Should Michel Foucault Be Cancelled?
The Times recently published an article within which allegations were made by the French-American academic Guy Sorman, against fellow French academic Michel Foucault, who died from HIV/AIDS complications in 1984. Sorman alleges that Foucault was a paedophile, who abused prepubescent boys in Tunisia, where he lived and worked in 1969.
Sorman states that he personally witnessed Foucault exchanging money for sex with these boys. Although no victims have yet come forward to substantiate Sorman’s claims, moments from Foucault’s life and work do not reflect favourably on his reputation. Sorman’s allegations, along with extracts from Foucault’s books which defend paedophilia against arguments that it is immoral, yield evidence for the case that Foucault was a paedophile.
Although this evidence does not prove he was a paedophile, it is evidence that must be taken into account, and which should change how his work is read. However, this evidence does not mean that his work should not be read at all.
In today’s world, when people are judged to have crossed a moral line, they are “cancelled” from our cultures. Certain sections of our societies refuse to engage with the work of those who are judged to have perpetrated morally wrong actions. It is inevitable that some people will call for Foucault to be removed from academic curricula in response to this news.
But I suggest we must be able to study the lives and work of those who commit reprehensible actions, partly because it may help us understand why they committed the actions they did, or how they justified their damaging beliefs to themselves. And also, partly because ideas unrelated to their problematic actions and beliefs can help us today.
There can be no doubt that should these allegations about Foucault be true, public opinion about the man should change to reflect his monstrous behaviour. But cancelling all study of his work, and cancel culture in general, is not the way forwards in reaction to immoral behaviour. We can still condemn the repugnant behaviour of those who also provided thought-provoking ideas that can still be learnt from.
We must confront the past to learn from it, even if we do not like what we see when we look.
Foucault’s flippant coverage of paedophilia
In 1977, Michel Foucault and a litany of other French intellectuals including Simone De Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacques Derrida, signed a petition that sought to reduce the legal age of consent in France to 13. This milieu of French academia has long been considered postmodern and poststructuralist, characterised by the identification, criticism, and reformulation of structures thought arbitrary, defunct, and oppressive.
Foucault’s work is unique in many ways, distinct from the others lumped in with poststructuralism and postmodernism through its concentration on the diffuse function of power and systems of discipline throughout societies to create and perpetuate regimes of meaning and understanding.
For Foucault, moral norms can be the pure results of historical social preferences formed through discourses established in specific cultural contexts, as often as they can be instinctive reactions to the real sensible phenomena of lived experience. Foucault also heavily emphasized the possibility of resisting hegemonic norms considered detrimental.
Foucault’s decision to sign this petition can therefore be understood as indicative of his belief that moral opposition to paedophilia was a hegemonic norm established through context-specific discursive regimes, rather than a moral which had a basis in the real harm experienced by abused children. His act of signing the petition can also be understood as illustrative of his emphasis on politically resisting norms considered mistaken.
Evidence that Foucault was a paedophile is present from his books, is apparent from his activities during his life, and have been retrospectively alleged by those who met him and spent time with him personally.
The decisions of French intellectuals to sign the 1977 petition were influenced by their beliefs that children aged 13 and above could consent to sex. This is, of course, denied by law in every European state today. That Foucault’s decision to sign this petition may have been influenced by his paedophilia, in light of Sorman’s allegations, is a possibility which cannot be dismissed.
Foucault’s texts as well as his actions reflect on him unfavourably. In his 1978 book History of Sexuality refers to an alleged incident from 1867, where a “farm hand from the village of Lapcourt, who was somewhat simple-minded […] obtained a few caresses from a little girl”.
Foucault goes on to describe the significance of this story as residing only in its “pettiness”, portraying the “caresses” as “inconsequential bucolic pleasures” which in the quotidian hubbub of “village sexuality […] could become the object not only of a collective intolerance but of a judicial action, a medical intervention”. Herein lies evidence for Foucault’s dismissive attitude towards the consensus view that sexual abuse against children is morally wrong. His preference to view child abuse, “caresses” as he terms it, as “inconsequential bucolic pleasures”, suggests that he failed to see the harms inflicted by sexual abuse against children as justifiable reason for the moral condemnation and the concomitant illegality of child sexual abuse.
Foucault, paedophilia, and morality
Foucault’s decision to sign this petition in 1977, and his grotesque portrayal of child abuse, is not enough by itself to prove that Foucault was an active paedophile. But coupled with Sorman’s recent allegations, the shreds considered together amount to a weight of evidence which cannot be ignored.
The significant harms of child abuse on those targeted provide strong reasons for collective condemnation of Foucault as a human-being.
Whatever way Foucault’s support for the 1977 petition which sought to reduce the age of consent to 13 in France is viewed (the age of consent today varies country to country, but in Nigeria it is 11, 13 in Japan, 14 in Brazil and Italy, while it is 16 in the UK and 18 in Rwanda), Sorman’s allegations state that Foucault was sexually engaging with 8–10 year old boys, which would make him a paedophile by any nation’s definition, should they be true.
Evidence that Foucault was a paedophile or at least sympathised with sexual attraction to children is present from his books, is apparent from his activities during his life, and have been retrospectively alleged by those who met him and spent time with him personally.
Foucault emphasised the possibility that some of our moral norms could be arbitrary. He suggested that some of our morals are formed through the past expediencies of historical contingencies via the functions of power in given geospatial, social, cultural, and political contexts. He therefore also suggested, following Nietzsche, that many of our moral norms are now redundant vestiges of the past.
Critics will suspect that he advanced his hypothesis about the connections between history, power, and morality, to satisfy his own macabre sexual self-motivations. Given the weight of evidence from Foucault’s work suggestive of his paedophilia, that he may have been trying to morally authorise his own beliefs and activities cannot be ruled out.
Present academia must take seriously these problems with Foucault’s life and his work. Foucault was correct to argue that the functions of power in relation to the expediencies of societies in given moments in time can edify as moral norms patterns of behaviour which later become redundant. As a consequence, his work still offers useful insights for researchers.
Nevertheless, the weight of scientific and legal research evinces the considerable harms paedophilia has on the children who are abused. The significant harms of child abuse on those targeted provide strong reasons for collective condemnation of Foucault as a human-being, should Sorman’s allegations prove true. They also substantiate the important maintenance of morally and legally reprehending paedophilia in our societies, given the awful harms of child sexual abuse.
If Sorman’s allegations about Foucault are proven to be true, there can be no doubt at all that how his work is read will change. Opinions about the man should also change. But his books will still be read, since they contain insights about power, morality, politics, and truth the future can learn from.
At a time when cancel culture, a symptom of leftist moral righteousness, is rife throughout our societies, Foucault, who has been described as a “beacon of woke ideology”, has been alleged a paedophile.
It is the left’s duty to recognise that “cancelling” figures by refusing to engage with those who perpetrate, or have perpetrated, reprehensible actions, is not constructive. We must confront the past to learn from it, even if we do not like what we see when we look. We must learn to condemn the reprehensible actions of those from the past, while still allowing ourselves to learn from their experiences, pasts, actions, and books. Foucault may have been a monster, but some of his ideas may still be able to help us today.