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Borat and the Golden Rule

by Izzy Kalman (November 2006)Borat : Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006; Directed by Larry Charles) is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Borat, he is a fictional character created by Sacha Baron Cohen, star of the HBO show, “Da Ali G Show.” I fell in love with Da Ali G Show the moment I came across it while channel surfing in a hotel room, and I was sure I would love the movie, too. I wasn’t disappointed.

“Borat” also happens to be one of the most controversial movies since The Passion of the Christ and Brokeback Mountain. And why is it controversial? Because it is so funny. All comedy has the potential of offending someone, and Borat can offend all of us. In fact, Sacha Baron Cohen is currently beng sued by two college students who revealed their politically incorrect attitude and by the town in Romania that was the fictional setting for Borat’s home town because he made them look like backwards, incestuous fools.

Most people who saw “Borat” loved it, but some people hate it and others who just don’t “get it” find it boring. The Borat character is supposedly a reporter from Kazakhstan who comes to the United States to produce a documentary on the culture of the United States, but the identity is simply a disguise that allows him to have fun with the people he interacts with. Many people who see the movie think that it is anti-Semitic, but Sacha Baron Cohen is a proud Jew who is actually making fun of anti-Semites. The government of Kazakhstan was in an uproar about the movie because he makes their people look like anti-Semitic boors, but anyone who understands the movie realizes that Cohen didn’t make the movie as an attack against that country; he simply wanted to create a credible-seeming Eastern European identity but that that few people are familiar with, so that it would be easy to get Americans to respond to him seriously.

Many people have raised the question of whether the movie is mean-spirited, but Cohen has no anger towards or desire to hurt his targets. He is simply doing what humor is supposed to do: to show humans with all their glorious imperfections. Because he uses real people and not just actors, there is a greater danger that he will get in trouble, but that’s also what makes his movie funnier than those that only use actors.

I happened to see the movie, “Talladega Nights” (2006; Directed by Adam McKay), on an airplane a few days later. Foolishly, I succumbed to watching a free movie on the plane instead of getting some work done. I honestly did not laugh once. I mention this to make a contrast between good comedy and lousy comedy. And I haven’t heard of anyone suing the creators of “Talladega Nights.” Why? is it because it can’t offend anyone? No. It has the potential of offending all Nascar fans and drivers because the movie portrays them all as stupid, dysfunctional white trash. Why aren’t they suing? Maybe it’s because Nascar fans aren’t smart enough to sue! (That’s meant as a joke, so don’t sue me.) Or maybe it is not funny enough to have made anyone feel offended.

Most people don’t realize that humor is, by nature, negative and offensive; our conscience doesn’t want us to be aware that we enjoy people looking bad. Since we learn nothing about humor in our academic psychology studies, I would like to refer you to a Newsweek story on “Borat.” It is about the best treatise on humor I have ever seen and should be read by everyone in the social sciences.

By the way, not everyone in Kazahkhstan is mad about “Borat.” A leading Kazakhi author has nominated Sacha Baron Cohen for an award of honor for raising the world’s interest in Kazakhstan and helping its economy!

Getting back to the question of whether “Borat” is mean-spirited. To answer that, we might wonder if Sacha Baron Cohen’s behavior would comply with the Golden Rule, i.e., would he want to be treated the way he is treating others? My answer would have to be a resounding “Yes.” First of all, he does makes a complete fool of himself in the film, and humiliates himself worse than he does anyone else in the movie (his naked wresting scene is not done with a body double, and I bet that you wouldn’t dare being seen in a bathing suit like the one he wears when he goes sunbathing!).

It is assumed that the Golden Rule would make it wrong for anyone to say something that could offend anyone else. If so, we would have to outlaw humor because humor, by its nature, is offensive. But is humor really contrary to the Golden Rule? To correctly answer this, we would have to ask ourselves the broader question, “Would I like to live in a society in which no one makes fun of me, and I don’t make fun of anyone else?” Or, stated in another way, “Would I like to live in a society in which everyone has to make believe I am perfect and I have to make believe they are perfect?”

My personal answer is “No,” and I am sure Cohen would answer the same. It would not even be healthy for society. If we were all to make believe we’re perfect, we wouldn’t be able to correct our faults. We would all be like the Emperor in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” We’d all be going around doing things that are stupid and even harmful, and no one would be allowed to say anything about it for fear of hurting people’s feelings. Both ourselves and society would be in danger. The truth is that no one is perfect, and we see each other’s faults better than we see our own. “Borat” did not turn us into fools or bigots; like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, he just exposes us for the fools and bigots we really are.

An emotionally healthy person knows he’s not perfect, can take a joke about him/herself and make a joke about him/herself. That’s why Reader’s Digest has taught us that “Laughter is the best medicine.” “Borat” comes not to hurt us but to heal us.

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