In 2009, the French-Polish filmmaker, Roman Polanski, was arrested in Zurich for the drugging and sexual abuse of a thirteen-year-old girl that took place 1973. Despite Polanski’s admission to these crimes, the public intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy, or BHL, as he is popularly known, wrote an article entitled ‘For Roman Polanski’ coming to his ardent defence. Making a victim out of a perpetrator has become a pattern for BHL who did the same in 2011 for Dominique Strauss-Khan, a French politician and former director of the IMF. For him, the angered response provoked by these crimes is ‘political correctness having become mad’ and his article in the Huff Post, fervently condemns those who joined in the ‘lynching’. In other interviews, BHL has criticised ‘les wokes’ and the ‘cancel culture’ that is at fault for partaking in said ‘lynching’.
The article was an interesting choice of medium by BHL through which to disseminate his thoughts. Clearly, he intended for this to be read by as many people, with as many interests as possible. The newspaper article as a medium is more conducive to being read by any type of person, unlike a book or television appearance which people generally have to actively and more particularly select to read or watch. Also, despite his article being clearly directed at certain people, such as women’s rights activist Gisèle Halimi, his consistent use ‘we’ to address the reader throughout the article (‘we’re at this point’, ‘we can’t talk about his life’, ‘we must abstain’) presents like an open letter directed to all, intended for general readership. It creates a certain impression of being targeted, which achieves maximum persuasive power over the reader.
So, what is cancel culture?
According to Heckmann, the term ‘cancel culture’ is the public denunciation of a person or institution whose actions are considered to be morally incorrect or reprehensible, particularly through the medium of social networks. Despite BHL’s extreme criticism of the recent ‘movement’, cancel culture’s condemnation of public figures for immoral deeds certainly seems reminiscent of what are widely set out to be the criteria for the ‘intellectuel engagé’. Could this be its new equivalent?
- Inarguably, the culture disseminates opinions and ideas.
- It all happens in the public sphere.
- There is a strong relationship to the mass media, in this case, social media, which is probably the most widely accessible form due to its existence across all continents.
- The sheer quantity of people or users behind the ‘cancel culture’ ensures objectivity as there is an inevitable marginalisation from centres of power or the political elite.
Qu’est-ce que c’est an intellectual?
Though he may refer to ‘les wokes’ as ‘analphabète(s)’, BHL himself defines an intellectual as someone who ‘parle, pense, opine’. As is suggested by Bastié, not all academics are intellectuals and vice-versa. Social media has provided the vessel through which the oppressed or generally unheard can speak for themselves. The growth of this new form of media accessed by billions means that the collective experience or opinion can be expressed by the collective, removing the need for the middleman or porte-parole that intellectuals such as Sartre once represented.
One of the causes that cancel culture has most famously, and, arguably, successfully lobbied for is the ‘cancelling’ of sexual abusers, most notably through the #metoo movement in the US and #balancetonporc in France. As is highlighted in his article, BHL has been an avid defender of the very abusers that the social media ‘wokes’ have condemned in the past, and critical of those who would want to see those abusers punished. His article, therefore, presents a strange combination of advocating for a criminal and shaming those who would hold him accountable, all the while presenting himself on an absolute moral high ground with the right to ‘shame’ others.
Archetypal or inconsistent?
The question begs to be asked: is BHL fulfilling the role of the intellectual? Or is he, in fact, inconsistent with his rhetoric surrounding the appropriate use of one’s influence to protect, in his words ‘la verité, la raison, la justice’?
BHL makes a clear attempt to create sympathy for the sex abuser through the use of emotive language. He presents us with Polanski’s tale of hardship in which he speaks of his childhood and dead mother to spark empathy. He does this while never mentioning the effect that the rape may have on the victim and appears indifferent to her circumstances. It seems perplexing and paradoxical that BHL brings up these events to distract the reader from the facts of the crime, given his previous assertions about the importance of justice and truth.
What would Zola do?
I find it interesting to preface my analysis of BHL’s article by highlighting that in his book, Eloge des Intellectuels (1987), while situating himself in relation to other Intellectuals, he makes frequent reference to Zola and the Dreyfus Affair. His recurring mention of the famous matter in which Zola condemned injustice and spoke truth to power, sparking a movement in defence of the victim, is thus clearly of importance to him when defining the concept of l’intellectuel. Referring back to BHL’s repeated reference of Zola in his book, stylistic similarities can be observed between BHL’s article and Zola’s famous piece J’accuse…! To begin with, the medium is the same, both works being published in a newspaper and they share the genre of an open letter. Furthermore, BHL appears to imitate Zola’s use of the anaphora. Where Zola famously began his sentences eight times with the phrase ‘J’accuse’, BHL begins eight lines of his work with ‘It is shameful’. Coincidence? Maybe. Ironic? I would say so.
