Monday, February 12, 2018

Shocked by Arabic?

In the course of the recent media furore in France sparked by Mennel Ibtissem's rendition of "Hallelujah", a TV journalist named Isabelle Morini-Bosc managed to spark her own micro-furore by remarking:
«Pas le voile, pas la chanson en arabe, même si je trouve que par les temps qui courent, ça ne s'imposait peut-être pas nécessairement, mais en revanche ce qu'elle a posté oui, ça me choque, sur les attentats de Nice, ça me choque». (video)

"Not [Mennel's] veil, not the song in Arabic - even though I find that, in these times, it may not necessarily have been essential - but what she posted, yes, that shocks me, on the Nice attacks, that shocks me."

The controversy was, of course, over the parenthetical remark and the scope of its implications. Most listeners understood "these times" as an allusion to the threat of terrorism, and the whole remark as asserting that singing in Arabic was inappropriate because Arabic is associated with terrorism - an implication which naturally provoked some outrage. She responded that "I like French songs on the programme because phonetically that's how you can tell whether someone is articulating or not [...] She could have been Serbo-Croatian and singing in Serbo-Croatian and I'd have said the same". A plausible-sounding justification on its own, but difficult to reconcile with her original wording - why "in these times"? And why was she commenting specifically on the Arabic, when the song had been in both English and Arabic? All things considered, it seems rather more likely that the listeners' interpretation was correct.

However, the really interesting thing about her original sentence is not so much the parenthetical remark as the contrastive focus. She explicitly asserts that Mennel's veil and her singing in Arabic do not shock her; apparently, she is too broad-minded to worry (much) about those little things. But in the process of making that assertion, she presupposes that her audience, less cosmopolitan than herself, might reasonably expect her to be shocked by both of those things. The implicit message has two sides to it: it's better not to let yourself be shocked by people singing in Arabic on a French TV show - but it's also perfectly normal to be shocked by it. Hmm...

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