercial wedding vendors — specifically, those that directly contribute to the celebratory nature of a same-sex wedding — are concerned. Whether some Australian wedding operators may decline to provide services to same-sex nuptials remains to be seen; SSM was only legislated a month ago, and the first such ceremonies won’t be taking place until some time next month. However, the issue has been playing out in various locales across the United States, pitting religious conservatives against same-sex couples and their allies in state bureaucracies. As in so many things, US developments in this area could well be a harbinger of things to come here.

At any rate, whilst there may be a diversity of views on other questions, most SSM advocates (and even some opponents) are convinced that refusal to lend one’s creative talents to a same-sex wedding is manifestly unfair. For many of them, the alleged obviousness of their position means that it needs no discursive or articulated foundation. Still, some supportive politicians and commentators have tried to buttress it by proffering a series arguments that purport to demonstrate the illegitimacy of public opposition to SSM within the commercial space — particularly where it is inspired or driven by religious belief.

Three such approaches have recently caught my eye. All of them bear directly upon the issue of conflicting beliefs within the context of commercial transactions, and could be said to have implications for religious expression, conscience and intellectual liberty. Given the limits of space (which I have no doubt already pressed), I shall concentrate on only the first of the three arguments I have in mind. I’ve had reason to touch on these issues before, but recent events in the United States — where a dispute between Jack Phillips, a religious cake-shop owner, and a same-sex couple has made its way to the Supreme Court — mean that they still possess sharp currency. Despite claims that unwilling wedding vendors are likely to be a minor matter (and therefore of little significance), I incline to the view that if a political right is legitimate, it hardly matters how many people might be robbed of it by an overweening state. Furthermore, I think it important to answer advocates who would seek to ensure universal submission to the reality  of SSM, and to expose the shallowness of their arguments. A Sisyphean task, perhaps, but necessary nonetheless.

Race and Same-Sex Marriage: a False Analogy

Here, I want to examine a depressingly common justification for refusing to allow a dissenting wedding vendor to refrain from contributing materially and artistically to a same-sex wedding ceremony. I say “depressingly”, because the argument’s ubiquity is matched only by adherents’ rather thoughtless devotion to it. Some proponents of SSM have asserted that a wedding vendor who declines to provide his or her services to a same-sex ceremony is akin to commercial operators of a previous era placing signs in their front windows signalling their refusal to serve people of a certain “race”. If this sounds like an exaggeration — a caricature of an opponent’s point of view — then here is the ALP’s Penny Wong, staking out her position in response to the tabling of Liberal Senator James Paterson’s rival SSM bill:

“I thought we had gone past the point in this country where we had signs that said ‘We don’t serve Jews, we don’t serve blacks'”.

Senator Wong is hardly alone in thinking this way. During parliamentary debate on SSM and related amendments, Wong’s colleague, Linda Burney, asserted an equivalence between wedding vendors who decline to service a same-sex wedding, and racist business operators. And what about The Australian’s Peter Van Onselen, who lazily conflates the two actions? Their views simply reflect a great swathe of public opinion.

Unfortunately, the argument itself is deeply — indeed, corrosively — fallacious. To be sure, there are some superficial similarities between the examples cited by those above: in both activities, a kind of discrimination is taking place. But it should also be noted that not all such forms should automatically be construed as unfair or illegitimate. Discrimination takes place all the time in a myriad of settings, and it is even seen as virtuous in certain contexts. For example,  we do not fault an employer when he “discriminates” between the relative abilities of two candidates vying for a position at his firm. Quite the opposite: he is doing what is required of someone looking to enhance the profit-making capacity of his business. As such, there are times when a discriminatory outlook is not only warranted, but encouraged.

Wong, Burney, Van Onselen and their ilk are operating with a deeply confused understanding of what counts as unjust discrimination, illegitimately eliding real, invidious instances of discrimination with those that are only apparent. Refusing to serve someone based on their “race”, and declining to lend one’s creative talents to a same-sex wedding, are dis-analogous in a number of crucial respects.  At base, it is the difference between prejudicial treatment grounded in a person’s innate features or characteristics, and distinctions made based on a desire to avoid complicity in an event, ceremony or process with which one disagrees. As Senator Paterson — who is himself a supporter of SSM — has pithily said, “It’s not about the person, it’s about the event”.

It’s worth exploring these differences in a little more depth. On the one hand, commercial discrimination against someone based on race or ethnicity is rightly viewed as unfair, because it is grounded in (a) innate characteristics of an individual (as opposed to an event distinguishable from said individual); and (b) consequent considerations that are irrelevant to the transaction in question. The provision of housing cannot be withheld from, say, Indigenous folk, because no rational relationship obtains between (in this case) Aboriginality and accommodation, and no rational distinction exists between an Indigenous man and a white person. Such actions attack the person qua person, and serve simply to undermine their position as an equal member of society. Some academics have theorised that this is part of a wider system of racial domination, by which the dominant group seeks to reinforce the inferior status of the subordinate group. As a manifestation of that system, refusal to accommodate certain individuals on the basis of race targets certain intrinsic features which — once more — have no material connection to the goods and services they wish to access. That is why they are (justly) seen as bigoted or prejudicial.

On the other hand, there is a rational relationship between a wedding ceremony (in this case, a same-sex wedding ceremony) and the provision of wedding-related services. To provide such services just is to make a contribution to a same-sex couple’s nuptials. Here, the question of the shape and nature of the marriage in question becomes supremely relevant, at least for those who hold to a traditionalist view of marriage. This does not centre on a person’s sexual orientation (in the way that a bigoted hotelier’s refusal to serve African-Americans is intrinsically about one’s racial identity). Rather, and as Senator Paterson noted, the source of the vendor’s objection is the possible contribution to, and participation in, a particular event. Those wedding vendors who object to lending their services to a same-sex wedding do so, not because they refuse to serve LGBT people, nor because they wish to communicate a message of dominance to a supposedly subordinate group, but because they do not wish to participate in a ceremony that contravenes their conception of marriage.

Religiously conservative business owners who have  declined to render their services to a same-sex wedding have made this very point when hauled before state judiciaries. The separate experiences Baronelle Stuztman, a florist, and Jack Phillips (noted above) are instructive. Having been subject to legal sanction for their dissenting behaviour, both Ms Stutzman and Mr Phillips have stated clearly their willingness to serve gay couples for a variety of occasions. In fact, Ms Stutzman was sued by a gay couple she had willingly and cheerfully served for approximately a decade before running afoul of Washington State’s anti-discrimination statutes. However, she and Mr Phillips draw the line at making a material, artistic contribution to a same-sex wedding. In doing so, they are holding precisely to the distinction between persons and events that I have outlined. I’ve already written about Ms Stutzman, but it’s worth recalling the following words, since they can be applied to the issue more broadly (the brief excerpt within the quote comes from Ryan T. Anderson’s Public Discourse piece on this topic):

“In the case of Ms. Stutzman, her decision ‘did not spring from any convictions about people who identify as LGBT’, and had nothing to do with making distinctions based on a person’s sexual orientation; rather, it was rooted in what she believes to be the true shape of marriage”.

What proponents of the countervailing argument fail to realize is that there is actually a logical distinction between the sexual orientation of a person, and one’s definition of the institution of marriage. One may, for example, hold to a neutral — even positive — position on same-sex erotic relationships, even as they remain convinced that marriage is fundamentally a dyadic union of sexual complements. A quick thought experiment might help to make this distinction clearer. Imagine, if you will, a same-sex marriage composed of, say, two heterosexual women. Unlikely? Yes, but it is entirely conceivable.* Conversely, one may also imagine an opposite-sex marriage, composed of a gay man and a lesbian woman. It is therefore possible to separate the shape and nature of the event from the sexual identities of the participants involved. Assuming a religiously conservative cake-maker (for example) is consistent in his or her convictions, he or she will oppose the first union, but happily participate in the second. What these hypothetical examples do is dramatize the crucial difference between orientation (a feature of the person) and the structure of a marital relationship (an institution external to that person). That is why Ms Stutzman and Mr Phillips could, without a whit of inconsistency, serve LGBT people in a variety of contexts, and yet refuse to lend their artistic talents to a same-sex wedding.

By contrast, there is simply no parallel in the case of a business operator refusing to serve a customer because of the colour of their skin. Unlike the person-event distinction that obtains in the case of a same-sex couple wanting to marry, it is impossible to imagine a black person without reference to his or her ethnicity. Discrimination concerning race is inescapably grounded in certain, innate features of an individual; racially supremacist behaviour cannot be divorced from the prejudicial beliefs which underpin it, and is reducible those attitudes in a way that opposition to SSM (at least in some forms) isn’t. A distinction between neutral or positive regard and differential treatment — similar to the possibility that exists between one’s attitude towards homosexual relationships and a wedding vendor’s refusal to contribute to a same-sex wedding — is impossible where race is involved. A local publican’s turning away, say, an Indigenous man from his pub is simply the product of racial animus. The one is an expression of the other, such that in the absence of a personal attitude or belief concerning racial differences, a public display of racially-tinged discrimination would not — perhaps could not — exist.

Concluding Thoughts

The distinctions I have tried to highlight here are subtle, to be sure. But they are no less significant for all that. Sometimes, a fine-grained analysis is necessary, if only to expose the hollowness of an argument masquerading as self-evident truth. I remain convinced that this must be prosecuted, in order to make the case that it’s still possible for reasonable people to disagree. Of course, I fear that however strong my position is (and some may think it very weak indeed), it is likely to fall on a multitude of deaf ears — ears which belong to people who are already convinced that a Baronelle Stutzman and a proud segregationist dwell on the same moral plane. Indeed, the ease with which some progressives conflate the two leaves me doubtful about the prospects of détente or rapprochement on this issue.