Referring back to BHL’s repeated reference of Zola in his book, stylistic similarities can be observed between BHL’s article and Zola’s famous piece J’accuse...! To begin with, the medium is the same, both works being published in a newspaper and they share the genre of an open letter. Furthermore, BHL appears to imitate Zola’s use of the anaphora. Where Zola famously began his sentences eight times with the phrase ‘J’accuse’, BHL begins eight lines of his work with ‘It is shameful’. Coincidence? Maybe. Ironic? I would say so.
It is therefore almost comical to remark the inverted parallels, so to speak, between the two situations. Lévy finds it appropriate to use his influential platform to defend the privileged and powerful individual who committed an atrocious crime against a child. Then, he appears to associate his work or compare it to Zola’s historic condemnation of the genuine social injustice committed against Dreyfus.
According to Benda, the ideal intellectual should be separate from politics and therefore can remain entirely uninfluenced. BHL’s connection to the political sphere and Polanski would therefore seem a conflict of interest for his supposed unbiased and reasonable defence of Polanski’s crime. The same sexual crime which BHL described in an interview with Europe 1 as ‘une erreur de jeunesse’, after all, he was only 43 at the time of the offense…
One of the major critiques of cancel culture has been its lack of tolerance for debate or rational conversation. It seems therefore paradoxical that BHL deems the debate surrounding this affair as ‘nauseating’ and claims that ‘we must abstain’ from it. How can a man who writes
 His thoughts about the necessity for debate seem overtly clear, and yet, when it suits his rhetoric or opinion, there seems to be an absurd inconsistency on the matter.
It would be clear to most people, as cancel culture has demonstrated, that the social injustice to be denouncing is the rape of a child and yet, to him, it would be the seeking of justice. An abhorrent hypocrisy surrounds not only his consistent mention of the Dreyfus Affair as a pillar of what it means to be an intellectual, but also his involvement and his article’s rhetoric on this entire affair. Overall, one thing seems clear: BHL, ironically, doesn’t actually appear to fulfil his own extremely detailed criteria for an intellectual.
Bernard-Henri Lévy, ‘For Roman Polanski’, The Huff Post, E-Pub date 18 March 2010, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/for-roman-polanksi_b_336126. [Accessed 9 November 2022].
Ordóñez, M.B., 2015. Circuits of power, labour and desire: The case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In Malreddy, P., Heidemann, B., Laursen, O. Reworking Postcolonialism. Palgrave Macmillan, London. 165-179
Sand, S. 2016. La fin de l’intellectuel français ? De Zola à Houellebecq. Translated by Bilis, M. Paris: La Découverte.
Smith, A. 2011. ‘Why Can Bernard-Henri Levy Excuse Rape And Still Be Taken Seriously?’, The Huff Post, 17 May. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bernardhenri-levy-says-th_b_862850. [Accessed 10 November 2022].
Wilsher, K. 2020. ‘Gisèle Halimi, trailblazing French feminist MP and lawyer, dies aged 93‘, The Guardian, 29 July.
 Isaac Chotiner, ‘Bernard-Henri Lévy on the Rights of Women and of the Accused’, The New Yorker, E-Pub date 18 March 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/bernard-henri-levy-on-the-rights-of-women-and-of-the-accused. [Accessed 9 November 2022].
 Bernard-Henri Lévy, ‘La déconstruction et la cancel culture : un contre-sens philosophique d’une “extrême-gauche débile et analphabète”’, interview by Guillaume Durand. Radio Classique. 19 May 2021, https://twitter.com/radioclassique/status/1394910684593496065?lang=bg. [Accessed 9 November 2022].
 Hubert Heckmann, Cancel!: De la culture de la censure à l’effacement de la culture (Paris: Editions Intervalles, 2022).
 Bernard-Henri Lévy, Éloge des intellectuels (Paris: Bernard Gasset, 1987), p. 99.
 Eugénie Bastié, La guerre des idées: enquête au coeur de l’intelligentsia française (E-book: Robert Laffont, 2022).
 Bernard-Henri Lévy, Éloge des intellectuels (Paris: Bernard Gasset, 1987), p. 91.
 Émile Zola, ‘J’accuse..!’, L’Aurore, 13 January 1898.
 Bernard-Henri Lévy, ‘Polanski: « Peut-être, une erreur de jeunesse » pour BHL’, Europe 1. 28 September 2009, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xan0bq. [Accessed 9 November 2022].
 Myriam Marzouki, ‘Cancel culture : le « modèle » américain s’imposera-t-il France?’, L’observatoire, 57, 2021.
 Bernard-Henri Lévy, Éloge des intellectuels (Paris: Bernard Gasset, 1987), p. 96