Thankyou for your recent article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, entitled We all have our inner fascist: why it’s important to have the right to offend. It was a very thought-provoking read, and one which I was half tempted to frame and put on my wall: at least while reading the first half of the article.
Please let me explain.
The (Really) Good.
You pointed out that we all have an ‘inner fascist’, seen in ‘…the idea that the world would be better if everyone behaved (believed, thought, spoke) just like us.’ In particular, you label this idea ‘tribalism’.
Whilst in certain areas of life, we do want people to think and behave just like us (e.g. we demand that others accept that murder and pedophilia are wrong), nevertheless I agree that we need to preserve a large space in society for people to behave according to the dictates of their own tastes and consciences, rather than forcing them to think and behave like us.
You then talk about how Australians these days are so sensitive to criticism, and that we tend to label all criticism as some sort of ‘bullying’, or ‘hate’. In response to such accusations, you pen these incredibly profound and important words:
Criticism is not bullying. Dissent is not coercion. Disagreement is not hate. In fact, these things are much closer to love.
I could not have put it better myself.
From a Christian perspective, this is such an important point. For there are times when speaking the truth (be it through criticism or otherwise) is an act of love, even when that truth offends.
One doesn’t have to think too hard to come up with examples: the parent who says the hard words by telling their daughter to break up with that abusive boyfriend; the political activist calling out the racism of government policies; the man who rebukes his friend over the way he neglects his family.
Speaking the truth, even when it is taken as an offense, is very often an act of love. In fact, in many instances, one cannot be loving if one doesn’t speak the truth.
Thank-you for your clear support of the principle of free speech. I certainly appreciate it!
The (Really) Concerning.
However, there is something in your article that I found quite concerning.
You seem to be quite against tribalism, which you define as ‘the idea that the world would be better if everyone behaved (believed, thought, spoke) just like us’.
I fully agree that tribalism, when taken to it’s extremes, has led to much conflict (e.g. WW1 and WW2). That’s certainly a demonstrable reality of human history.
But you then say something that just blows me away:
Easily the best counter to tribalism would be to ban religious schools.
How did you get to that conclusion?
You then explain your point by saying that you don’t want to ban ‘religion…But segregating children on religious grounds inculcates Chosesn People Syndrome from birth. Be it Wahhabist, Jewish or Anglican, in Saudi, Paris or Bronte, chosenpeopleism makes war, not peace.’
To be perfectly honest, I find your analysis, not to mention your solution (‘ban all religious schools’) rather questionable.
In particular, my concerns are as follows:
1) Tribalism is part of the human condition. Just look at multiculturalism: would you therefore ban that?
Tribalism is part of the human condition, which you admit later in your article. But more to the point, most people (particularly first generation migrants like myself) have a very strong tribal identity based around an ethnic identity.
In my particular case, growing up as a first generation Hungarian refugee here in Australia meant that I hung out with other Hungarians, learning the language, and participating in a wide range of cultural (i.e. tribal) activities. These only served to reinforce my tribal identity.
Using your logic of tribal is bad, then to be consistent, should you not ban all ethnic cultural institutions? (After all, how many conflicts, indeed genocides, have begun because of ethnic tribal differences?) These ethno-cultural institutions certainly serve to pass on tribal identity, which, I can tell you from first person experience, have a habit of inculcating ‘Chosen People-ism’ into members of a particular culture/ethnicity.
If we’re trying to rid our society of tribalism that leads to ‘chosen-peopleism’, then should we not start with multiculturism, where the tribalism is the strongest?
2) Is it really religion that should be blamed for tribalism at religious schools?
I’m presuming you think it’s the religious element in religious schools that causes tribalism. This seems to indicate that you don’t want to have schools (or anyone else?) teaching children religion. Does this mean that you think that all religion is a negative influence on children (and adults)? If so, could you show us how you came to that conclusion?
I wonder if you’ve seen the work of highly respected (non-religious) Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, with co-author David Campbell, in their landmark work American Grace? Comparing the lives of secular, and practicing religious people, they come to the following conclusions, as summarised by Simon Smart, from the Centre for Public Christianity:
Putnam and Campbell report that on every measurable scale, [practicing] religious Americans are better volunteers, more generous financial givers, more altruistic and more involved in civic life, than their secular counterparts. Religious people are better neighbours, more community minded, more likely to volunteer (and not just for faith-based activities). They are more likely to give blood, to give money to a homeless person, to provide financial aid to family or friends, to offer a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone who is “a bit down”. They are more often taking part in local civic and political life and pushing for reform. The list goes on, and it’s a long list.
Perhaps more to the point, in one of the largest studies of its kind, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined the role of religion in the lives of nearly 2500 adolescents. The adolescents indicated the frequency of church attendance and importance of religion, along with a number of activities that they have or have not participated in.
The results of this study are astounding: the data shows that religiously practicing youth are much less involved with illegal substances, alcohol abuse, criminal and violent activities, and have fewer problems in school. The more religious the child, the more likely they are to exercise, and to volunteer to help in their communities.
From the above research, could we not conclude that it’s actually a good thing for a school to teach religion (read: Christianity) to their pupils? Wouldn’t a society with more practicing religious children and adults be measurably better off than without them?
Now, I don’t disagree that sometimes private school kids can look down on their public school peers. But going by the above studies, religion (at least Christianity) is hardly the likely culprit, don’t you think? A much more plausible answer might be the ‘private’ aspect of such schools: in other words, it’s most likely a (secular) private/public issue, rather than a religious issue.
But is such tribalism really that big a deal, that you would need to ban private religious schools?
3) More to the point, banning private religious schools is a violation of human rights.
Article 20 of the UN International Declaration of Human rights, to which Australia is a signatory, declares that ‘(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.’
Freedom of association has traditionally meant, among other things, that religious people (and others) have the right to found institutions such as schools. In other words, your suggestion to ban religious schools violates the human rights of religious people. To be perfectly frank, you seem to want a better society, with presumably less tribalism, but in order to achieve this better society, you seem willing to throw some people’s human rights under the bus.
Which, incidentally, is the modus operandi for totalitarian (e.g. fascist) regimes: in order to reach that grand utopia, they’re quite happy to violate the human rights of the citizens who they disagree with.
4) The view that ‘you must not think in a tribal way’ is itself a tribal position.
As ironic as it sounds, your particular point of view, namely that ‘you must not think in a tribal way’, is itself tribal. That is, not everyone thinks like you do: many people in our world understand that diverse religious and cultural views are a part of life, and live with those differences.
However, from what I can tell you don’t seem to want even a hint of such tribal diversity in our schooling system, even though Australia has peaceably lived with such school system tribalism since before Federation.
More to the point, is not the banning of religious schools because of their tribal views the coercive forcing of your tribal viewpoint onto them? Aren’t you declaring (legal) war on that other tribe? In other words, aren’t you thereby doing the very thing that you condemn: demanding that people think like you?
Your article started brilliantly, outlining that freedom of speech must (in effect) have have a licence to offend. Unfortunately, for the reasons given above, your desire to reduce perceived tribalism has not only led to some questionable diagnoses of the problem, but also proposed a solution that is taken out of the playbook of totalitarian regimes.