Let’s find a way to speak about our genuine differences

Mark Stephens writes for the Canberra Times that empathy could play a vital role in the conversation surrounding religious freedom.

Like my impending dental appointment, the return of the religious freedom debate feels both necessary and dread-inducing.

The mere mention of “Folau clauses” recalls a near-forgotten land before COVID, QR check-ins, and Squid Games. But are we any better placed now to talk about these matters? Every part of us feels thin and fragilised by the past two years. And now we’re being forced to talk about politics and religion in the same breath?

The basic contours of the debate are nothing new. On the one hand, we could quote Mill’s dictum that “every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service”.

On the other we can acknowledge, with the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron, that words can assault the fundamental dignity of a person. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can completely crush me.

Perhaps the real essence of this debate is not freedom but harm. Listen closely to advocates on every side. All speak long and loud about the harm done through intemperate speech or the harm done through unnecessary restriction.

My default posture should be to initially treat all such claims as genuine and sincere. It’s serious business when someone tells you they’re hurting, harmed, and harassed. We ignore pain at our peril.

The solution we’d intuitively prefer is that everyone would agree. One side is characterised as pining for the good old days when everyone went to church, and even those who refused agreed that the god they didn’t believe in was the Christian one. The other side is portrayed as longing for the enlightened future, the “right” side of history, where everyone’s moved on from medieval barbarism. Neither characterisation is entirely accurate.

Religious freedom legislation exists because we don’t agree. And you can’t use such legislation to enforce uniformity about the very points at issue.

If we disagree about fundamental matters of ethics, how can we do that without unnecessary harm? For what is so noticeable in this debate is the absence of imagination and empathy. We know our side’s experience, in person or in anecdote. We feel those injuries all too well. But it appears impossible to imagine how our opponents might experience the world, and how they experience my words and actions. Without empathy, we adopt one of two extremes: yell louder, or never speak at all. Neither is very helpful.

Our age lacks an infrastructure for empathy. Although our technologies hold rich potential to increase exposure to those with whom we disagree, it appears the opposite is happening.

In her 2014 book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle points to research that reveals increased usage of social media is associated with “a loss of empathy and diminished capacity for self-refection”. In contemporary debates over freedom of speech, there is an observable, and increasing, relational distance between those who square off. Living in our curated world of self-selected relationships and communities, I’m sealed o from the possibility of shared stories and common experience.

Which brings me back to harm.  E people who urgently need to recognise harm are your opponents, not your allies. But that cannot happen if we only relate to those we agree with. As the American legal scholar, John Inazu, has put it: “We can bridge relational distance even when we cannot bridge ideological distance.”

Yet we mistakenly think that relational distance can only be solved by imposing ideological uniformity. None of this gives answers to the burning questions around institutions and their right to hire and fire people. Interestingly, it does seem that all parties want some capacity to employ staff whose beliefs and actions match the ethos of their enterprise. But even once we’ve settled on a legal answer, the relational problem will still be there.

Can we speak to one another about our differences and still be colleagues, citizens, and dare I say it, friends? Time will tell.

Dr Mark Stephens is a fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of The End of Thinking .