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Shifting the goalposts on discrimination and inclusion


How do we live and work happily together with people whose views on the world and human nature are fundamentally different to our own? Each of us has ideas about what we need to flourish as human beings. For some, those ideas are strongly influenced by religious teachings, whether they’re Christian, Islamic or Jewish. For others, religion is less relevant. And of course there are those who believe certain religious teachings restrict rather than promote their flourishing – often teachings related to sexuality and gender identity. Ideally, a pluralistic society would try to leave individuals free to pursue the pathway they believe is best for them.

An issue emerges when organisations privilege one pathway to human flourishing above others, which might then require some accommodation with individuals within the organisation who have conflicting values and beliefs. The obvious example is religious organisations, such as Catholic schools, which is relevant to current debates around discrimination and religious freedom legislation. But increasingly we’re also seeing conflicts play out in secular organisations too, particularly when it comes to ‘inclusion’ initiatives.

How can organisations (both religious and secular) accommodate people with different views about what it means for people to flourish? Should the approach of organisations be to clearly map out acceptable attitudes and behaviours, and then exclude anyone who doesn’t conform? Or is there a different, more inclusive approach organisations might take when conflicts arise?

In February, the Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s released a report, ‘Changing the Game: Rethinking Sport’s Inclusion Dilemma’. The report was commissioned as part of the settlement between the Essendon Football Club and Andrew Thorburn, who was briefly appointed as the club’s CEO in late 2022. At the centre of their stoush was the public reaction to Thorburn’s membership of the City on the Hill Anglican Church, and its sermons on homosexuality and abortion that many found objectionable. The incident showed that it’s not just religious organisations struggling find a way to navigate diverse beliefs. 

It wasn’t the first time that a sporting organisation found itself trying to find the best approach to conflicts between different worldviews. A few years ago, Israel Folau found himself in a dispute with Rugby Australia over comments he made on social media, and more recently, players in the NRL and AFLW chose to opt out of playing in Pride-themed matches. Folau was forced to choose between being able to share his beliefs, or conform with the values of Rugby Australia. More recently, the players were allowed to follow their consciences, although (perhaps ironically) that meant opting out of ‘inclusion’ initiatives.

As the Cranlana report notes, ‘inclusion dilemmas’ tend to ‘generate hostile, aggressive and divisive debate, competing rights claims, and usually end with everyone feeling less included than they were previously’. The problem for sporting clubs is the same problem facing religious institutions: It’s hard for people to feel like they belong to a community when belonging ‘requires them to be silent, hide parts of themselves or forgo certain civil liberties’.

There have always been conflicts within organisations, but today’s social environment seems to have increased the stakes for those involved. On the positive side, modern technology means people with diverse ideas and experiences can more easily connect with similar people and support each other. On the negative side, these communities can become ‘bubbles’, creating environments where alternative ways of living and thinking are met with contempt. People can then struggle when their ideas are challenged outside their bubbles. When two different viewpoints contend within an organisation, it’s easy to see how it can degenerate into an existential ‘winner-take-all’ competition.


'A ‘healthy’ organisation is no longer defined as one where everyone is on board with the same ideas and approaches to issues, and where those who aren’t on board are shown the door. Instead, a ‘healthy’ organisation is one with robust mechanisms for feedback and discussion on important topics, and where those who might differ in their moral views can still feel heard and accepted.'


Is there a different way to approach issues arising out of diversity in organisations? The Cranlana report argues that instead of seeking to ‘resolve’ these issues, sporting organisations should seek ways to live with them. Tensions and challenges are parts of living in community, but they are also manageable with the right processes and strategies. While expectations around behaviour can be clear and specific, by building a ‘culture of care and curiosity’ communities can ‘de-escalate and understand deep moral differences’.

Nurturing care and curiosity can work against the impulse to meet people with different opinions with contempt. If we approach a person simply as the embodiment of something we disagree with, we’re not going to be very interested in hearing anything they have to say. If we approach people with the intention of connecting with them as a fellow human beings, we leave open the possibility of a deeper and more meaningful conversation – one that might lead to growth.

This approach isn’t going to prevent organisations from being faced with dilemmas. However – to use a sporting analogy – it does shift the goal posts. A ‘healthy’ organisation is no longer defined as one where everyone is on board with the same ideas and approaches to issues, and where those who aren’t on board are shown the door. Instead, a ‘healthy’ organisation is one with robust mechanisms for feedback and discussion on important topics, and where those who might differ in their moral views can still feel heard and accepted.

While there’s a strong argument that organisations (religious and secular) should be able to appoint leaders who share the organisation’s underlying values and commitments, this approach demands a style of leadership focused on welcoming and managing difference rather than excluding it. Different beliefs within organisations can be lived with, even celebrated, without necessarily undermining the organisation’s own core mission.

We can build walls around our organisations and exclude those who disagree with us, or we can try to find a way to live and work together. It seems to me there’s little hope for the future if our first impulse is to treat people with contempt because their ideas about human flourishing are different to our own. Approaching people around us with care and curiosity seems to be a much better way to nurture healthy, inclusive, communities for all.




Michael McVeigh is Head of Publishing and Digital Content at Jesuit Communications, publishers of Eureka Street.

Main image: (Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, AFL, Thorburn, Essendon, Discrimination



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