Being a philosopher doesn’t mean that every outrageous claim you ever make or course of action you ever take is just ‘provocation’, ‘proving a point’, or ‘irony’. In a televised debate on French TV channel LCI (La Chaîne Info), largely between philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and feminist activist and politician Caroline de Haas, some very absurd declarations were made.
The segment, part of the programme’s “#TheGreatConfrontation” series, hosted by David Pujadas and broadcast on LCI only three days ago, dealt with freedom of expression, the politically correct, and whether all opinions should be voiced or not. The clip has since expired and is no longer available on LCI’s website, but key moments of the debate have been re-uploaded on YouTube and elsewhere.
In a video excerpt, which seems to begin right after the panelists have been shown a series of comedy sketch snippets, Pujadas points out that it is not a question of whether some things are funny or tasteful, but whether some things should be allowed to be said at all. Framing the debate in such a way already puts de Haas in an uncomfortable position: either she must admit that humour is part of freedom of expression and therefore anything can be said, or she must agree to limit freedom of expression by supporting that not everything can always be said (without consequences), and take on the role of a dictator.
Whereas the episode is entitled, verbatim: “Are all opinions good to be said?”, many in the debate itself seem to be interpreting the question as “Can anything be said?”, which in itself might not be worth debating at all. Of course, what is said cannot legally be limited unless the speech itself is an illegal speech act, such as a violent threat. So what’s the point?
When Finkielkraut shouts “Rape, rape, rape. I’m telling men: rape women. In fact, I rape my wife every night. Really, every night. She’s fed up with it, she’s fed up with it” on national TV, and then ludicrously tells Caroline de Haas “You are absurd”, no one in the studio is laughing.
Well, the episode mentions comedy, and that’s more interesting. Can you get away with saying anything when you’re a public figure who’s job is to joke around, be unserious, and at times, say the exact opposite of what you believe in? Comedy is tricky, and frankly, the deciding factor can definitely be tastefulness. There are sexist jokes on the more tasteful side of things that I can enjoy and laugh at, even the very crude ones.
At the same time, comedians are taking a risk by engaging in a socio-cultural pact of probabilities. Not all jokes land, and not everything will appeal to all people (hence the point of changing your material to suit a certain audience). When jokes are so politically, socially, or ethically charged and then are ill-received, it is your responsibility as a comedian to embrace the backlash. You set yourself up and you saw it coming too.
Alain Finkielkraut, however, is not a comedian: he is a French-Jewish philosopher and public intellectual who has written serious material on supporting identitary nonviolence. So when he shouts “Rape, rape, rape. I’m telling men: rape women. In fact, I rape my wife every night. Really, every night. She’s fed up with it, she’s fed up with it” on national TV, and then ludicrously tells Caroline de Haas “You are absurd” for thinking comedy sketches can trivialise assault, no one in the studio is laughing. In fact, there are audible gasps of shock, the panelists themselves don’t seem all that comfortable, and the host is quick to throw in “It’s just irony, it’s just humour”.
This isn’t the first time Finkielkraut has made such preposterous and honestly, weird declarations. He has previously been accused of making racist remarks when referring to France’s national football team, and has been critiqued for his unwavering defence of Roman Polanski who was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.
When referring to the case in this segment, Finkielkraut maintains that the girl was not a child but a teenager of “13 years and 9 months of age”, was “not prepubertal, she had a boyfriend, she had a relationship with Polanski, he was accused of rape, today she has reconciled with him, and she is imploring Caroline de Haas to stop harassing him”, with no mention of the consequences of psychological alliance brought on by Stockholm Syndrome, fear, anxiety, shame, and embarrassment often felt by survivors of abuse.
Finkielkraut is a public figure broadcast on national French TV and he has the power to influence those watching what many are interpreting as a very serious debate.
Of course, imposing legal boundaries on speech is not the same as critiquing speech, or taking subsequent action because of speech. So though not everything Caroline de Haas says has to stick, when she declares “You can not say that” in response to Alain Finkielkraut’s absurd rape joke-comments, she has a point in that it is a question of morality and responsibility, rather than legality.
Finkielkraut is a public figure broadcast on national French TV and he has the power to influence those watching what many are interpreting as a very serious debate. One would have hoped that such a framework deserved some consideration for the moral responsibility and authoritative power held by a public intellectual.