As commentators like Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat have observed, if the analogy examined here continues gain acceptance, then dissenting photographers, bakers, etc. will likely suffer the same kind of ostracism that Jim Crow advocates (quite rightly) experience in the US. It will mean that those who dare to object to the new orthodoxy will likely see their views de-legitimised before they have been given a fair hearing. After all, would we be willing to sympathetically enter into the emotional and intellectual world of a person who thinks that African-Americans are inferior to whites, and that their economic and social subjection is simply part of the natural order of things? Would we be willing to sincerely consider their point of view with any degree of openness?

This phenomenon goes well beyond commercial wedding vendors. As Douthat notes, positions on SSM that were taken by left-leaning politicians just a few years ago are now condemned as the “purest atavism”. The experiences of unwilling wedding operators may therefore prove to be a barometer of things to come, both here and overseas: the alleged parallels I’ve examined are now frequently deployed at a more general level to tar all opponents of SSM, regardless of whether they are in a position to refuse participation in a same-sex wedding.** If the analogy between race and SSM does hold (socially, if not logically), then there’s no real reason to restrict its application to those operating in the commercial wedding sector. Needless to say, none of this bodes well for the future of religious and intellectual liberty.

* Legally speaking, I mean. This is not to say that a same-sex marriage is metaphysically possible.

** As an aside, I remember speaking with a colleague just after Ireland voted to legalize SSM in 2015. I distinctly recall him saying that in time, opposition to SSM (broadly conceived) will be viewed in the same way we now see racist beliefs. He himself is a supporter of SSM, and he didn’t sound overly concerned by such a possibility. In fact, he seemed to think that it represented the natural extension of our culture’s current journey of progress. I doubt very much that the opinion was either original or unique to him.

Manus Island, Narrative Frames and the Politics of Truth

After almost a month, the Manus Island crisis has come to a close — at least for now. As the crisis rolled on, its ongoing ubiquity force me to reflect upon it at some length. Images of men, despondent and listless, lying on soiled mats or drawing fetid water from makeshift wells, still confront me. Major media publications are replete with sobering stories about the increasingly decrepit structures some asylum seekers inhabited, their stubborn efforts to remain in the processing centre, and the deepening tensions between the men and local Manusians. When  such a steady stream of words and pictures is presented to one’s consciousness — and in so stark and persistent a fashion — one is compelled to pause and think about it.

None of us receive an unmediated view of what’s occurring on Manus Island. In fact, the entire debate surrounding asylum seekers — particularly as it relates to the state of Australia’s offshore processing regime — has been conducted amidst a thick pall of fog, shrouding the truth from view. There are a number of reasons for this. The present government’s foolhardy decision to maintain some kind of media blackout around Nauru and Manus Island has surely contributed to the information vacuum. Its incessant refusal to adopt a more transparent approach to the system over which it presides has only encouraged rash speculation and innuendo. Moreover, discussion concerning asylum seekers seems to give people on both sides of the divide license to abandon all sobriety; I am often bewildered by the way rumour is frequently elevated to the level of substantiated fact. On the one hand, Australia’s offshore processing centres are regularly denounced  as “gulags” or “hellholes”; on the other, every act committed by an asylum seeker is dismissed as a cynical, manipulative attempt to force the government’s hand. When divisions run this deep, a meeting of minds appears impossible.

But behind the riven nature of these debates lie competing ideological narratives, which shape and constrain one’s interpretation of the broader issue generally, and the Manus Island saga in particular. Used wisely, narrative frames are extraordinarily helpful, providing us with the means of sorting and organising the mass of information regularly assailing us. At the same time, they can encourage simplistic interpretations of what are, in reality, often complex and ambiguous events. Indeed, where they inspire slavish devotion in people, narrative frames can actually be quite misleading.

Reporting around the unfolding events on Manus — specifically as it relates to the now-concluded standoff — provides small, but telling, examples of this broader point. I should note here that my aim is pretty modest: I am seeking neither to condemn nor endorse Australia’s current approach to boat-borne asylum seekers. Nor am I concerned to provide a blanket defence of this country’s offshore processing regime. Rather, I wish to critically examine one particular strand, and to challenge it with a more balanced, nuanced perspective. Furthermore, even though I am concerned to correct what could be called a “left-wing” narrative (simplistic though I regard that term), I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that only one side of the ideological divide is susceptible to “streamlining” the truth. I think, for example, of crude conservative  voices, which characterize all refugees and asylum seekers as either potential threats (of the terroristic or criminal kind), or as nothing more than a drain on the country’s economic resources. All of us are vulnerable to motivated reasoning and unbalanced accounts. In any case, I hope in this exercise to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued the debate for so long.

It may be recalled that one of the main reasons behind the stand-off between the asylum seekers on Manus and local PNG authorities was the refusal of the former group to move to a new transit centre near the island’s main township, Lorengau. In part, it was because the men who remained in the (now decommissioned) processing centre at Lombrum claimed to fear for their safety if they moved to their new location. Tweeting about the impasse, Australian politician Nick McKim said that the detainees’ “big concern” was just that — safety. It seems plausible enough, to be sure: a number of asylum seekers have been attacked by locals, whilst violent incidents at the centre have seen several individuals either maimed or murdered. The most notorious of those was a riot in early-2014, in which Reza Barati, a young Iranian man, was bludgeoned to death. During this recent standoff, some locals (perhaps with a fair amount of braggadocio) have promised to form lynch mobs to block the transfer of asylum seekers to the new facility. These facts are not in dispute.

However, in their zeal, some activists and refugee advocates have moved beyond these basic facts to weave together a rather Manichean narrative, in which a band of innocent, beleaguered men, languishing in a tropical prison, are constantly beset by a population marked by unremitting hostility. The men themselves are often beatified — transformed into paragons of the purest morality — whilst their reluctant hosts are implicitly denigrated as an apparently rabid and merciless group, driven by little more than xenophobic animus. The same phenomenon was observed some while ago in relation to apparent tensions between asylum seekers and native Nauruans. Notwithstanding his own reasons for wanting to portray life on Nauru in a certain light, former shadow immigration minister, Richard Marles, had a point when he chastised activists for depicting the sleepy Pacific outcrop as a hotbed of rape and violence. As he noted then (and as one ought to do now), crime, whilst always traumatic for its victims, exists everywhere. Manus Island certainly isn’t immune. The temptation to repeat these errors — where every unverified claim is aired uncritically — is proving too great for current commentators and advocates.

The reasons for some of these  lurid dramatizations aren’t difficult to find. Not only was the issue of safety used to justify the remaining asylum seekers’ ongoing act of resistance (decrepit though their lodgings may be);  it provided a prop to the argument that the men, like their counterparts on Nauru, are still subject to palpable, obvious and unrelenting harm as a result of living among the native population. The conclusion is then drawn that those on Manus will only be truly safe if transferred to Australia. Behind this lies a basic view of Australia’s current policy settings vis-à-vis asylum seekers.  Certainly, there are many who would like to see the entire edifice of offshore processing dismantled, and who have sought to use incidents of violence to argue for the complete cessation of present government practices. To do this, they have emphasized attacks against asylum seekers, and magnified the danger they face. The ultimate goal, of course, is to elicit sympathy from the Australian public, thereby generating a groundswell of support for a substantive shift in policy.

Human rights lawyer Daniel Webb is representative of this view. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Webb had argued that violence against asylum seekers “highlighted the urgent need to bring those on Manus to Australia”. Similarly, lawyers Greg Barnes and Anna Talbot, in arguing for much the same position, have written of “regularly learn[ing] about asylum seekers being violently bashed by locals” (emphasis mine).  In what has to be one of the more extreme — and, as far as I can tell, unsubstantiated — claims, Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said:

“While the October 31 deadline looms [regarding the closure of the Lombrum centre], refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island have been getting stabbed, beaten, and robbed”.

(In the interests of fairness, two points should be noted. First, it’s not entirely clear what kind of timeframe Pearson is operating with: six months? A few weeks? If the former, then it might be possible to interpret her claim as capturing past incidents of violence meted out against individual asylum seekers. But the latter interpretation seems to fit the context more neatly, which would seem to render her statement inaccurate. Second, as the last remaining asylum seekers were being removed from the defunct processing centre, footage emerged purporting to show some of the men being beaten — consonant with Pearson’s allegation — by PNG authorities. Having viewed the footage online, I can only say that it is inconclusive. Whilst it shows police brandishing batons in a threatening manner, knowing precisely what’s happening is far from easy. Additionally, local police commanders have denied allegations of police brutality, saying that where force was used, it was in response to restive or obstreperous asylum seekers. This doesn’t clinch the argument by any means, but it makes it exceedingly difficult to ascertain the real tenor of recent events).

It’s indeed illuminating to reflect upon the way some have framed the vexed issue of boat-borne asylum seekers at this particular point. Urgent claims that the men on Manus are in imminent danger, and were therefore engaging in a heroic act of resistance by remaining in the decommissioned centre, taps into this plotline. All shades of grey have been leached, and other facts — ones that seem to challenge, or even simply nuance, the preferred narrative — have largely been ignored. A closer examination of the issue is thus required.

