Élodie Laye Mielczareck is a semiologist, specialized in language analysis, author of several books, consultant, lecturer at the University of Paris Cité, currently a PhD student on the theme of secularism and multiculturalism at the UBFC. She is the author of What Gestures and Words Say About Others... and especially idiots (Courrier du livre, 2023).
On Wednesday 6 December, the mediasphere was abuzz with a radio exchange concerning the remarks made by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, calling Ruth Elkrief a "manipulator" and a "fanatic". An RTL journalist asks Gérard Larcher, currently president of the Senate, what he thinks of these remarks and how he reacts to them. Here is the transcribed exchange: "What are you saying to him this morning? Be quiet? "Yes," he replies, "shut your mouth (smiles)." Speaking yesterday in these words, what is Gérard Larcher the name of?
It should be remembered that the notion of violence has been studied in the field of social sciences, but that its definition has not been stabilized. Violence is, at present, more of an object of research on university campuses than a solid concept. Indeed, for many researchers, the notion of violence is relative and subjective. As Jacques Sémelin reminds us, questioning the very notion of "violence" is first of all questioning what we name, what we feel as "violence". Our sensitivity and subjectivity would therefore play a crucial role in this definition.
A dive into the etymology is in order. The subtle but important difference between the words "insult" and "insult" is illuminating. Although both belong to the field of verbal abuse, which also includes other forms of negative speech such as slander and denigration, insult and insult have differences in meaning. The insult is often considered more clumsy and fleeting. Indeed, its etymology has the meaning of "sudden movement", before evolving into the meaning of "offense". Insult, on the other hand, is more related to the Law, with the Latin root -jus found in "justice" in particular, and thus carries the idea of an attack on honor and a violation of the Law. Insults can be repaired and erased, where insults leave indelible traces. Where the insult is crude and vulgar, the insult touches on the identity, the essence of the person. Moreover, insults include all the -isms that can be condemned by the courts (sexism, racism, etc.). From this point of view, the insult seems more banal and less insidious.
The language of insult – and insult – is clear. From this point of view, this "cash" and "clash" talk is close to a "real talk" often envied by political leaders.
Élodie Laye Mielczareck
Is the insult, then, uttered by Gérard Larcher innovative? Historians at heart know that insults have always been present in the field of politics. From Cambronne's words to the president's "fuck the unvaccinated" and "piss off the unvaccinated", these sweet words have long been a feature of political discourse. Vincent Auriol is thus described as a "poor, chubby noodle, whose eye flows like a Camembert in August", while Pétain is portrayed as an "old ass", not to mention the avalanches of insults that Valérie Giscard d'Estaing experienced: "stupid head, rotten bourgeois, apple, shit, facho, sewer rat, pain-to-cum, trouduc, daddy's son, upstart shark, poop-eater, piss-cold, liar, moron, big sausage without mustard [...]".
However, I share the same observation as Robert Édouard, in his 1967 Dictionary of Insults, "The inhabitants of our country have lost the taste for beautiful, truculent, colourful and good-natured insults." Insults seem, like many things in our world, mechanized, standardized, prosaic, interchangeable. The "shut your mouth" is shorter, more direct, more common, more common, emptier, flatter.
From a formal point of view, there is a permanence of the insult, which is perhaps what gives it so much ardour, vehemence and impetuosity (all three contained in the etymology of the word "violence"). The language of insult – and insult – is clear. From this point of view, this "cash" and "clash" talk is close to a "real talk" often envied by political leaders. In any case, and from a linguistic point of view, the morphosyntactic structures of insult and insult conjure up those of wooden language. Taking up Seneca's maxim, the language of truth is simple, the insulting politician is at once spontaneous, accessible, and clear. This is a significant asset when it comes to investing the little brain time available to potential voters.
For Cicero, for example, petulantia characterizes aggressive and morally flawed orators. What is thus reprehensible is not a matter of substance but of form.
Élodie Laye Mielczareck
Thus, another way of "labelling" political representatives ("centrists", "populists", etc.) would be to look at the length of their sentences and their complexity. Subordinates, convoluted phrases, and lengthy sentences easily give way to direct and invective phrases. Let us remember more! It turns out that a part of our brain is much more sensitive to this type of speech. Keen interest, inner thermometer in turmoil, insult quenches a part of our gregarious self.
And that's something that some people have understood. Recently, Javier Milei called the pope a "dirty leftist," while Donald Trump said: "We have someone [Joe Biden] who is not at the top of his game. It never was. We have a man who is a stupid son of a bitch." Insult thus becomes a trademark, an ethos of the postmodern politician, an opportunity to exist. Insult and insult make an Orwellian dream come true: no more need for subtext, only immediacy and anger. Isn't politics the art of capturing the passions of others for one's own benefit, as Montherlant said?
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Gérard Larcher's statement nevertheless raises the question of the institutional framework. How should the political field evolve apart from the social field? The realm of politics is both sacred (it is an institution with its codes, evolving in a symbolic register, organized around rituals) and profane (it is men who animate these institutions). This episode simply reminds us that the field of politics is no exception to a certain "profanity".
Moreover, the declarations of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Gérard Larcher are symptomatic of a speech contaminated by the social sphere and the current emotional language (that of social networks and the media). If, for Habermas, the ethics of discussion is opposed to any exercise of violence that must be regulated, the violence of words is a question as old as rhetoric. For Cicero, for example, petulantia characterizes aggressive and morally flawed orators. What is thus reprehensible is not a matter of substance but of form. Indeed, the code of moral life requires one to control one's emotions. From this point of view, homo petulans endangers the life of the City. Is it any different for the post-modernus politicus?