Gisèle Sapiro: “We are in a culture war” | Culture

French sociologist Gisèle Sapiro poses at the Posada del Dragón hotel in Madrid.
French sociologist Gisèle Sapiro poses at the Posada del Dragón hotel in Madrid.Victor Sainz

The debate over whether Peter Handke deserved the Nobel in the case of someone close to Milosevic or Roman Polanski the Cesar prizes when he has not yet been brought to justice for rape flashes intermittently in the heat of the culture of cancellation with growing debates. The French sociologist Gisèle Sapiro (1965) has put context and data to the matter in Can the author’s work be separated? (Intellectual Code), where he recalls previous chapters of great force such as that of Céline, an enormous author with anti-Semitic pamphlets that generally disappeared from the editions after Nazism. In France, Bertrand Cantat has returned to sing after serving prison for the murder of his girlfriend Marie Trintignant by a brutal beating. Sometimes the crime is in the acts (Polanski, Cantat); sometimes, it can be in the words (Céline, Houellebecq); and sometimes both (the self-proclaimed pedophile Matzneff).

Question. Are we in a culture war?

Answer. Yes, yes, we can speak of a culture war because there is a radicalization of positions. There are legitimate demands on the part of anti-racist and feminist groups and a very violent reaction on the part of the dominant groups on the right, and not just the right. In the US these groups have partly won the battle, in Europe this is not the case.

P. Is the author responsible for his work?

R. Yes, and you must answer for it in court. Modern authors have built an ethic of responsibility separate from their criminal responsibility, but the right to describe the ills of society cannot be exercised to the detriment of others.

P. Is it legal to reward Polanski?

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R. The jury could have avoided rewarding him at a time when very young women have been abused in the film industry. In organized professions such as lawyers or doctors there are penalties for this type of abuse.

P. Is judging a work in court admissible?

R. Works have always been judged when they have crossed the limits of freedom of expression, and authors have always fought to expand their rights. Flaubert was prosecuted for depicting adultery in Madame Bovary and the court reproached his realism without condemning him. A Nazi criminal can be represented without adhering to his character. Houellebecq’s trial for incitement to hatred against Islam was not for his novel Platform, but for their comments in the press.

P. And how do you assess popular judgment?

R. The popular judgment usually arises in the cracks of the judicial system or of the deontology of those who are in positions of authority. Without that mobilization, it would not even be talked about.

P. Isn’t the celebration of Cantat concerts, for example, a form of acceptance of violence against women?

R. I won’t go so far as to say that. Some see him that way, but others see that he has served his sentence and therefore has the right to reintegrate into social life. The feminists who protest against their concerts argue that their position gives it an exemplary dimension and therefore they oppose it. They use Cantat’s notoriety to advance the cause of anonymous murdered women and I can say that it is fair game.

P. The Matzneff case necessitated Springora’s book on her abuse as a child to have her works withdrawn. Will we need a book for each crime?

R. Springora’s testimony was decisive for raising awareness: the Gallimard publishing house decided to withdraw Matzneff’s books from sale and the debate on the age of consent was opened. The case also revealed complicity on the part of the literary world and that will also have an impact.

P. Does the culture of cancellation threaten freedom?

R. Boycott and protest are a right, they are not censorship. Freedom does not consist in abusing a dominant position but presupposes the freedom of the other, as Sartre said.

P. Do you think there is a witch hunt, as some claim?

R. You cannot identify this with McCarthyism, as you sometimes hear it said, because it is not organized by the state. On the contrary, it is a reaction against the abuse of authority. Hopefully this will lead to a change in behaviors. Of course, popular justice should not replace the courts, but they should do a better job of violence against women and children.

P. Are there more taboos today on the left than on the right?

R. The taboos on the right consist of protecting the dominant. In the nineteenth century, for example, criticizing the monarchy, religious beliefs and social hierarchies was prohibited. Our liberal democracies have abolished these taboos and protect people from hate speech and violence. It is that protection that the extreme right questions in the name of freedom of expression.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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