For instance, even though the asylum seekers who remained in the processing centre claimed to be concerned for their safety if they moved, there were at least 77 men living in the new lodgings, outside Lorengau, by the 4th November. If those concerns were as grave as some of the men (and their advocates) have argued, is it likely that a large swathe of asylum seekers would then move to the very township which is said to be the main source of danger? It’s possible that the 77 who transferred to the transit centre reasoned that the threat of violence was outweighed by the relative comfort of functional dwellings. But again, this fails to neatly cohere with what some activists are suggesting — namely, that asylum seekers who move to their new dwellings will be “rapidly in danger“. Even the earlier-noted reference to the formation of lynch mobs seems not to have eventuated, and may well have represented the bluster of one, frustrated individual. At the very least, I think the fact that so many asylum seekers have voluntarily transferred to the apparent epicentre of anti-refugee opposition raises questions as to the various motives driving such claims.

Of course, this proves little in isolation (even if it nods in the direction of a situation more complex than some would care to admit). But reports regarding the actions of some locals — trying as they did to provide aid and succour to the remaining asylum seekers during the impasse — as well as the activity of the men themselves, would seem to cast further doubt on the broad picture that refugee advocates seek to propagate. Some media outlets referred to local Manusians making numerous attempts to supply the men with a variety of basic goods whilst they remained in the processing centre. For example, The Australian recently reported that in addition to asylum seekers leaving the centre to retrieve caches of food and medicine, locals living nearby “were regularly allowing the men to access water and recharge phones”. It was also said that local PNG authorities were turning a blind eye to this practice, and that even police themselves were bringing the men food and water — something one senior officer said reflected Melanesian hospitality (interestingly, this adds another layer to the implicit depiction of PNG authorities as violence-prone thugs).

Now, I wouldn’t want to lionise local Manusians at all; as I noted above, several acts of the most appalling barbarity have been perpetrated against asylum seekers living on the island. Openness on the one hand is consistent with violent minority opposition on the other. However, the feared brutality of the mob has so far failed to materialise, even though the stand-off had been dragging on for some weeks. Where there may be a risk, the Australian government has said that security at the new centre has been arranged. More importantly, the reported generosity of many PNG residents undercuts the monochromatic portrayal of Manus Island as a place brimming with an irrational hatred of those seeking asylum. The picture that emerges instead is one that is quite common: a people that is generally hospitable, but which grapples (as do all societies, to greater or lesser degrees) with its share of sometimes-violent criminality.

But if it’s true that the character of local New Guineans has at times been unfairly reported, then it is also the case that refugee activists have failed to paint an accurate picture of the asylum seekers on Manus Island. As I suggested earlier, the men who remained in the processing centre have been portrayed in highly flattering, if simplistic, terms. However, one might be surprised to learn that since October 2013 (around the time the current Coalition  government implemented its Sovereign Borders policy), PNG police have recorded “161 incidents of various offences involving residents [i.e., asylum seekers]…[including] assault, aggressive behaviour, unlawful entry, property damage, and contraband” (‘Sex and drugs’ at Manus village, The Australian, November 11-12, 2017; article paywalled. For further reporting, see here). Many incidents occurred in Lorengau, which implies a degree of movement between the processing centre and the island’s main township. Some of the allegations relate to sexual contact with underage girls, which would seem to cohere with other reports (featured in sympathetic media outlets like The Guardian Australia and the ABC) concerning the prosecution of crimes committed by asylum seekers against Manusian women.

Leave aside the question as to whether Australia ought to accept such men (if the allegations prove to be true). I think we can draw several tentative conclusions from the information above. Crucially, it further undercuts various features of the picture activists wish to propound: i.e., the notion that innocent asylum seekers are routinely being set upon by members of the local population, simply because they are despised by their would-be hosts. Crimes committed by some asylum seekers — particularly where they involve the exploitation of minors — would help explain whatever animus exists between them and local Manusians. On this reading, antipathy towards the men isn’t arbitrary; it hasn’t emerged from a vacuum, but remains a comprehensible (if at times utterly inexcusable) reaction to criminal acts. Indeed, current local opposition to the asylum seekers is partly grounded in fears that they might threaten the safety of PNG residents — fears that would seem to be somewhat justified, given the grave nature of some of the allegations.

These accounts also place the asylum seekers in a far more ambiguous light, morally speaking. One shouldn’t be surprised: being ordinary human beings, asylum seekers are prone to the same moral failings that everyone else is. Not that they are uniquely gifted in the practice of human perversion, by any means — but nor are they the sainted protagonists of activist hagiography. Again, a key plank in the narrative plotted by refugee advocates is not quite as strong as it seems. This, too, appears to be true of claims that the asylum seekers could not leave the centre for fear of attack. The reports in question suggest, rather, that the men have had few qualms about travelling into Lorengau, whether for licit or illicit purposes. Contrary to the suggestion that the remaining asylum seekers were rendered paralysed by terror — and for that reason, remained holed-up in the Lombrum facility — the many allegations of misconduct outside the centre implies frequent movement, unencumbered by such concerns.

***

I referred earlier to the power of narrative to govern the way we see an issue; this, I think, has been borne out during the Manus Island saga, especially as it concerns the claims I have surveyed here. Certainly, the situation there is far more complex than the black-and-white portrayals some advocates have created, which suggests that the basic narrative frame with which they operate has, in this case, led them astray. Of course, one’s view on any issue is inevitably partial. What we are accorded does not arrive in pristine, undiluted form, but passes through many layers of mediation. A narrative frame is a particularly powerful type of mediating agent, for it establishes the very boundaries — the basic criteria — of what one considers true, plausible or even worthy of attention. This is true of both individuals and collective — including media — enterprises.

It’s not that grasping the truth remains impossible. However, facts are rarely apprehended in isolation; they are held together in a variety of ways, used to sustain whatever “plotline” the speaker or writer finds compelling and wishes to promote. Where the plotline is flexible, a dialectical process of mutual influence usually prevails: the significance of facts is shaped by one’s pre-understanding, whilst that pre-understanding is (where necessary) modified in accordance with new data. Of course, if one it too beholden to his preferred view, the salience of specific facts can either be minimised or magnified; simultaneously, countervailing data may be downplayed in order to maintain a certain frame of reference. I’m not suggesting that this is always done deliberately or consciously; much of the time, a person’s basic view of the world exerts its influence at a subterranean level. But we must remain alert to the fact that the truth we do grasp is always going to be leavened by a welter of other concerns, whether personal or political — lest we end up promoting a largely distorted, one-dimensional perspective. Helpful as they can be in rendering coherent a mass of otherwise disparate information, narrative rigidity is a constant danger, constraining insight, and blanketing comprehension. Sobriety and prudence, then, should be our watchwords. Given that events on Manus are mired in confusion and ambiguity, that warning seems especially germane.

 

The Liberal Party, Same-Sex Marriage and Freedom of Conscience: A Case of False Promises?

In recent months, certain proponents of same-sex marriage (hereafter, SSM) within the Liberal party have argued that people who support so-called “traditional marriage” ought to vote “Yes”, for the simple reason that freedom of conscience and religion will be better protected if the relevant changes are implemented under the auspices of a Coalition government. The argument is composed of three main prongs, or assumptions: first, SSM is inevitable in Australia, regardless of the outcome of the current postal plebiscite; second, as the party of small government and individual freedom, the Coalition is best-placed to secure the rights of conscientious objectors under the new regime; and third, if the present push for SSM fails, the country runs the risk of giving the ALP – which is less sympathetic to intellectual (including religious) liberty – the task of presiding over future alterations to the marriage act.

One might call this the “Argument from Inevitable Change” or the “Argument from Salvaging Individual Rights”. Whatever label one wishes to use, I don’t accept it on its face – largely because it means evacuating one’s position of all principle. I’m inclined to agree with the view of Quadrant editor, Keith Windschuttle, who has said the argument is a “political tactic”, intended to “deflate” opponents of SSM rather than engage them in debate. However, even if I thought there was some tactical merit in voting for change – based on the belief that doing so now would guarantee some measure of religious and intellectual protection – there are pressing questions over the validity of the argument’s basic components. Its first and third limbs are relatively sound: SSM has the air of inevitability about it (though, of course, it’s not a fait accompli); and the ALP cannot be trusted when it comes to securing the rights of conscientious dissenters. But it’s the claim’s second limb – namely, that the Coalition will protect the liberties of individuals and groups opposed to SSM – with which I take issue.

This brings me to reports regarding Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s private member’s bill to legalise SSM. His comments about the bill have raised serious doubts in my mind over the Coalition’s ability to guarantee the aforementioned rights, particularly as they pertain to religious freedom. Smith was quoted recently in The Australian saying that whilst his bill provided safeguards to religious institutions, ministers, and the like, it did not extend those protections to business owners who provide wedding-related services, unless they could “prove a link to a religious body” (“Same-sex safeguards not for all businesses,” September 18th, 2017; article paywalled). He said that if a bakery, for example, failed to substantiate a formal connection to a church (or mosque, synagogue, etc.), it would not be afforded legal defence if it refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. Smith argued that because people cannot presently discriminate against gays and lesbians, they should not be able to refuse services to a same-sex couple wanting to get married. In his mind, this would represent a regression in current anti-discrimination law.

Should conscientious objectors take moral issue with rendering services to a same-sex couple for their wedding, they are likely to be left completely exposed under such proposals. I recognize that there are important legal questions related to whether providing, say, floral arrangements at a same-sex wedding ceremony constitutes endorsement of that union, just as there are debates regarding the provision of such services, and whether this violates the vendor’s moral and/or religious convictions if they happen to oppose SSM. But the religious exemption clauses in Smith’s bill do not assuage my concerns at all. Woefully inadequate, they are built upon logical inconsistencies and false assumptions – trading, it seems, on very narrow conceptions of both religious expression and legitimate grounds for dissent. I think it’s worth examining these intellectual infelicities in a little more detail.

