Israel Folau: why words matter

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By Lisa Annese, DCA CEO

The ongoing Israel Folau debate has brought into sharp relief the tricky balance between one person’s right to religious expression, and another person’s right to live free of discrimination, shame and even violence[1].

This debate has touched on freedom of expression online, in society, and at work. But it has also raised the importance of our responsibilities not to use that freedom of expression to cause harm to other people.

At DCA we know about how powerful language is, especially at work. Our research has shown that the way we speak to each other creates a culture in which everyone can feel valued, respected, and one of the team. Or it can leave people feeling alienated, disrespected, and excluded, with all the collateral damage this brings.

This is because words are a form of action. What we say and how we communicate has an impact. Whether we like it or not, words have power – a power that is amplified when the speaker has a public platform. This is complicated for public figures like Israel Folau where the line between private individual and football star doesn’t really exist.

This issue is being debated because of Folau’s recent headlines, but also because Australia has never been more diverse. Increasingly we face issues we haven’t come across before. And it’s a measure of Australia as a society that we’re able to step up to these conversations and have them in a respectful way, knowing that this can be confronting and challenging when we’re talking about strongly held views.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Rosalind Croucher’s comments at DCA’s recent Oration are timely for us as a nation to consider now. She called for us to “start from the central proposition that people are free and equal in dignity and rights, but that our rights are not a limitless sea of possibility – and where people’s rights interact and clash we need to engage in negotiated conversation underpinned by the fundamental principle of respect.”

In our society, and especially in our workplaces, we must all support a religious employee’s ability to express their faith. But also recognise this is not a limitless right. Like any right, it comes with responsibilities – that religious employees express their faith respectfully and inclusively. Not in a way that divides, excludes, shames, judges others – or breaches an employment contract (especially important in Israel Folau’s case).

So the question for us all now becomes: how can we elevate the conversations that we have each day so they respect and include all?

This is where workplace inclusion can help. DCA has set out 4 steps to navigating this complexity.

1. Start with mutual respect

Inclusive organisations are ones where a diversity of employees are respected. When you encounter a situation where it appears that two ideas may be in conflict with each other, a good point to start from is by ensuring that all employees (or citizens in this case) are treated with respect. In most cases, starting with respect enables there to be a sensible compromise. 

2. Recognise that work is not a place for proselytizing

Inclusive workplaces welcome and encourage religious beliefs and expression, but religious expression shouldn’t involve proselytizing at work (unless that is the actual job).

3. Separate beliefs from religious expression

There are many people in Australia who have deeply held religious beliefs, but expressing those beliefs in a way that is harmful to other people could breach anti-discrimination laws, and may also not be respectful in a workplace context.

4. Recognise that community expectations are constantly shifting over time

At various times in history, religious beliefs were used to justify a range of practices including slavery, prohibitions on interracial marriage, and the criminalisation of homosexuality. But in 2019, thankfully, the views and expectations of the community have since shifted.

I’ve no doubt that religious freedoms and individual identities can co-exist in a diverse and multi-cultural country like Australia but we might be in for a bumpy road ahead.  Segments of our community like religious minorities and LGBTIQ+ individuals have both had difficult histories marked sometimes by exclusion, discrimination and worse.

But if the 2017 same sex marriage postal plebiscite results have taught me anything, it is that in the end, most Australians, when push comes to shove, will always choose love over hate.

[1] While clearly not all homophobic language leads to violence against LGBTIQ+ people, the genesis of that violence begins in anti-gay rhetoric.


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