‘They used the oven to get tanned, you know…’

Marc-Antoine Dilhac recounts how he confronted anti-semitic prejudice in a French classroom, and argues that more good comes from an open debate about hate speech than from banning it.

It happened in 2008. Back then, I was teaching philosophy in a secondary school for vocational training, in the south of France, not far from the Spanish border, in the small town of Gourdan Polignan. My pupils were about eighteen years old and had, with a few exceptions, a rural background.

So, I had this class on the philosophical issue of technology (la technique). The topic is part of the philosophical curriculum for all French pupils. To sum up my course, as far as I can remember it, it started with a lecture on Aristotle’s conception of art/technè, then I presented the transformation of science in Bacon and Descartes’ work, and I went on with Marx’s analysis of production, etc. In the last lecture, I commented on the industrial revolution and addressed the Taylorist turn and the rationalization of mass production.

The last part of this lecture was about, as I put it in a provocative way, ‘one of the favourite hobbies of human beings of all time which is waging war and slaughtering.’ My purpose was to show how industrialisation entailed a new paradigm for a number of human activities, one of which was war. In order to keep the attention of my pupils, who were far more familiar with JayZ than Aristotle, I showed powerpoint slides with pictures and excerpts of movies such as Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times.’ While I was presenting the contemporary issue of mass murder, I displayed pictures of what seemed to be a regular factory but was in fact Auschwitz. Then, I led my pupils inside this factory and showed the ovens. At that very moment, I heard from behind someone telling an awful joke and his friends laughing out loud: “they used the oven to get tanned, you know…”.

Picture me in front of more than 30 big guys, rugby players and huntsmen, laughing about Jewish prisoners. I felt like I had been stabbed. But I faced the one who made the joke. “I beg your pardon? Can you repeat your joke out loud?” “Sir, it’s just a joke, don’t take it bad.” I was about to lose my temper and followed up: “No, please, I’d like to laugh too. What did you say?” “Oh nothing …”  he replied. Then I asked: “What is so funny about the Nazi genocide of Jews? I must have missed something, I’d like to understand.” But they remained silent and I could not continue my class. I was just appalled at their behaviour.

During the trip back to Toulouse, where I used to live, I could not think about anything else. I could not sleep that night. Something had gone really wrong and I started to blame myself. I thought I should have been smarter, I should have tried to understand their reaction, and certainly I should not have reacted like I did. In the morning I was determined to have a talk with them and to let them vent their anti-Semitic rage. I was thinking of Socrates in front of the dangerous Callicles, and I was convinced that if Socrates could resist Callicles’ aggression, I could stand what I was about to hear. I was also confident in the power of dialogue to debunk wrong arguments, expose sophisms, and maybe to “heal” the vicious souls. But of course you have to assume that prejudices such as racism and anti-Semitism are supported, however remotely, by arguments or at least by some rhetoric.

At the beginning of the class, I apologised for my reaction the day before and told them that though I did not share their opinions I was interested in their justification. So I suggested that instead of carrying on the lecture on la technique, we should discuss their understanding of Shoah and their perception of Jews. At first, my proposal was roughly dismissed: “No Sir, we cannot talk about that. For one thing, we’re not on the same side, you know it, we know it. And if we told you what we thought of Jews, we would break the law, you would have to make a report to the head, and we would be in big trouble… so please, let’s move on.”

I was expecting this kind of reaction, so I tried to convince them that I would not make any report to the head and whatever was said in the classroom would stay there. For some reason, I had moral authority over them and they knew they could trust me. But even at this stage, it was quite difficult to engage in the discussion, so I had to break the ice: “Since you don’t want to talk, let me tell you how I understand your reaction. You think that we always talk about Jews, that too much is done for them, and you feel frustrated.” They nodded and finally they elaborated on their feelings.

Basically, they thought in good faith that because of the Shoah, we do not pay attention to other massacres such as the genocide in Rwanda; they claimed that because of the past suffering of Jews, we shut our eyes to the suffering of Palestinians. It is worth mentioning that there was no Arab, no North African in my class, but mostly of people ‘of French origin,’ if this expression makes sense. It was easy to counter this argument and to make them understand that to remember the Shoah only strengthens our sensitivity to injustice done to other human beings. Sometimes it was hard to endure their prejudices about Jews, but we discussed it in a respectful way. At the end of the class, they told me that they were grateful that I let them talk freely, that they understood their mistakes and why it was morally wrong to support and spread anti-Semitic views. At the end of the day, I thought I have done the right thing.

Now I cannot say that I succeeded in changing their mind altogether, but I surely avoided a situation of great concern: let the racist think that he is right but that the Establishment (biased in favour of Jews, immigrants, black people, etc.) prevents him from speaking the truth. That is why I deeply believe that we should not restrain freedom of expression except in the case of clear and present danger. I grant you that what I achieved “between the walls,” in a classroom, is certainly more difficult to achieve in the wider public sphere (“Between the walls”, Entre les murs, refers to a – not very good but famous – novel by François Bégaudeau about a teacher of literature in high school). But I believe this experience makes a strong case against legal bans on hate speech. Persecuting the heretic results in making him a hypocrite but it does not change his faith. This lesson from the 16th century remains true.