Religious Bodies and Believers: An Illegitimate Distinction

To begin, there is the question of consistency within the proposed exemptions, particularly as they apply to people whose objections to SSM stem from religious convictions. Smith’s bill artificially divides formal ecclesiastical bodies (as well as ministers in their employ) and the wider pool of religious adherents who compose them. Such bodies are far more than the institutional frameworks distinguishing them from other organised groups. Similarly, the ongoing life and reality of religious institutions exceeds the work of ministers, pastors, imams and the like. Rather, they are sustained by the activities of individual believers, as they gather for worship, serve each other in a variety of ways, and generally manifest the communal dimensions of their respective faith traditions. Religious institutions are, in other words, social realities, embedded in a complex set of networks in which “professional” clergy and laypeople both participate. In the case of Christian churches, ministers exist for the sake of their congregations – conveying religious truth, which is then embodied and enacted in the lives of congregants (whether individually or corporately). The doctrinal positions which define or constrain a minister’s behaviour – which in this case entails beliefs about the nature of marriage – will normally perform the same functions over the lives of those he serves, wherever they happen to find themselves.

Additionally, Christian accounts of religious life emphasize the inherently unitary nature of the church, such that religious officeholders and members form one coherent organism. One is an “in-grafted” member of this organism by virtue of being a professed and genuine Christian, regardless of where he or she happens to be. In many ways, there is no substantive distinction, on either theological or sociological grounds, between religious bodies or ministers on the one hand, and the laity on the other. The religious provisions of Senator Smith’s bill rest upon an unwarranted abstraction, failing to recognize the inherent inseparability of religious institutions and their adherents. To refer to the former apart from the latter – as the bill effectively does – is to trade in illusory deconstruction. The bill’s exemptions divest formal ecclesial bodies of the very believers who help maintain their distinctive shape and identities, even as they remove said believers (at least conceptually) from the communal context that sustains and grounds their beliefs. That’s why Rev Dr Joseph Parkinson, director of the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre in Perth (attached to that city’s Catholic archdiocese) was correct when he recently wrote to the editor of The Australian that “it is inconsistent and illogical to create exemption for ministers” if they are not extended to “individual religious adherents” – for the very reason that “in respect of beliefs about…marriage, there is no distinction” between the one and the other.

Narrowing Religion

But if Senator Smith has illegitimately tried to parse religious bodies and believers, he is also guilty of holding to a reductive account of religion. A reading of the relevant exemptions suggests that it is only the work of official clergy, operating within an explicitly or institutionally religious setting, which warrants protection; religious adherents who try to conform to the teachings of their faith tradition in their daily lives – including, in the case of religious conservatives, adherence to teachings concerning traditional marriage – are not afforded the same courtesy. But that the bill exclusively concentrates on the activity of formal religious bodies and accredited ministers suggests that Senator Smith is thinking of spiritual expression in extremely narrow terms. It is, in other words, far too restricted an understanding of what religion is, and the role it plays in – and over – a person’s life.

To be sure, practices within formal houses of worship (singing, prayers, chants, readings from sacred texts, recitation of creeds, rituals, etc.) constitute important manifestations of religious devotion. This cannot be denied. But just as religious bodies are not exhausted by either their institutional architecture or their official representatives, so religion in general is not completely captured by what happens in formal services (however articulated). For many believers, religiosity is something that colours and shapes every dimension of life – not only within, but beyond, the church, mosque or synagogue. Any serious religious individual will seek to implement, where possible, the teachings of her religion in whatever station or environment, including the workplace. This is only natural: an authentically religious view of life would seem to entail a fully integrated existence, rejecting of crude, post-Enlightenment divisions between the secular and the sacred. Trying to compartmentalize something as all-embracing as religion is simply impractical, for it is commonly embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking. Moreover, for those who swim in the Protestant stream of Christianity, work – even “secular” work – is often viewed as a divine calling, offering the believer the opportunity to worship God through her labour. Obviously, this attitude must be carefully balanced with the right of others to pursue their goals unmolested. But if religion is a whole-of-life concern, then it normally entails the adoption of a comprehensive approach to the teachings and ethos of one’s particular faith tradition.

Senator Smith’s bill recognizes none of this. It relies instead upon the forced demarcation I noted earlier – owing so much to Enlightenment thought – between spiritual and secular affairs. That seems to be implicit in the proposal to grant formal religious bodies and employees legal protections if they do not wish to solemnise a same-sex wedding, but not, say, a Christian florist who declines to provide services for such a ceremony. It wrongly assumes that the influence of one’s religious beliefs can simply cease at the door of one’s house of worship, safely corralled by the dictates of a secular society. But to repeat myself: religion does not actually work in this fashion. Offering an interpretive framework within which to make sense of the various elements of one’s existence, it has the potential to indelibly influence every dimension of life. Religion is far more than a series of atomised opinions about a transcendent realm, severed from the everyday concerns of the individual adherent. It cannot be reduced to a clutch of discrete acts, performed in well-defined settings, that can be described as overtly “spiritual” (e.g., worship in a church setting). The proposed bill leaves the public with a “thin” – nay, eviscerated – conception of religiosity, failing to capture the broadness of the phenomenon as it actually occurs outside the pages of proposed legislation.

What Counts as (Unfair) Discrimination Anyway?

I must confess that clearly interpreting Smith’s reasons for limiting the bill’s anti-discrimination exemptions isn’t easy. One might argue that the proposed parameters are intended to prevent some vendors from cloaking anti-gay animus in the garb of recognized religious systems, thereby saving gay couples from reputational and psychological damage. By limiting the right to conscientiously decline participation in a same-sex wedding to ministers of religion, invidious discrimination against homosexuals by supposedly bigoted commercial operators can largely be erased; if that means capturing other business owners who, because of genuine religious or moral objections, cannot contribute to the production of a same-sex wedding (so the argument might go), so be it.

But I wonder whether a more disturbing interpretation of the bill’s exemption clauses might not be more accurate. On this view, any refusal to provide wedding services to a same-sex couple constitutes unfair discrimination, regardless of motive or sincerity. This would make sense of the absolutism in Senator Smith’s remarks concerning commercial businesses and current anti-discrimination law, where he offered a fairly unnuanced position on what counts as discrimination. Indeed, that he grounded the narrowness of proposed exemptions in the fact that people cannot presently discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation implies some kind of equivalence: refusing service because a person is gay and refusing service because one does not want to implicitly endorse a same-sex wedding amount to the same thing. Such an interpretation would also cohere with what appears to be Smith’s restricted view of legitimate religious expression and discrimination. Finally, and as we’ll soon see, it would conform to established judicial and legislative practice overseas, which seems to regard conscientious objection to SSM on the part of commercial operators as a form of invidious discrimination.

Let’s assume this latter reading is correct. If so, there are a couple of problems with the way Senator Smith has cast a commercial operator’s possible moral-religious objections to SSM. First, it would seem to rely on Smith’s impossibly narrow conception of religious expression – which, as we have already seen, hardly reflects religiosity as it is instantiated in the experiences of ordinary people. Second, equating such objections – and the consequent refusal to offer one’s commercial services – with homophobic prejudice is simply fallacious. It is false to think that a vendor’s decision to withhold their products and skills from a same-sex wedding is merely a subset of anti-gay discrimination. Contrary to what some SSM activists believe, it is logically possible to hold traditional views around marriage whilst also being completely free of animus towards gays and lesbians. Indeed, a positive view of same-sex relationships is logically consistent with the conviction that marriage is, by definition, a dyadic union of sexual complements. In my view, these positions can be clearly distinguished. But Senator Smith fails to recognize this, conflating opposition to SSM – perhaps expressed by a refusal to render services to a same-sex wedding – with a more general refusal to serve customers based on their sexuality.

The case of Barronelle Stutzman, a florist in the United States, is instructive in this regard. For many years, Ms. Stutzman served Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, a gay couple. She knew they were in a homosexual relationship, whilst they knew she was a conservative Christian. Ms. Stutzman had no qualms serving the couple, and supplied them with floral arrangements for a variety of personal and celebratory occasions. But when they asked her to supply flowers for their wedding, she politely declined. Ms. Stutzman grounded her refusal in her belief that marriage is defined by the union of one man and one woman. The couple sued her, as did the state of Washington. In its final judgment, the Supreme Court of Washington stated that Ms. Stutzman’s decision amounted to unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But as Ryan Anderson, writing for The Public Discourse, has said, the court’s ruling (and, by extension, Senator Smith’s bill), illegitimately elides real and imagined discrimination. Anderson asks us to consider a florist who refuses to serve customers who identify as LGBT simply because of that identification. He contends, “that would be a case of invidious discrimination because the mere knowledge that they identify as LGBT should have no impact whatsoever on the act of the florist selling flowers, because there is no rational connection between the two”. But, Anderson continues, in the case of Ms. Stutzman, her decision “did not spring from any convictions about people who identify as LGBT”, and had nothing to do with making distinctions based on a person’s sexual orientation; rather, it was rooted in what she believes to be the true shape of marriage. If Senator Smith, like Washington State’s Supreme Court, thinks that commercial operators who are uncomfortable offering their services to a same-sex wedding are guilty of making unfair distinctions as a result of one’s sexuality, then he has simply recapitulated those earlier conceptual errors: not only are we brought back to the original blunder concerning the scope of acceptable religious expression; it would appear that on this view, refusal to lend one’s creative talents to a same-sex wedding is per se an instance of unjustified discrimination.

