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People’s Court… or moral economy?

In recent weeks, past sexual crimes have come back to haunt their perpetrators. The Philippe Bond affair, revealed by a meticulous investigation by The Press, the return – aborted – of Julien Lacroix and the one – successful? — by Maripier Morin elicited their share of reactions.

Visceral reactions, as always when society rises and shakes, without its judgment being previously approved by the sanction of law. Several, clinging to the presumption of innocence, denounced lynchings, or wanted to distance themselves from a supposed popular tribunal.

Could it be that there is no justice except that of the courts? Would society be devoid of other mechanisms of defense or affirmation of the norms and values ​​that are dear to it (here, respect for the body of the other, their will, their consent), the intervention of institutionalized justice? Could it be that the crowd is only lynching, never reasonable, never moral? Things are more complex.

Lessons from Edward Thompson

Let us try, in order to better understand the phenomenon of denunciations, then of the reactions which they arouse, to shed new light on it, at the risk of initially moving away from it a little.

Studying food riots in 18th century English societye century, the great British historian of the working classes Edward P. Thompson showed that the crowd was not just an animal, nor its protests an almost animal spasm: in rising up, the peasant people were not above all seeking to satisfy his hunger and his anger. On the contrary: he protested against the poor sharing of resources, against the rapacity of the rulers and against the over-capturing which jeopardized the fragile balance of the community.

A consensus existed within the group, on the part which should go to each one, on the traditional community rights, on the legitimacy or the illegitimacy of the practices; the riot and the charivari came to sanction the one who broke this consensus as well as the one who, coming from outside, even an agent of the Crown, ignored it too ostensibly or contravened its rules.

EP Thompson named this “system of norms and obligations” “moral economy” from which the peasant community justified its action and separated the legitimate from the illegitimate. Extended to fields other than economics, and taken out of its original historical context, moral economy, to put it in the words of the anthropologist and sociologist Didier Fassin, “distinguishes between what is done and what does not happen”; it affirms “principles of good living, justice, dignity, respect”.

Charivari in the age of social networks

Now let’s hazard a guess: what if, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, our moral economy had changed, and done so faster, more decisively than our institutions, our police forces and our courts?

And if, faced with the powerful or stars who too often use an improper law, because it is alienating for the victims, to their advantage, the community – that of women, first of all – had taken it upon itself to enforce the new norms , oh how salutary, of this moral economy?

And how does she do it? By ostracizing those who, by their actions, have already excluded themselves from it; by transposing into the public sphere the accounts of behavior, abuses, crimes which, to be known (“everyone knew”), remained no less until then stated only in the private sphere.

Probable heir to the charivari, the ” rough music also dear to Edward Thompson, this “ritual form of hostility towards individuals who have broken certain rules”, denunciation by social networks (or, in a more polished form, by journalistic investigation) is presented as a “judgment of the community”, public judgment whose target “must reappear […] the next morning, knowing that in the eyes of every neighbor and every child [elle] is a despicable person”.

Just as, in the English, Italian, French communities of the past, we heckled, we burned the effigy of the excluded, the troublemaker, the wife beater, denunciation, when it is followed, constitutes a bet symbolic and social death of the one that the local society has deemed guilty. The charivari, in various forms, is from all countries and all times: that we find it in our time, changed but recognizable, comes as no surprise.

This contemporary hullabaloo, carried by massive talk, with multiple echoes, from networks, is one of the forms that justice can take, even in a world as policed ​​as ours. It is neither harsher nor gentler than the law of judges. She is other; its effectiveness and legitimacy lie elsewhere.

Other, not better: it suffices to be convinced of this to note the surge of hatred of which Safia Nolin is the victim, perpetual target of a virtual and infamous media charivari. Because the moral economy of a society, again warns Edward P. Thompson, is in the image of this society itself, the reflection of its values… and its prejudices.

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