Marc-Antoine Dilhac is a professor of ethics and political philosophy at the University of Montreal.

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  1. Commentary on ‘They used the oven to get tanned, you know…’
    Currently in our IB English Language and Literature course we are discussing the implications of a ban on hate speech. We came across your discussion where you reflect on a case of an offensive joke made during your class. Should hate speech be banned as it is in France? We think it shouldn’t for the same reasons which drove you to address the issue with your class after their “oven joke.” Hate speech codes not only deny our freedom of speech, they also cause students shy away from arguments for fear that their unpopular opinion will be regarded as hate speech. Santa Clara University has several arguments against speech codes and bans on hate speech. For example a person who is protected and shielded from hate speech may not be able to deal with it later in life, not knowing how to deal with it or react. The students in your class who laughed so hard at the “oven joke” probably didn’t understand how offensive or wrong the joke was, simply because they had never been exposed to hate speech in school and because it was easy for them to pick on those who can’t fight back. They didn’t have anything to compare the joke to estimate where on a scale of normal speech to hate speech it would fall and maybe lacked the empathy to understand how hateful their joke was.

    On the other hand, hate speech codes can make for a safer environment. Because hate speech is usually aimed at a smaller group or individual by a large group, as it is easier to pick on weaker or smaller oponents, the effects are usually more than just some hurt feelings because of a dumb joke. Hate speech codes can also be easily abused by others, as they can claim a comment as hate speech with little or no context. Rational arguments are also difficult when one person is constantly spouting racial slurs or other offensive gestures while you’re arguing. While a ban would be beneficial for some, it is still important for people to be educated on the matter, so that they will not end like your class: unknowing of how offensive a joke can be.

    During one of the interviews about the hate speech Kenan Malik (A writer, lecturer and broadcaster, trained in neurobiology and the history of science. As a specific author, his focus is on the philosophy of biology, and contemporary theories of multiculturalism, pluralism and race.) said:”Hate speech restriction is a means not of tackling bigotry but of rebranding certain, often obnoxious, ideas or arguments as immoral. It is a way of making certain ideas illegitimate without bothering politically to challenge them. And that is dangerous”.

    In 1965, Britain prohibited the incitement of racial hatred as part of its Race Relations Act. The following decade was probably the most racist in British history. It was the decade of ‘Paki-bashing’, when racist thugs would seek out Asians to beat up. It was a decade of firebombings, stabbings, and murders. Racism was also involved in fabric and public institutions. This shows that the ban of hate speech may stimulate people to do more bad actions.

    In 2007 an event happened which confirms the words of Kenan Malik. In October 2007 James Watson (an American biologist, geneticist and zoologist, best known as a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick) claimed of Africans that their ‘intelligence is not the same as ours’ and that blacks are genetically intellectually inferior. He was rightly condemned for his arguments. But most of those who condemned him did not bother challenging the arguments, empirically or politically. They simply insisted that it is morally unacceptable to imagine that blacks are intellectually inferior. Many of his lectures at various museums and universities were canceled. And a week later, on the 25th, he retired at the age of 79 from CSHL ( Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory) from what the lab called “nearly 40 years of distinguished service”.In a statement, Watson attributed his retirement to his age, and circumstances that he could never have anticipated or desired.

    There’s been another problem with anti-semitism in France. The French comedian Dieudonne has created the quenelle gesture, for him it simply means, “up yours”, but through a viral explosion on the internet it has been given an anti-semitic connotation. Dieudonne has been convicted several times for making either anti-semitic jokes or gestures. The debate about the quenelle gesture exploded when the French West-Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka (a close friend of Dieudonne) made the gesture after scoring his second goal against West Ham United. The first consequence of his action was that the sponsor of West-Bromwich Albion, Zoopla said they would not continue their agreement with West-Bromwich Albion if Nicolas Anelka kept playing for them. The second result of his action was a 5 match ban handed out to Nicolas Anelka by the FA. Anelka said he had made the gesture to support Dieudonne and that it was merely an anti-establishment gesture. West-Bromwich Albion than released a statement saying that Anelka would not perform the quenelle again, despite this on the 15th of March Anelka was still sacked by West-Bromwich Albion.

    The quenelle has been made in front of holocaust museums and by leading thinkers of the French far right. For creating the gesture Dieudonne has been banned from the UK in February of 2014 (he had wanted to visit Anelka to support him) and a French minister said that Dieudonne would never perform again in France. Other athletes who made the quenelle were Mamadou Sakho and Tony Parker both of whom said that they had been tricked into making the gesture and did not know that it was harmful or offensive.

    The gesture has been banned in France as it is anti-semitic, but is it the right thing to do? Are you able to ban a gesture because it has a certain connotation? The ban on the gesture has only made it more popular amongst the youth and has turned it into an anti-establishment symbol. The quenelle is used by certain youth groups to show that they are against the French government and are being rebellious, additionally the gesture has often been made outside of the parliament and the courts when there are discussions about either right wing issues or right wing politicians. For example, during the trial against Dominique Strauss-Kahn the gesture was made outside of the court and also around the Sofitel in New York were the alleged incident took place. A t-shirt was created to make the quenelle with numbers on the sleeve which go from a mere 40 cm quenelle to a full fletched full arm quenelle, these t-shirts were worn outside of the Sofitel in New York and the court.

