Public safety, human flourishing

Simon Smart weighs in on the Andrew Thorburn saga, and the questions it raises about the kind of society we want to become.

Is Andrew Thorburn a threat to public safety?

Essendon Football Club seems to think so and many agree. This week he was labelled a hateful bigot and considered far too dangerous to hold on to the CEO job he’d only just accepted.

Andrew is a friend of mine, so I am hardly objective or unbiased. But honestly, I’m confident that anyone who spends more than about five minutes with him will recognise Andrew to be a deeply compassionate, respectful, kind and welcoming person. That he was so maligned because of the teaching of his church seems terribly unfair.

This episode raises all sorts of questions about the kind of society we want to become. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, explores the pitfalls of what he calls safetyism, where it is felt necessary to create a culture where we are completely protected from ideas and ways of seeing the world—religious or otherwise—that differ from our own. Safety becomes a “sacred value” that trumps everything else.

In Thorburn’s case, he is deemed unsafe because he is “infected” by the preaching that has taken place in his church—teaching that is common to churches, mosques and synagogues.

A truly liberal democracy makes space for competing worldviews to co-exist. It’s a difficult, complex and hazardous enterprise. But up until now we’ve always thought it worth the effort.

At their best footy clubs draw together people of varied occupations, education, ethnicity, and religious conviction. Differences are put aside in shared love for a chosen jumper and tribe. As a microcosm of society, it provides a beautiful picture of unity across profound difference. Could Andrew Thorburn have helped cultivate such an atmosphere at Essendon? Sadly, we’ll never know.

He was too much of a risk.

Image credit to Daniel Anthony.