Needless to say, these errors have practical consequences. They leave ordinary people – people like Ms. Stutzman – vulnerable to grievous violations of conscience or ruinous legal and pecuniary costs. Harnessing the state’s power to curtail a person’s ability to live in accordance with deeply-held beliefs corrodes our society’s commitment to liberty of conscience. Trying to coerce conformity on a particular question is neither practical nor ethical in a profoundly pluralistic society; indeed, opinions on this question – as on so many questions – are radically incommensurate, such that to compel a person’s participation in something they regard as spurious isn’t simply to inconvenience them, but to force them to betray their own, deeply-rooted convictions. Against this, one might invoke the harm principle: excluding swathes of people from anti-discrimination exemptions saves same-sex couples from psychological injury caused by a denial of service. But where does the real harm lie? With the hypothetical same-sex couple, which may be forced, say, to look for another vendor to organise the floral arrangements for their nuptials? Or with the dissenting florist, who is confronted with the unenviable choice of either violating her conscience, or leaving herself open to hefty legal and financial penalties?

Conscience Protections for the Non-Religious: A Forgotten Constituency?

Up to this point, I have only spoken of the flaws contained in Senator Smith’s bill as they relate to religious sources of opposition to SSM. But what about people – wedding services providers, celebrants, and the like – who may hold non-religious objections? Admittedly their numbers are likely to be miniscule. Still, the importance of individual rights isn’t determined by the number of people who are likely to hold them. There may well be some business owners, providing a variety of wedding services, whose secular belief system does not permit them to validate the reality or morality of SSMs. Even if a vendor’s religious concerns were to be recognized, and exemptions were extended to them, this would still leave non-religious conscientious objectors exposed to legal action. On a conceptual level, the bill commits itself to what I regard as a falsely restricted view of opposition to SSM. It tacitly assumes that only those whose disquiet is grounded in religion could credibly refuse to participate in a same-sex wedding (and then, only in the context of one’s institutional affiliation with a recognized denomination). Smith’s proposed bill says nothing about opposition to SSM that isn’t grounded in religious belief. Does this not represent the presumption that such an attitude can only ever stem from a religious worldview? Certainly, it’s possible to base one’s commitment to so-called “conjugal” marriage upon a deference to traditional mores and norms, or the belief that children ideally ought, where possible, to be raised and socialized by their biological parents. Moreover, academics, like the legal scholar Robert P. George, have sought to root their conviction that marriage is a union characterized by sexual complementarity in a specific metaphysic – one that does not, in the final analysis, rely upon religious tradition, belief in God, or revelatory claims. Whether such arguments are successful in persuading others is beside the point; the fact that they exist suggests that it is possible to hold to a view of traditional marriage apart from religious belief. Yet the proposed bill apparently makes no references to this reality, allowing for only the most narrow expressions of intellectual liberty. I recognize that wedding vendors, regardless of the source of their beliefs, are not afforded legal protection; neither a religious florist nor a secular baker – both of whom oppose SSM – can expect to find solace in anti-discrimination exemptions. Still, I worry that secular business owners who may oppose SSM are being ignored, and left out in the cold: unable to practice freedom of conscience, for fear of legal sanction; and bereft of the sustaining networks that flow from religious affiliation or identification.

Conclusion

Claiming that the Liberal Party is the primary political guarantor of individual freedoms is to state only the most trivial of truths. The foregoing examination has, I think, made that clear. Yes, it’s probably the case that they are to be (marginally) preferred to the ALP. Yes, they nod in the direction of freedom of religious expression. But if Senator Smith’s bill is anything to go by, then the Coalition is prepared to offer only minimalistic concessions to those in the wedding industry who decline to support SSM. Smith’s proposals are riddled with false conceptions, fallacious elisions and a variety of inconsistencies, giving the lie to his contention that this strikes a fair balance between religious expression and freedom from discrimination. The bill itself fails to properly capture the meaning and scope of religion for so many people, whilst saying nothing at all about other (non-religious) forms of opposition to SSM. All told, it makes too large a concession to the idea of “unjust” discrimination, resulting in many of the flaws I have noted. Coalition promises in this regard need to be taken with a sizeable pinch of salt. On so many issues (think the debate around 18C of the RDA, for example), they have shown themselves to be lacking in moral and intellectual fiber. This isn’t to say that the Liberals don’t have men and women of integrity working for it. I think of people like Andrew Hastie, Tim Wilson and James Paterson, who all evince a robust and sincere commitment – not mere rhetorical badge-making – to our society’s fundamental freedoms. But the party as a whole seems to have drifted away from its ideological moorings, whether through fear or a simple lack of intellectual sustenance. Moreover, the wholesale evacuation of Christianity from modern Australian culture – and with it, the attendant rise in religious illiteracy – means that concerns regarding encroachments upon freedom of religion are more likely to be met with a bemused impatience. Present claims notwithstanding, not even the Liberal Party is immune to such developments. I’m skeptical, then, of the notion that voting strategically for change will help proponents of traditional marriage salvage anything more than a narrow, restricted – and largely token – band of rights.

Progressive Pieties, Islamist Terrorism and the Catholic Church: A Study in False Equivalence

I am often left feeling bemused when I read progressives’ attempts to make sense of Islamist terrorism. Previously, the trope that impoverishment and anomie caused people to perpetrate terroristic acts was in vogue. Whilst this explanation was never entirely bereft of merit – the lives of many young men who yielded themselves to such murderous rage have been marked by social or economic dislocation – it dramatically underplayed the formative role of ideas and ideology as legitimating forces of politico-religious violence. Moreover, the many examples of comfortable, seemingly well-connected and well-resourced individuals engaging in terrorism undercuts the thesis that poverty or marginalisation are the primary drivers: Osama Bin Laden was the son of a Saudi billionaire, whilst the present head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is a trained surgeon from a prosperous Egyptian family. Such profiles extend to the so-called “foot soldiers” of radical Islam. The leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, had been studying for his PhD in Germany at the time of his heinous act, whilst the infamous “Jihadi John” – grisly poster boy for Islamic State – was a young British man who’d attended Westminster University. Poor and wretched souls (economically speaking) they were not.

Thankfully, one doesn’t hear this alleged explanation bandied about with quite the same confidence. Even many on the Left have begun to recognize that there may be a causal connection between certain conceptions of Islam and terroristic violence after all. They have subsequently retired the older view that putatively religious acts of terrorism were nothing more than a proxy for merely social, political or economic grievances. Labor’s Anne Aly, for example, has rubbished the idea that economic deprivation, say, can do the heavy lifting in this regard – an opinion that is all the more significant, given that she herself is a Muslim.

But the passage of time has not necessarily seen a vast improvement in progressive approaches to the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism: having quietly abandoned one means of obfuscation, some on the Left have enthusiastically adopted another. One might call it the idea of religious equivalence, or the notion that all religions may, with equal likelihood, fuel acts of violent extremism (whether political or not). Even if some forms of, say, terrorism have their roots in Islamic doctrine, so the progressive might concede, it is equally true that other religions – Catholicism, for example – can justify such acts with comparable ease. Thus, one witnesses otherwise intelligent and well-travelled individuals claiming that terrorism perpetrated by the IRA and Protestant Loyalists during the Northern Irish “Troubles” was religious violence – on par, say, with the macabre theatrics of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, who self-consciously drape their acts in theological language. I won’t delve into why such a claim is wildly mistaken; others have ably accomplished that task. I merely point to it as yet another progressive attempt to deflect criticisms of (radical) Islam as an ideological incubator for violence and wanton bloodshed.

Child Molestation as a Form of Catholic Extremism?

Not so long ago, the former Premier of NSW (and self-identified Catholic), Kristina Keneally, penned a piece for The Guardian Australia, which included a species of the foregoing argument. Hers, however, contained a novel twist.

In her article, Keneally does not cite alleged examples of Catholic-inspired terrorism to argue that her own religious tradition is just as prone to corruption. Instead, she suggests that child molestation, rampant within the church for so many years, was actually a form of “Catholic extremism” – a distortion of teaching that was nevertheless discernibly Catholic, like the supposedly debauched interpretations of the Koran that mark out Islamic radicals. Keneally’s main point seems to be that certain (read: conservative) expressions of Catholicism were in some sense responsible for permitting the horrors of child sexual abuse, fostering these abhorrent acts. For her, the phrase “institutional sexual abuse” is too “bland”, too anodyne, to describe what she believes is indelibly linked to various elements of Catholic dogma. The supremacy of the Church’s authority, a belief that God was providentially protecting it from scandal, or the efficacy of prayer in securing moral transformation: these things, Keneally avers, have led inexorably to the destruction of scores of young lives. Indeed, she writes:

The end result of this flawed theology and ecclesiology is the nauseating, terrifying, grotesque, ritualized and repeated violent assaults and rapes of children by Catholic clergy and religious.”    

In Keneally’s eyes, child sexual abuse is a manifestation of “radical Catholic ideology”, just as the burning of Christians or the mass rape of women from minority religions is a manifestation of radical Islamist ideology.