    The gesture has been made viral by scenes like these, this has only increased how popular it is and now that it is banned it has been named as the perfect anti-establishment gesture instead of the anti-semitic gesture that French ministers and courts have called it. During the 2009 French election for the European parliament, there had been an anti zionist list which featured the quenelle on the campaign poster. This poster sparked reactions around the world, as in how could an anti-semitic gesture be permitted to be on an official campaign poster, was the anti-zionist list not also fascist and anti-semitic? How could this have happened was the big question. The answer being that there was no ban on the quenelle at this point and since there is freedom of speech they went ahead with their campaign. Yet many senior politicians called for the list to be removed saying that it was unacceptable.

    How in your opinion should this gesture be dealt with? Should it be banned or should the French government simply ignore it and hope that the hype surrounding its use dies? Can society effectively ban gestures like this one or is it just impossible? Are such gestures just a part of society?

    Max Daniel Maurits

  2. “They used the oven to get tanned, you know…” Response

    To Marc-Antoine Dilhac, we are a threesome of students at the American School of the Hague in the Netherlands, and are discussing and researching the topics of hate speech, free speech, and issues regarding taboo.

    In your article “They use the oven to get tanned, you know . . . ” you provide an exemplary case addressing the issues that arise with the banning of hate speech. You also, bravely, state that even after your experience, you still believe discussing issues of hate speech is far more effective than simply banning all hate speech. This stance is daring but, in our eyes, also a correct one.

    Banning hate speech does not allow people to fully understand to what extent their language is offensive and the implications it can have, since there can be no discussion on the issues of concern that can change people’s opinions. We, therefore, unquestionably concur with your stance on banning hate speech because when the issue is not addressed it allows for ignorance in the form of inappropriate jokes and creates general hatred towards the topic.

    Tragedies often spur sadness and remorse for the damage, but for some reason we also like to laugh in times of tragedy. It seems as the completely inappropriate to make jokes about people who have died or people who have lost their life’s work, yet we still do. We try to deal with the enormity of the issue and make it easier to digest, according to Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos. Its a defense mechanism to not have to deal with the harsh realities at hand.

    Could this be the class’s way to deal with the holocaust? This may be true, but the guys also seem to want to send a message that they feel other massacres and tragedies are not being dealt with. They mention the Palestinians and the genocide in Rwanda as not being paid adequate attention. They say that “ . . . because of the past suffering of Jews, we shut our eyes to the suffering of Palestinians,” but this doesn’t doesn’t justify why we can disregard the holocaust and laugh at the tragedy. Although these topics might not be covered it is still inappropriate and ignorant to joke about the horrifying events, even if it is a defense mechanism.

    There are no excuses for offensive jokes, but just censoring them out doesn’t fix the root of the problem. Ignorance remains even if the joke is not verbalized.

    The students through telling the jokes displayed their ignorance, but jokes regardless of them being classified as ‘jokes’ normally have meaning behind them, and in this case revealed the hatred that the French students developed towards the holocaust.

    There is a lack of discussion of other massacres, which the students actually wanted to learn about, and we as students can feel a slight truth to this ‘over-teaching’ of the holocaust.

    In our school, the holocaust is taught extensively as well, in 11th grade we only just learnt about the Chinese revolution and the Bolshoi revolution when the holocaust has been taught every year and we neglect other topics. We can understand part of the frustration. Whether this justifies a hatred towards the Jews we are not sure, but allowing discussion as opposed to suppressing the topic allows for understanding of where the hatred comes from and how to possibly eliminate some of the hatred through discussion. We understand that the massacre was an extremely significant event in history portraying the evils that humans are capable of. However we would like to learn about more current events and discuss issues in our world today as well, instead of simply studying an event that happened years ago. We support the idea that being taught a broader view of historical events supports the development of a childs education further than focusing solely on one of the many influential historical events.

    It is clear to us that banning hate speech only aggravates the situation and further develops the hatred and ignorance that people have. We firmly believe that when people are able to speak freely and openly about topics of hate speech with people that are, like your article states “not on the same side”, both sides of the discussion gain a deeper understanding of the issue and hopefully understand why the hate speech is wrong. It is better to understand why something is inappropriate than to just know it is considered wrong.

    This remains a difficult topic as one has to balance between protecting the human right of freedom of speech and getting rid of hate speech that will offense people.

    Some questions to the author that we would like to know about or just general questions for other readers to ponder:
    What differentiates you from the students in such a way that you are so deeply affected by the telling of the joke, and the students are able to have a laugh about it? Do you believe that their hatred for the Jews is justified or clarified by the lack of coverage other massacres around the world get or did you just consider this as a way the boys reasoned for their hatred? Do you think that by covering these other massacres the inappropriate jokes would be prevented? We hope that it does but would like to hear from your personal experience, (perhaps you have since changed your approach to these issues) whether this has encouraged your students to refrain from telling inappropriate jokes.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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