Folau, Vunipola and the intolerance of the culture of tolerance

Israel Folau was dropped by Rugby Australia over an Instagram post that said "hell awaits" gay people among othersReuters

How to make a crowd turn

If you follow rugby at all then it couldn't have escaped your attention that there's been a furor around Israel Folau's provocative Instagram post and then Billy Vunipola's subsequent 'like' of the post and expression of support for it.

The condemnation has been swift and on message across media outlets, governing bodies, clubs, sponsors, current and ex players and the wider rugby community. As of this morning Israel Folau's contract has been terminated with the ARU. Billy Vunipola has met with Saracens and received a formal warning, will meet the RFU this week and was roundly booed by the crowds at the weekend.

Whilst not denying the provocative character of Folau's original post we should not miss the way that these events have exposed the concerning nature of a 'New Colonialism' that holds sway in our society and increasingly in sport. Those who don't study history are destined to repeat its mistakes and that's just what we are doing.

Colonialism at its most strident was a set of ideals that were so impregnable and beyond critique that they legitimised the steamrolling of whatever stood in their way. The well honed belief that the West was further down the arc of history in technological and ethical terms than the majority of the rest of the world was absolute. Therefore the sooner the rest of the world accepted the Western consensus, or if they refused to accept it, was forced to adopt it, the better. As such minority rights were ridden over roughshod, other cultures and their norms were forced to adopt the Western order of things, and perhaps most concerning of all this was done without a moment's pause and self-examination, "Are we actually right to think that we are right?"

Does this sound familiar? It should.

Aligning with Vunipola's response

As mentioned above, the character of Folau's post has been accused of being provocative and further of lacking compassion. However the content that Billy Vunipola is defending, and with which Christians in Sport aligns (as seen within our Statement of Faith), is historical, orthodox Christianity which holds that God's good design for sex is within heterosexual marriage. What Vunipola's response flushed out is that it's not really the provocative character of the communication people are taking issue with, but with the content that goes against the current Western consensus.

Vunipola's Instagram message was very measured. Here it is in full because it's interesting how little it's been quoted in full.

"So this morning I got 3 phone calls from people telling me to 'unlike' the @izzyfolau post. This is my position on it. I don't HATE anyone neither do I think I'm perfect. There just comes a point when you insult what I grew up believing in that you just say enough is enough, what he's saying isn't that he doesn't like or love those people. He's saying how we live our lives needs to be closer to how God intended them to be. Man was made for woman to procreate that was the goal no? I'm not perfect I'm at least everything on that list at least at one point in my life. It hurts to know that. But that's why I believe there's a God. To guide and protect us and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Notice the character of the post. It is staggering that Saracens would imply it lacks 'respect' or 'humility' unless now defacto any opinion that contradicts the Western consensus is disrespectful and proud!

Notice also the content of his point, 'There just comes a point when you insult what I grew up believing in that you say enough is enough'. For Vunipola this is about beliefs which are a core part of his Tongan and South Pacific Island heritage. And what are these incredibly controversial beliefs that should draw such sharp condemnation? "Man was made for woman to pro create (sic.)." A view which was the Western consensus until this generation, was only enacted in UK law in 2014 and which is still the majority view globally. But such facts don't come into play when you are right. And the West is right, right?

Is this really a culture of 'inclusivity and tolerance'?

I know I'm a white, middle-class, privileged male writing about this and that Folau and Vunipola don't look like your typical minority ethnic group members by virtue of being 18 stone and rugby players, but being a minority group isn't about physical size. Folau and Vunipola's posts have received many likes from those from South Pacific Island heritage who are feeling the New Colonial steamroller coming their way. But the momentum of the Western consensus is now so strong that few have noticed this worrying dynamic and its ugly historical precedents. Few have noticed the irony of the intolerance of the culture of 'tolerance'.

Much has been touted by journalists and the sporting bodies about 'rugby's culture of inclusivity and tolerance'. As one who has lived within that culture at an amateur and professional level for much of his life I feel able to comment on it. Yes rugby's culture has increasingly become one of acceptance and inclusivity (let's not pretend it has always been as such!). There's now an equality across the community. There's a sense in which going hard at each other on the pitch leads to strong friendships off the pitch regardless of backgrounds. But that acceptance and inclusivity has never meant enforced conformity to certain beliefs even if the truth might be controversial and unpopular.

For how can you find out what is true unless it is able to be discussed and debated openly? It needs to be done respectfully of course. With humility? Yes ideally. But when these values of respect and humility, tolerance and acceptance start to prescribe content not character and are used as masks to enforce a New Colonial consensus then I have to say this ceases to be the rugby community I recognise.

Pete Nicholas is a Trustee of Christians in Sport and a former rugby player.  He continues to play touch rugby and is ordained in the Church of England.  He currently serves as Minister in Charge of Inspire Saint James Clerkenwell in London.   This article was originally published on the Christians in Sport website and is re-printed here with permission.