Keneally’s is certainly a creative approach to a knotty problem. However, her analysis suffers from several critical defects, which prove fatal to her argument. Most obviously, it is quite wrong to equate child molestation within the Catholic Church and, say, Islamist terrorism as twin exemplars of some wider phenomenon we might call religious extremism. Radical Islamic terrorists explicitly justify their actions by releasing written tracts replete with references to the Koran and the example of Mohammed. For example, after ISIS-affiliated terrorists massacred scores of revelers in Paris entertainment districts in November 2015, the organization released a celebratory post about the carnage, quoting from the Koran to explain the reason for the attack. The quote is drawn from Sura 59:2: “Allah came upon them from where they had not expected, and He cast terror into their hearts so they destroyed their houses by their own hands and the hands of the believers”.

Other statements, whether disseminated by ISIS or some other extremist outfit, are laced with similar theological legitimations. The purveyors of such violence are convinced that what they are doing is a form of religious fidelity, warranted – even demanded – by their sacred texts. Mark Durie, an expert in Islamic theology, comments that “ISIS fighters are taught that non-Muslims, referred to as mushrikin (‘pagans’) or kuffar (‘infidels’), deserve death simply by virtue of their disbelief in Islam.  For ISIS, killing disbelievers is a moral act, in accordance with Sura 9:5 of the Qur’an, ‘fight and kill the mushrikin wherever you find them’, and Sura 9:29, ‘fight (i.e. to kill) the People of the Book’”. And in a widely-cited article on ISIS for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has written about that group’s consistent efforts to couch their actions in the language of apocalyptic jihad. Radical Islamists, far from being reticent about their motives, seem proud to stand on a theological system that is drawn directly from Islam’s foundational traditions.

By contrast, there are no biblical texts, church traditions, theological commentaries, sermons, homilies or papal encyclicals justifying child sexual abuse or enjoining the faithful to engage in it. No priests charged with sexual offences have, to my knowledge, cited any sacred writings to rationalise their crimes. This is not merely a case of there being no such attempts to sacralize child abuse; the very structure of the Christian religion renders the possibility that someone would do so incoherent. The alleged parallel swiftly dissolves when one compares Mohammed and Jesus, both of whom function as moral paradigms for their respective followers. Unlike the life of Islam’s founder – which seems to offer ample warrant for war-like activity among the putative soldiers of Islam – Christ’s life offers no such grounds for the molestation of children. Where one set of macabre and notorious acts appears to be explicitly justified by adherence to a religious creed, the other represents a grievous betrayal of that religion’s overriding ethos and vision.

What of Keneally’s claim that certain elements of Catholic dogma have, in corrupted form, helped sustain the practice of child sexual abuse amongst the clergy over the years? To the extent that this is true, it still falls far short of anything remotely resembling a distinctively Catholic form of extremist violence. Take the alleged relationship between Catholic ecclesiology and the entrenchment of child molestation. Large, labyrinthine organizations may make the exposure and prosecution of such crimes difficult, but there is nothing uniquely Catholic about this. As the historian and commentator, Gerard Henderson, has helpfully pointed out, the current Royal Commission into these matters found that proportionally, child sexual abuse has been more common in the Uniting Church – the structure of which is far more diffuse – than in the Church of Rome. This is certainly revealing, for it suggests that a strongly hierarchical organization is not unusually susceptible to this kind of wickedness; if anything, the data points in the other direction. Here is what Henderson has written about the matter (bracketed annotations are mine):

“[There were] 2504 incidents or allegations [of child sexual abuse] between 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, and 2017 [i.e., over a 40-year period]. This compares with 4445 claims with respect to the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2015 [over 65 years]. And the Catholic Church is five times larger than the Uniting Church.”

It’s also worth pointing out that other large institutions, both religious and secular, have sought to protect perpetrators in an effort to preserve the “greater good” (often window-dressing for naked self-interest and reputational advancement). The BBC is a good example – all the more so, as it is a non-religious, non-sectarian entity. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal in 2012, it was alleged that the BBC had protected other stars accused of sexual abuse, whilst serious institutional failings allowed perpetrators to ply their evil trade with impunity. Dame Janet Smith, who chaired an inquiry into the whole sordid saga, said that a “macho culture” prevailed at the broadcaster, which fostered rampant sexism and sexual harassment. She went on to indict the BBC for the institutionalised fear that many experienced, such that they felt unable to speak out. Finally, she excoriated those who were more concerned about individual and corporate reputations than they were about sexual predation. The point is that a tawdry and desperate attempt to cling to the laurels of an institution’s moral authority – at times leading to the craven abandonment of the victims of abuse – isn’t unique to religious bodies. Acquiescing to the supposed demands of the “greater good” cannot be given a peculiarly religious or theological gloss, for the very reason that this phenomenon – grubby though it certainly may be – is something common to every sector of humanity.

The contention that warped conceptions of prayer saw church institutions fail to act against suspected child molesters is also flawed. It may well be true in an individualised or historical sense, but what does this tell us about the purported link between Catholic doctrine and child sexual abuse? Keneally is simply unsuccessful in substantiating the broader claim that such practices are instances of a species of so-called Catholic “extremism” – i.e., that there exists a necessary link between the one and the other. I’m sure there were some Catholic faithful who, as a result of their belief in the power of prayer, did not respond adequately to accounts of abuse. But praying for the transformation of sinners – even those guilty of the most heinous of sins – is logically consistent with labouring for justice on behalf of victims, and bringing perpetrators to account. Prayer itself is a morally neutral mechanism. Assuming its efficacy, it may be used to try and secure either just or iniquitous aims. In that sense, it is like a car: a tool, which can be used ethically or unethically. More than that, an authentically Christian view of prayer must include the conviction that one’s supplications are directed towards a righteous God, who cares for the poor and watches over the vulnerable. The Book of Psalms brims with images of a deity who welcomes and listens to those who practice righteousness (Ps 15), who rescues the poor (Ps 35:10) and vindicates them (Ps 113:7). For the follower of Jesus, such prayers are often accompanied by acts that seek to secure relief for the oppressed – again, as a consequence of authentic faith. To be saturated in the Christian scriptures, then, is to pray with a fervent desire for justice to be accomplished – the very antithesis of the (unnamed) individuals Keneally cites as evidence for “radical” Catholicism.

The ongoing comparison with Islamic extremism illuminates the point. Whereas prayer that implicitly permits inaction in the face of abuse is a violation of Christian petitionary principles, terroristic violence in the name of Islam would seem to bear the imprimatur of sacred Koranic texts. Again, it may be helpful to refer to the justifications Islamists themselves have offered for their barbarism, as cited above. There is nothing morally neutral about those statements, for they seem clearly to enjoin the killing of non-Muslims as a direct manifestation of religious devotion. Similarly, there appears to be little room for saying that radical Islamists are guilty of distortion, since the texts in question are bracing in their clarity. To that extent, at least, there is a clear – one might even say necessary – causal connection between acts perpetrated by the likes of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, and the theological ideas they regard as their touchstone.

Towards the end of her piece, Keneally expresses obvious pessimism about the future. Her fear is that such crimes may still find conducive environments within the Catholic Church, as seminaries become “more orthodox and traditional”. Keneally implies that the underlying and sustaining cause – that nefarious wizard behind the curtain – of all that we have witnessed is none other than moral and religious conservatism. This seems to apply, with equal measure, to both supposedly literalistic interpretations of the Koran and to what Keneally sees as reactionary Catholicism. Her concern that the problem of child abuse within Catholic institutions may not abate ultimately rests on the assumption that conservatism and/or religious traditionalism provide settings that enable, harbour or conceal such offending. Unfortunately for Keneally, this jars with the historical evidence. The relatively widespread prevalence of child sexual abuse within the Uniting Church is once again instructive. The UC has long adopted a “low” form of ecclesiology, where the autonomy of the local church and its members is highly prized. Moreover, it has embraced female ministers, knows nothing of compulsory clerical celibacy, and has long championed the rights of same-sex attracted people (up to and including support for same-sex marriage). Indeed, the values and outlook of the UC tend to resemble modern progressive culture, such that in many areas, the boundary marking out the Church’s distinct identity has all but vanished. These convictions witness to a relatively liberal institution – one which nevertheless proved to be even more vulnerable to high rates of child sexual abuse than the Catholic Church.

What’s more, the recent experiences of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne suggest that moral and religious conservatism has been no more a barrier to addressing the scourge of sexual abuse than its liberal counterpart, and may have gone further in trying to arrest it. Under the archbishopric of Frank Little, clergy guilty or suspected of sexual abuse were often moved from parish to parish, shielded from scrutiny. By contrast, Little’s comparatively conservative successor – a man by the name of George Pell – established the so-called “Melbourne Response” in 1996 (soon after he became archbishop) with the co-operation of Victoria Police. The aim of the programme was to provide assistance to abuse survivors, which included the co-ordination of compensation packages. It was by no means perfect, and a fair amount of legitimate criticism can be levelled at it. But the “Melbourne Response” was one of the first initiatives of its kind to try and systematically address a problem that had beset the Church for many decades. Thus, the unfolding direction of historical events (at least in Melbourne) was precisely the reverse of what Keneally seems to assume.

Conclusion

Trying to have an honest conversation about these matters is sometimes difficult. I certainly understand the impulse to avoid offence, or to deflect criticism of a particular religious group because of fears concerning abuse and societal ostracism (even if they are exaggerated). But when those impulses lead a person to blunder into a thicket of false analogies, muddled analysis and historical ignorance, broader discussions regarding the causes of terrorism are hardly well-served. Kristina Keneally has tried to persuade us with what she sees as piercing honesty, allegedly exposing child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church for the degenerate religiosity it is. Degenerate? Most certainly. Religious? Well, no. If what I have said is true, then it is an affront to true Christian piety. Despite Keneally’s pretensions to insightful – even subversive – analysis, her article exemplifies all the calumnies I have just mentioned. Ultimately, it serves as a testament to the overriding influence that a rigid progressive orthodoxy can exercise upon intellectual honesty and clarity of thought.

