Exclusion of the RN deputy: what behavioral economics research says about sanctions


In his 2018 show, Humanity, British comedian Ricky Gervais evokes the indignation that some people can feel when they confuse "the substance of the joke with the real target". This comic passage seems to anticipate an explanation of the events which led, on 4 November, to the exclusion for 15 days of the deputy du National Rally (RN), Grégoire de Fournas, for racist remarks.

This exclusion constitutes a sanction called "altruistic", which aims to calm a negative emotional state, of a "free rider" refusing the rules of respect in the democratic common good. However, it is important to explain that it occurs in a context of ambiguity which risks having a counter-productive effect.

In fact, three questions must be taken into account: on the one hand, is it ethical to exclude a stowaway on the basis of an ambiguous exchange, since we do not know exactly whether the phrase "that he( s) go back to Africa! was addressed to the deputy who spoke at the podium or to the migrants?

On the other hand, was this exclusion attributed to the real behavior that should be sanctioned? Finally, this ambiguity, if validated as an appropriate method of exclusion, could it not in the future be used to exclude not stowaways, but contributors to the common good (what research designates as a “anti-social punishment”, as opposed to altruistic sanction)?

From adversary to enemy

The intervention of the deputy RN is part of a well-established and known strategy in politics, also applied by other politicians, which consists of a desire to transform an adversary into an enemy.

An enemy has no precise identity, incarnates and blends into a category. This is why anyone can become an enemy because it is enough to dehumanize him to fight him, sometimes to the point of annihilating him. An adversary, on the other hand, is someone recognizable, whose identity and also personality are known. An opponent is respectable, the meaning of the relationship with the opponent is not annihilation, but simply winning in the competition.

If we cut up the sentence which is communicated to the parliamentarians present and, with them, to the community which can watch the democratic debate on a deferred basis, we find that two possibilities of interpretation are offered simultaneously to the person who hears the remarks: times, that the deputy of the New Popular Ecological and Social Union (Nudes) who speaks in the National Assembly returns to Africa, since he is black, or because migrants return there.

The sentence is, orally, indistinguishable in its purpose, and the two possibilities can simultaneously be grasped by the listener, precisely generating an interpretative ambiguity about the identity of the subject to which the sentence really refers: it from him? Or is he talking about them?

One can wonder if the goal was then to communicate his political position in an open way (without possibility of misunderstanding), or rather to send a signal of his political position, while acting not concretely, that is to say by having in mind a concrete purpose that ends up in the real world (the return to Africa), but abstractly, by ultimately creating a communication that short-circuits itself.

Like the Verdurins described by Marcel Proust in In search of lost time, we send a sign when "we don't act, but we make a sign". It is therefore not a matter of entering into a spontaneous and direct relationship that ends up in the real world, but of pretending: “Nothing funny is said at Mme Verdurin's, and Mme Verdurin is not laughing; but Cottard makes a sign that he is saying something funny, Mme Verdurin makes a sign that she is laughing”.

Unlike the Verdurins, however, who were content to assert the exclusivity and superiority of their social clan, this sign sent by the RN deputy initiates a construction of common knowledge of hatred towards an enemy, by allowing ambiguity to stand in for a clear explanation between adversaries.

This ambiguity takes shape only if it is notified by the other person, who is trapped by entering into the game of attribution of identity (is she talking about him? or is he talking about them?) and continuing the exchange on the basis of an ambiguous interpretation, exactly as the deputies of the Nupes were trapped.

Initiate an immediate debate

Where there should have been debate and democratic dialogue, and therefore immediate explanations, there was a monologue, followed by silence, the importance of which was not to clarify his point. The purpose was ambiguous, but not the sign. The sign was clearly a free-rider behavior: faced with the common good which is that of democracy, the RN deputy had a free-rider behavior which harmed the common good.

The RN deputy should therefore have been excluded for breaking democratic behavior, based on a common language, and therefore for an act of stowaway, beyond the racist content of his message. By excluding it only for “ambiguously” racist remarks, the event could serve as case law. Indeed, if we show that most individuals take altruistic sanctions, and punish those who do not contribute enough to the common good, there are also situations of anti-social punishment in which contributors are sanctioned by individuals who do not support not to see others doing good.

Moreover, individuals hide behind probabilities, as we showed in a article of research. However, as soon as there is a probability, they will seize it to mask their non-contributing behavior. And so individuals themselves stowaways can create deliberately ambiguous situations and punish contributors on the mere precedent of ambiguity, which can serve as justification, and forever destroy the common good.

The words of the deputy RN therefore constitute a trap and unfortunately the deputies of the Nupes have fallen into it. But how to prevent such a trap of transforming the adversary into an enemy from taking place? How to ensure that the sign is not notified? It would have been necessary to initiate an immediate debate and return the ball to the RN deputy to ask for an explanation and to make him responsible for his words immediately (and not delayed, as this was done). By interrupting the exchange, the Nupes deputies took responsibility in place of the RN deputy who created the ambiguity.

Eleonora Montagner, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Burgundy School of Business et Angela Sutan, Professor in behavioral economics, Burgundy School of Business

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Picture : Jacky D / Shutterstock.com

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