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Izzy Folau repeats an obligato in the OLO score

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 15 April 2019


Twenty years ago I wouldn't have predicted that on the twentieth anniversary of On Line Opinion's first edition I would be writing about a Tongan-born football player who has made critical comments about homosexuality, amongst other things.

But in retrospect it seems almost foreordained. Israel Folau, and his troubles, are a repeat of an obligato in the philosophy and history of OLO.

From the first, On Line Opinion was an exercise in freedom of speech from a classical liberal position. We believed in robust exchange and absolute truth. The idea that someone might be able to shut debate down because "I'm gay and I'm offended" was laughable then, but we could see the trends, and that they needed to be fought.

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Except that gayness wasn't the heights of fashionable outrage then, it was race. We were in the twilight of Paul Keating's "Redfern Speech" and the red hot heat of Pauline Hanson's 1998 results in the Queensland state election.

There was elite opinion, and there was "wrong opinion", and the country was divided along lines of political correctness. I wrote numbers of op-eds at the time suggesting that the way to heal the country was not to try to beat your opponents senseless but to respect each other's common humanity and engage with each other. It's hard to change someone's mind by yelling at them.

A neutral space where conversation could occur seemed like a good idea.

But there was much more to it than that. I, along with co-founder Lionel Hogg, was struck by the potential of the Internet. This was a chance to take advantage of a disruptive technology and change the way that things were done, just as Gutenberg had with the printing press, arguably setting off the Protestant Reformation and modernity.

So what was special about this new medium?

The first thing was that the one-to-many broadcast medium now had a many-to-one feedback loop through the comments section so that authors could have a conversation with their audience.

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The second was that it also had a many-to-many function, again through the comments section, where the audience could talk to itself.

It meant that writers were better informed about their audiences than ever before, at the same time that their power as gatekeepers and oracles was being stripped away from them.

This was revolutionary, and like all revolutions, dangerous. Louis XVI may be dead, but there is a mob stalking in his shadows containing many Robespierres and Defarges.

We could see the potential for new gatekeepers and leaders to spring up, but we could also see the danger that the demise of the established order, and human nature combined with the nature of the Internet, would lend itself to silos, mobs and prejudice.

So the design of On Line Opinion was as a shopping centre of ideas where you couldn't help but bump into uncomfortable information, and where new media brands and personalities could spring-up and establish leadership.

We were particularly concerned to ensure people who had in-depth knowledge were able to talk to an audience. The editors' job was to find those people, rather than the usual journalistic suspects, and invite them to contribute.

The project was well-founded, but has been outflanked by social media, which shows all the undesirable characteristics we were keen to avoid. Which brings me back to Folau.

While On Line Opinion may have contributed to some small softening of political debate, that would be impossible to detect compared to what social media has licenced.

In 2010 we were the subject of an advertising boycott, organised by gay activists, which destroyed the business model of the site. (Read the full details here.) Our sin was that we published this article by Bill Muehlenberg as part of a feature containing 25 articles on gay marriage, 75% of which were in favour of it.

But to activists 75% is not enough. It has to be 100%, so in a technique, since used by organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation, and Sleeping Giants, our advertisers were targeted to pressure us to stop publishing anyone who disagreed with the activists. $17,000 income from advertising in the month of November 2010 went to virtually nothing in January 2011.

The same thing is being done to Rugby Australia over Folau, but instead of protecting his human rights, RA is caving in.

These are brown-shirt tactics, no different to what the Nazis did to opponents prior to WWII. It ought to be illegal, and its promoters held responsible for the damage that they are doing to businesses which are going about their lawful business.

These tactics are far more offensive and dangerous than anything Folau has said. It's ironic that while we are so sensitised to bullying in private life that it somehow justifies a politician resigning from her political party, when it happens on the web, to someone who's unfashionable, we just shrug and move on.

The tactics wouldn't be possible without the Internet which gives a false sense of strong public support for minority views, because in a lot of cases the anger is ephemeral, or not widely held at all, outside perhaps the Twitterverse.

And that's not the only downside of the net and social media.

It also reinforces a human tendency to only mix with people who agree with you, and when you only mix with people that agree with you the group will polarise its opinions more in the direction in which you all already agree.

In Folau's case there is a two-fold consequence. Not only is he attacked on social media in increasingly hysterical terms, but in order to retain or grow audiences, mainstream media, all of which is basically electronic these days, even if they have hard copy legacy editions, become increasingly hysterical.

The gatekeepers, and there are still a lot left, have become co-opted by the mob.

I've read a number of commentaries on Folau's case by now, and most of them start by saying how offensive his views are.

But offense is something subjective that people take. Without a social framework nothing can be offensive.

17 months ago we had a postal vote on gay marriage. 38.4 per cent of Australians voted against it. That means that almost 40% of Australians are likely to have some sympathy to Folau's views.

52% of Australians are Christian, and while many Christians don't regard homosexual activity as a sin, theologically most denominations do. The same is true for Muslims, with a little more flexibility in Hinduism and Buddhism, but with most clerics being opposed to homosexual activity.

We have a problem if the majority of our citizens belong to organisations which forbid homosexual activity, and yet most commentators feel they have to preface articles effectively dismissing this position by saying it is offensive.

I may be wrong, but I suspect the reservation is expressed merely because they want to avoid being crucified by the mob, like Folau.

Of course, none of this would have happened if it were not for social media. Without social media Folau wouldn't have 337,000 followers, and his audience would be restricted to a small congregation.

So is it the ability to see what more of our fellow human beings are thinking as they expose themselves on social media that is driving this intolerance, or has something shifted in Australian society?

I'm not sure, but the Australia I grew up in had a high tolerance for ratbags. We had a live and let live attitude to tolerance.

It might just be that some gay Australians feel insecure in Australia, so want to enforce approval. (It must be the gays in Folau's case, because he also had a shot at "Drunks…, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters," and none of them have risen up to condemn him.)

But one thing is for sure, the more you try to force people to change their minds, the more they push back. Vicitimising Folau, or anyone else, will entrench them in their position, and even find them supporters they would not otherwise have had.

My hope is that what we are experiencing is the teething pangs of what is still a very new technology, and that with more instances like this, common-sense and tolerance will reassert themselves – surely Australians haven't changed that much in a generation.

My fear is that society has flipped, and we will see things get worse before they get better.

It was the Protestant Reformation, unleashed by the printing press, that paved the way for free speech in the west.

The waves of religious dispute and violence were so destructive, that in the end freedom to speak your mind was the truce they had to have.

In the meantime I'll soldier on with On Line Opinion. The solution isn't one ejournal, but the solution won't be helped by the disappearance of one ejournal either.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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