Borat is no Ali G

by Ram Manikkalingam

Borat was disappointing – long, tedious, and repetitive. Maybe I had already seen too many clips on TV. So there was nothing new, except a faux plot to link together a series of previous episodes. There were some scenes that made me laugh, some scenes that made me gag, and some scenes that made me cringe. What is remarkable is not how bad the movie is, but how popular it became. Other bad movies have also become box office hits. But they have not been as badly filmed, as repetitive, or as crass as this. There is no doubt that Borat was a “phenomenon”.

This has nothing to do with the quality of the film, and everything to do with its politics. Borat manages to parody Muslims and “expose” Americans at the same time. He caters to both those who are anti-Islamic and anti-American. He allows them the guilty pleasure of indulging in that which is forbidden – portraying Muslims as ignorant, sexist, and anti-semitic – by portraying middle-class White Americans as ignorant, sexist, and anti-semitic. This is a potent combination, capable of drawing together a large audience in the US and Western Europe, resentful of Muslims in their midst and the global pre-ponderance of American power.

Borat takes on ordinary Americans, some who are bigoted, but most of who are not. Unlike Ali G, who takes on the powerful ones – from Newt Gingrich to Noam Chomsky – irrespective of their politics. Borat allows those who are anti-Muslim and anti-American to interpret him in ways that enable them to entertain, and thus indulge, themselves. He even permits, those who are simply anti-American to excuse his anti-Islamic parodies, as just that, and enjoy themselves. And sometimes he even permits those who are simply anti-Muslim to enjoy themselves – by hinting that this is where a multiculturalism gone awry will take the world.

About 15 years ago, I traveled through parts of China for a few weeks with my white middle-class midwestern friend from Ohio, Mark. Neither Mark, nor I spoke a word of Chinese. But we managed to get around China, from Guangzhou (on the border with Hongkong, to Xinjiang, on the border with, yes, Kazakhstan, through Xian and Chengdu. I am still astounded at the extent to which we were able to make ourselves intelligible – so as to buy food, and train tickets, find hotels and restaurants, visit museums and historic sites, and generally get around – without knowing a single word in a common language with our interlocutors. What made this possible?

The Chinese we interacted with gave us the benefit of the doubt. When we used Chinese words and got the pronunciation invariably wrong – they did not take the wrong word we had used at face value and proceed on the basis of what would have been clearly irrational statements. Rather they tried to organise their thoughts in ways that made what we said intelligible to them. Then they proceeded to help us with what we wanted. Mistakes were made, but they were always explicable in the context. And our vulnerability to locals in a foreign land was never exploited – except the one tout who took us for a ride and cost us a fortune in a restaurant. But even that was explicable in the end, and of course quite rational.

The way we get along in strange places is by depending on the interpretive charity of strangers. We expect that they will make amends for our mistakes – linguistic and/or cultural – and assist us in interpreting a different world. What is remarkable is how well this works, seldom leading to complete failure to comprehend each other in the midst of linguistic and cultural difference. It works because when we come across people with whom we struggle to communicate, they also struggle back. And the mutual struggle involves simultaneously holding two contradictory ideas about the person we are communicating with. She is just like us and she is not like us.

She is just like us, because the way she understands a person or a situation or an event or an act, is similar to the way we would. And her thoughts cohere together much like mine would, making it possible for her to make her world intelligible to me. And she is not like me, because she may have a belief or a view or a thought, that I would find weird, awkward, queer, or simply wrong. But this can be explained in ways that I understand, precisely because she is just like me, bringing her closer to me, even if neither (she nor I) revise our views leading us to agree about this (weird, awkward, queer or wrong) belief. And so we go around the world taking for granted this human facility to engage with strangers and depend on their communicative charity to successfully navigate very complex terrains of culture and society without a second thought.

Success in communicating depends on the willingness to suspend judgment during those crucial initial moments when you are not certain that you understand exactly what the other person is saying. And this is exactly what Borat exploits to pull his stunt – the human propensity to communicate in ways that make us seek to understand each other better, even if we may not ultimately agree. He does this by exaggerating exactly the kind of cultural difference – accent, gesture, walk and attitude – that would make any interlocutor assume a high likelihood of miscommunication, thus ensuring that they would give him even more latitude in making the most outrageous comments about women, Jews, Muslims and others, who may come to mind.

To me what was remarkable about the movie, were the large number of instances where people either watched in bemused or stony silence (a large fraction of the audience at the Rodeo and even at the country and western bar), or clear, if polite, discomfiture – like the guests in the wealthy Southern home. The instances where people actually went along uncritically – the homophobe in the Rodeo, the frat boys in the trailer, or the audience in the western bar – were relatively few in retrospect. After hundreds of hours of footage, the instances where Americans were sufficiently abusive towards others were reduced to such a short time – and even these cases were not unambiguous.

Borat’s conceit is that it is only ignorant, islamophobic, not to mention sexist and racist, Americans who would behave in this way upon meeting a stranger. But, this way of behaving is not just American, it is human. And it is humanly necessary, particularly if we have to ensure that we are not failing to communicate with someone who appears at first blush to be so very different from us. And it usually works because fortunately there are so few Borats in this world we inhabit together.