Free Speech: In Search of True Defenders

Note: the bulk of this article below was written before the outcome of the recent parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C. I have left the article largely intact, with just a few nods to events of the past month.

Free speech advocates have every reason to feel aggrieved with the current government. Why, just a few weeks ago – after a parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – Coalition politicians somehow managed to combine pusillanimity with pugnacity. Scott Morrison brusquely claimed to “know” that “this issue doesn’t create one extra job”, failing to “see any intersection between the issue and those [i.e., economic] priorities” (Michael Koizol, “Scott Morrison Warns Against Internal Fight Over Free Speech Laws: ‘It Doesn’t Create One Job’”, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 1st, 2017). Other ministers made the same attempt at compensating for their lack of ideological fortitude by publicly scorning the expansion of free speech.

This is not a new claim, by any means. Morrison’s argument reminds me of some rather tremulous comments the Prime Minister uttered last August in response to the same issue:

“With all due respect to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job or…build an extra road” (Paul Karp, “Labor Accuses Coalition of Changing Stance on Racial Discrimination Law,” The Guardian, August 19th, 2016).

Around the same time, one of Turnbull’s ministers, Mitch Fifield, said much the same thing on ABC’s Q and A program (even repeating the phrase “worthy arguments” to ensure everybody knew he was on message):

“While I appreciate many of the worthy arguments that some of my colleagues put forward in relation to 18C, it’s not something that we have an intention to change” (Q and A, August 22nd, 2016).

Fifield went on to offer a rather insipid rationale for inaction, which sounded uncannily like his leader’s. And last December, John Alexander (the Liberal member for the federal Sydney seat of Bennelong) urged the government to concentrate on “productive things rather than political things [i.e., debates over amending 18C]” (Rosie Lewis, “Malcolm Turnbull Faces Section 18C Test Amid Ethnic Opposition,” The Australian, December 29th, 2016). It seems that this kind of febrility is endemic within the Liberal Party.

To be sure, Turnbull has softened his opposition to changing 18C, and his government is now proposing certain amendments to the offending act. He’s offered a welcome rationale for the public modification of his assessment, saying “there is a view” that “the bar has been set too low” with regards to the law in question, thereby constituting an unwarranted “restriction [upon] free speech”. This is quite reasonable: as recent controversies have indicated, views that appear to fall outside the definition of racially offensive speech have nonetheless proven vulnerable to legal censure. To what extent Turnbull’s change of heart has been the result of a genuine shift in perspective – as opposed to a restive backbench – is uncertain. But even some of his more recent reflections on the subject are relatively muted: witness the way he talked about freedom of speech in the abstract (“there is a view…”), as if he himself were too afraid to own the opinion to which he was referring. A full-throated shout of defence it was not.

The lack of conviction is still a worry, particularly from someone who supposedly holds to the tenets of classical liberalism. That other segments of the Liberal Party – you know, that party of small government and personal liberty – should also be shy on this issue is equally troubling. Even if the Coalition is successful in securing changes to 18C, the fact remains that a number of senior ministers have staked a lot on the argument that amending the law is a mere distraction from the task of financial and economic management. Moreover, they seem to suggest that trying to change the parameters of 18C – even if successful – would do nothing to improve the budget’s parlous state, ease the country’s financial woes, or expand employment opportunities for people. These two concerns are, it seems, mutually exclusive.

However, the basic assumptions resident in the above comments raise crucial and abiding questions about the kind of culture we want to see prevail in this country; the fundamental values that undergird Australia’s liberal democracy; and even the relationship (if indeed there is one) between basic politico-philosophical values and economic prosperity. Their Quisling character aside, the arguments proffered by Turnbull, et. al., revealed a surprising degree of ignorance regarding the relationship between free speech and a healthy body politic. I’ll say more as I proceed.

A Hollow Vision

In making their argument against pursing changes to 18C, Coalition ministers repeatedly offered what could be called the “technocratic defence”. Theirs were the words of dry administrative experts – of elite technocrats, committed only to solving the impersonal problems of a modern industrial economy. They seemingly lacked sufficient interest in more substantive, indeed existential,[1] issues such as freedom of thought and expression; instead, they preferred to hide behind a supposedly exhaustive obligation to the nation’s technical-economic challenges. In other words, their justification represents the evacuation of philosophical and cultural substance from the project of governance, reducing it to a hollowed-out form of managerialism. Worryingly, their views implicitly devalue the constitutive importance of the basic liberties this country possesses, and upon which our politics – and indeed our society – are built.

As one of those basic liberties, freedom of speech has made an essential contribution to the enviable character of contemporary Australia. Similarly, it is integral to the tolerant and intellectually rich societies that have developed over the centuries in the West. Freedom of speech has been astonishingly successful in enabling Western states to resolve a complex array of problems across virtually every field of inquiry. Without liberality of speech, one loses many of the other important freedoms we cherish: freedom of religion as a crucial subset of free speech; freedom to assemble peacefully for the purposes of, say, political expression; or the freedom to vote for the party of one’s choice (and to later criticise it), as a further instance of the citizen’s articulation of his or her views. Moreover, freedom of speech cannot be separated from freedom of thought: curtail the one, and you inevitably restrict a person’s right to pursue the other. Liberal democracies, which have come to represent the fruits of Western culture in political form, cannot properly survive without these elements. They are intrinsically, indissolubly, connected. Almost by definition, Western culture prizes freedom of speech as the public manifestation of rational, free-thinking individuals. Restrict it, and one ends up desiccating the culture to which it gives life.

Advocating for the liberal expression of one’s views – in this case, by urging amendment of an illiberal law – is therefore no mere symbolic act. Conversely, to leave it alone as too controversial is far from inconsequential, such is the deep relationship between this feature of the West’s cultural legacy and the kind of convivial, open society modern Australians enjoy. By contrast, the vision of the putative technocrat, with his narrow dedication to achieving a balance between economic inputs and outputs, is largely empty. It appears satisfied with a rather barren political culture – bereft of the vibrancy that stems from a vision of what makes for a mature, responsible, truly flourishing citizenry. As John Roskam, head of the free-market think-tank Institute for Public Affairs, recently quipped, if things like road-building are the final measure of good governance, there really is nothing to separate Australia from North Korea.

To be sure, I am not arguing for an activist administration; states should never be the final guarantors of free speech and ideational exchange (as if all depended on their paternalistic largesse). Nevertheless, there is much they can do to limit themselves so that individual liberty is preserved, even expanded – including divestment of any powers they might have to improperly police individual expression. Anything less is an abnegation of responsibility on the part of liberal democratic politicians and lawmakers. It is therefore surprising in the extreme that elected officials – particularly those in the liberal mould – should have thought that road-building and budget repair, as important as those activities are, rank higher than one of the supporting pillars of Western culture.

But the hollowness of vision to which I am referring runs deeper than that. In many ways, political questions can ultimately be reduced to questions regarding the nature of the human person, and the proper ordering of human relationships. That is, one of the fundamental issues lying behind political debates is what it means to be truly human – and, hence, what kind of community or social order is likely to be most conducive to human flourishing. Listening to Turnbull, Fifield, Alexander and Morrison trying to play economics off against philosophical concerns, one would get the impression that for them, a human being can be reduced to a determinable economic unit, who will respond appropriately to positive material stimuli. It’s a view that casts individuals as pure consumptive actors, without reference to the kinds of core principles or qualities that animate a person. This is, of course, incredibly shallow. Humans are not simply objects that can be deterministically manipulated by mere material considerations. They are conscious beings, possessed of rationality and free will, capable of exercising these powers as they receive and analyse the world around them. Humans are, as it were, agents, acting and engaging and negotiating with reality on the basis of a fundamental orientation – sometimes misaligned, but nonetheless present – towards the attainment of truth.

Freedom of speech respects these insights into the human condition. It rests on the presumption that humans are rational beings, capable of using logic and evidence to explore and determine their views on a particular issue. It places faith in the capacity of human beings to combine intellectual concepts in a coherent and ordered way, such that they may arrive at (rough) approximations of various aspects of reality. To that end, advocates for freedom of speech – correctly, in my view – argue that the best way for grasping the truth, or of deciding on a matter of public importance, is to allow all views to be heard; that way, the individual can, with relative liberty, reason through different lines of argument. This isn’t perfect by any means, since nothing that humans devise ever is. But comparatively speaking, liberality in speech provides a surer means of developing adequate knowledge about the world, and securing correspondence between one’s beliefs and that which is true. To paraphrase the late Michael Novak, free speech gives “play…to [the] unlimited drive to ask questions, and to [the] unrestricted desire to know” as humans seek out truth.

Such accounts also implicitly assume the human person is more than the sum of her biological or socio-cultural parts. They tend to conceive of the individual as a positive entity (rather than the mere intersection of broader forces), possessing a self-regarding, self-critical ability to interpret the world around her, and to make decisions accordingly. It respects the fact that whilst a person is obviously shaped by various external factors, she is no mere passive receptacle or programmed automaton. Favourable treatments of free speech assume that the person still bears the freedom of will to select some truth-claims over others, and to decide for herself (based, one hopes, on rational thought) where the truth might lie. Of course, presuppositions, unacknowledged self-interest, or the effects of social conditioning will invariably insinuate themselves into the structures of an individual’s thinking. However, free speech advocacy takes seriously humans’ capacity for reasoned choice. On this view, an unrestricted exchange of views promotes intellectual virtue, and provides the most expansive context within which human rationality may flourish.

Unwarranted restrictions on speech, on the other hand, undermine crucial aspects of human uniqueness. Beliefs that have been coerced (or manipulated via the proscription of unpalatable views) are neither rational nor free: they aren’t rational, because coercion as a means of guaranteeing “correct” belief breaks the logical link between adherence to a certain truth-claim and its rational or evidential merits; and they aren’t free, for the self-evident reason that force or arbitrary restriction is the very antithesis of political – even volitional – liberty. Indeed, to accept veridical claims on the basis of active compulsion or government censorship represents the very negation of rational discourse between responsible, thinking beings. To suggest that the concerns of the modern, technocratic state are more important than amending an affront to freedom of speech doesn’t just mute a key aspect of the West’s cultural heritage; it also invites a diminished view of the individual, and inhibits a crucial mechanism for the intellectual thriving of human beings.

A False Choice

If what I have written were the only reasons for criticising Turnbull and his ministers, then I’d say it was enough. But in addition to implicitly deprecating the substantive value of free speech, their comments represent a false choice between economic concerns and philosophical principles. The idea that they are separate and separable fails as a general argument, precisely because of the intrinsic connection between the free exchange of ideas and the generation of wealth and economic prosperity. Whilst Coalition ministers sought to play the “productive” off against the (so-called) “political”, they were seemingly unaware that the former is, in many ways, reliant on the latter. That is, communication that is largely unrestricted forms a necessary pre-condition for the sort of mesmerising prosperity Western countries have historically enjoyed. More prosaically, the ability to freely debate important issues offers a society the best chance of developing credible – and, for our purposes here, economical – solutions to complex problems. The economist and economic historian, Deidre McCloskey, has argued the Great Enrichment experienced by the Western world since the middle of the nineteenth century can be explained in large part by the success of certain ideas. As McCloskey suggests:

“What mattered [in relation to the enrichment of the West] were two levels of ideas: the ideas for betterment themselves (the electric motor, the airplane, the stock market), dreamed up in the heads of the new entrepreneurs drawn from the ranks of ordinary people; and the ideas in society at large about such people and their betterments – in a word, liberalism” (Deidre McClosky, “The Great Enrichment,” NRO.com, November 7th, 2015).

According to McCloskey, the West’s unprecedented levels of economic development (unprecedented in historical, and even current global, terms) cannot be understood unless one takes note of their intellectual basis. At one level, that meant the ideas of betterment themselves: technical innovation that led, either directly or indirectly, to expanding prosperity. It hardly needs saying that advances such as these are offered a boon when ideas can be freely exchanged, without restriction. And indeed, at another level, McCloskey seems to be saying exactly that: the “massive ideological shift towards market-tested betterment”, generating not merely technical innovation, but a fundamental change in the way (Western) societies were composed, as well as the manner in which individuals – now seen as beings possessed of freedom and equality – related to each other. McCloskey is clear: “our riches [came] from piling idea on idea…”

This should hardly come as a shock. After all, there exists a connection – one that can be intuitively grasped – between freedom of speech and economic prosperity. It may not always be direct, but it is there. Considered as an economic doctrine, freedom of speech promotes the open transmission of ideas conducive to social and material betterment – ideas that, when co-mingling, have the potential to generate profound advances in technological sophistication and material wealth. The zoologist and science writer, Matt Ridley, has cheekily called this process “ideas having sex”. By that, he means that the complex marriage of diverse concepts – sometimes from very different fields of enquiry – generates new knowledge, driving significant economic progress. Freedom of intellectual exchange stimulates creativity, leads to an intellectually fertile citizenry, and ultimately spurs on all manner of innovations. As the academic Brett Christensen has written, “free flowing ideas and debates contribute to creativity…education, and cultural evolution”. The thinking that some of our elected officials have recently showcased relies on a spurious division between two phenomena that are intimately intertwined.

There is, of course, one obvious rejoinder to what I have just said – namely, what any of this has to do with proposed amendments to a law which putatively concerns racially offensive speech. Indeed, whilst some may well concede the above points as theoretically valid, they might still argue that issues relating to free speech and racial vilification (on the one hand), and economic progress (on the other) are simply unconnected. To put the point in the form of a question: just how would amending or abolishing 18C of the RDA help politicians improve productivity or tackle the country’s budgetary woes?

But if the rejoinder is obvious, so too is a surrejoinder: it is simply impossible to predict what ideas may flow, interact or “copulate” as a result of the removal of restrictions to speech and the exchange of ideas. This may not happen immediately or directly. But if the history of economic and technical progress is anything to go by, the germination of some ideas by others (including those that may, at first blush, appear entirely unrelated) can occur in the most surprising of ways.

Please bear in mind, I am not making the rather outlandish argument that giving space to racially insulting speech might somehow lead to economic enrichment, or usefully contribute to policy discussion. What I am saying is that winding back 18C might provide clear air for views that have been illegitimately captured by the law – views that might, if given an honest hearing, open up discussions around important issues that touch on both society and economics (however obliquely). Indeed, as UQ professor of law James Allan has remarked, the remit of 18C has expanded to the point where it is now invoked to try and silence serious views regarding culture and public policy, on the spurious grounds that they are racist. This is in large part because of problems with the law itself. Amend it, and politicians and policy-makers wrestling with complex, multifaceted problems might find themselves aided by propositions that now fall under the shadow of legal sanction.

I think this response can be sharpened up a bit by focusing on one particular manifestation of the wider controversy. Recall the original context in which Turnbull made his comments. They were partly sparked by a complaint (using 18C) against the late cartoonist, Bill Leak, and a cartoon he’d drawn in The Australian of an Aboriginal man who didn’t know the name of his wayward son. Leak sought to go behind the events of the day, which were related to a contemporaneous report on Four Corners, alleging despicable treatment of young indigenous men at a youth detention facility in the Northern Territory. Leak wanted to ask why these young men were locked up in such facilities in the first place. His point, pungently made, was that the real scandal lay in the neglectful environments in which the boys had grown up, where parents had commonly failed in their duty to model responsibility, moderation and self-control. Certain individuals began legal proceedings in response to the cartoon (since abandoned), which led to several fraught weeks for Leak and his employer.

What has all this to do with economic issues? At first glance, very little. But think about it for a moment. The ongoing ill-health of many indigenous communities – particularly those in remote areas – is very costly. It is costly in human terms, of course, as lives are sometimes irrevocably damaged. But it is also costly economically. All those young indigenous men who languish in prisons and detention facilities around the country obviously aren’t contributing to the economy: they’re consuming public resources and they’re not in the workforce. Their previous crimes have cost individuals and the state both resources and money. Looking at the issue through a purely economic lens, it’s clear that those young men are adding to the overall financial burden of both the states and the Commonwealth.

Leak’s visual commentary sought to provide one explanation for why dysfunction prevails in certain Aboriginal communities – dysfunction that, whilst devastating on a purely human level, also has an important economic dimension. It is an urgent issue that warrants open debate. If the reasons for the existence of such deleterious environments – environments that seem to produce an inordinate number of young men with a propensity for delinquency and criminality – can be found, so much the better. However, if certain views are deemed illegitimate, and attempts are made to silence them via the threat of litigation, then an important public conversation is curtailed. Such restrictions upon ideas and opinions simply chills free debate, deprives people of possible solutions, and risks perpetuating tragic and costly problems.

Effective public policy cannot long survive without the existence of facts. I’m not referring to dominant narratives, nor comforting ideologies, but to stark, uncomfortable, messy facts. That is the only way a country’s socio-economic problems can be properly tackled. If policy is founded upon a bed of truth, then politicians can better target their efforts. But it becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve such a goal when communication and inquiry is diminished – haunted – by the spectre of state-sponsored censorship. Ultimately, this is not a question of whether, say, Bill Leak’s views are correct (although for what it’s worth, I think his cartoon was spot on). The point is that the susceptibility of certain views to legal censure, before they have even been discussed or debated, represents an irrational, arbitrary approach to public discourse and the resolution of such desperate issues.

Indeed, if it can be shown why some Aboriginal communities are seedbeds for the kinds of young offending we have seen, then policy (to the extent that government policy should be wielded in this area) can be effectively applied. That, of course, can have economic and budgetary flow-on effects, as communities are stabilized, children are properly educated, young men are kept out of jail, people are placed in employment, costs are reined in, and the financial burden shouldered by the state is reduced. In point of fact, then, changes to certain race-based laws have the potential to (indirectly) contribute to the very goals our fearless leaders claim to be concerned about. As such, the argument that economic issues and possible amendments to 18C are incompatible or unrelated is false, and anyone making it is either being obtuse or disingenuous.

***

Again, the government’s recently-proposed changes to 18C is a welcome development. But one gets the feeling that its heart is still not in this fight. And it is just one of several debates around principles and philosophy from which the Coalition has tried to run, or on which it has remained frustratingly silent. By dragging this particular debate out over several months (and more), the government has needlessly wasted time and political capital. More importantly, by grounding so much of its resistance in spurious arguments, it has undermined its own political and philosophical outlook. Despite the current shift, the vehemence and consistency with which the above views have been articulated by members of the Coalition makes it difficult to believe that they have simply withered away. This is either a sign of political cravenness or a basic loss of liberal values. Is it any wonder, then, that voters have begun to look elsewhere?

[1] ‘Existential’ in the sense of the deeper character and quality of existence, not its mere presence.