FAQ/Borat

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These are FAQs about my take on Borat.

"What do you think about Borat?" / "Борат жек көреміз, сенші?"

Everyone has different views about the "Borat" craze. Since I study Kazakhstan, and am one of few Americans to have some understanding of Kazakhstan from within Kazakh society, I feel that I should comment on this for my American friends. Қазақша сөйлейтін қазақ әлеуметі және дәстүрлері түсінетін америкалық болып, қазақ достарым үшін ойларымды беруім қажет екен.

What Borat teaches

  • "How racism [can feed as much] on dumb conformity [as] rabid bigotry." It's obvious that the racist views expressed by Borat are not those of Sascha Cohen. This is satire--satire of not just people who are overtly racist, but of those who are are willing to blindly follow. Borat teaches us to be cautious and to think about what we do so that we do not blindly conform.
  • What Kazakhstan is not. Borat's image is so over the top that viewers understand that his character is not actually indended to depict people from Kazakhstan. For many viewers, this will spark a curiosity to learn more about Kazakhstan.
  • That people are accepting of foreigners, as outrageous as their views may be. It's humourous when one of Borat's "subjects" tries to explain why a view he expresses isn't considered appropriate in our society. This makes Western viewers really consider the "why" of their culture, which is the first step towards accepting others.
  • That even the most prim among us are human beings. We're all human, even Borat's character, and while people don't always get along with him or understand or even accept his "views", they are usually willing to humour him. We're all human, despite tremendous differences not just in background, but in belief.
  • Borat's crude mannerisms but willingness to deal with polite society shows people in polite socity that they are also capable of crude manerisms. This shows much of the world--who balance their lives between revelling in some crudeness and being polite--that neither is inherently bad or good. Each aspect of a person's character has its place and time, and part of the humour of Borat is mixing this up.

What Borat does not teach

  • That Kazakhs are crude, or that Kazakh society is misogynous and anti-Semitic. If people don't get that Borat's not an accurate reflection of Kazakhs, the joke's on them. In more ways than one.
  • Anti-semitism. Borat does not teach people to be anti-semitic, nor should people be offended by his anti-semitism. The point of his effected anti-semitism is to show how generally racist society can be, especially when trying to play along. It also shows how much some people expect anti-semitism—whether they're anti-semitic or not—from outside their own society. This form of anti-semitism is, once again, satire.

Main Argument

My main argument relies on the understanding that Borat is not humour in that it makes fun of Kazakhstan and Kazakhs, but is humour in that it makes fun of people who don't know anything about Kazakhstan. When people accept Borat as a Kazakh, and don't know that this isn't how Kazakhs act or what they believe, the joke is on them. The way they act after this makes them (and not Borat) look like an ignorant fool. Sascha Baron Cohen's Borat act is designed to get this response from people, and not designed to spread lies about Kazakhstan.

As the NY Times puts it (source needed!):

...it seems as if comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is mocking Kazakhstan. He is not. He's mocking you. After all, you're the idiot who doesn't know where Kazakhstan is or if it's the kind of place where, as Borat claims, there's a "Running of the Jews". And more important, you're the idiot who believes so much in cultural relativism that you'll nod politely when a guy tells you that in his country they keep developmentally disabled people in cages. Or, worse yet, you're the person who tells him it's not a bad idea...

Banning

Kazakhstan threatened to sue Sascha Cohen, and now Russia's banned the movie. This, in my opinion, is a very old-fashioned paranoid Soviet attitude towards everything. How can people in Russia know if they're offended by the movie or not unless they see it? Or at least know some people who have seen it. If only the three people who decided to ban it have seen it, people will just have to believe them that it was offensive, and they won't be able to make their own opinion. (And okay, I even feel it was slightly offensive--just not to Kazakhs as much as some other groups). And Kazakhstan is continuing its advertising campaign to show how progressive a country it's becoming. This is fair, though I can't imagine very many people watching the movie are going to believe that he's actually from Kazakhstan--it's so obviously one big joke, and a lot of it even seems staged. If people can't see that, I worry about how shallow they are. The governments of Russia and Kazakhstan are being quite shallow themselves. If any country should ban Borat, it's the US. I wouldn't be surprised if I woke up tomorrow and heard that Alabama had banned it.

Links

Borat vs. Kazakhstan - A good read with a good outlook (though I don't necessarily agree with it)

Revised Statement

A bulletted list, to make my points more discrete and clearer:

  1. I don't support the movie.
    1. It takes advantage of people harmed in filming.
    2. It takes advantage of American ignorance.
    3. It reinforces stereotypes.
    4. It creates stereotypes.
  2. I don't support banning the movie.
    1. The movie is offensive to a lot of people. So are most governments.
    2. Banning things is rarely constructive.
    3. Voicing objections is a constructive way to disapprove of the film.
    4. Participation in forums (such as facebook) is a constructive way to approach, create, and discuss issues and criticism.
    5. ((If the movie were banned in the US, the gvt would immediately be criticised. But there would've been no controversy about the movie, and people would get the impression that the gvt is a bunch of jerks who were no doubt scared of something that they had no reason to be scared of. People would know nothing about the movie or why it was banned, and would imagine that it couldn't possibly be as bad as the government thought. And no one would learn anything from it.))
  3. While the movie is quite certainly presenting society with a [fictional] negative image of Kazakhstan, I do not beleive this was necessarily the intent of Sascha Baron Cohen. This is irrelevant though.
  4. Many parts of the movie were intended to make fun of American society and stereotypes to make Americans see themselves being idiots.
  5. Many parts of the movie were intended to take advantage of American society and stereotypes to make Americans laugh.
  6. There were parts of the movie that presented stereotypes about people from Kazakhstan *not for Borat's interviewees, but for the movie viewers*. These were no doubt added for the purpose of making the movie flow better (leading to better sales?), and counters the supposed intent of the movie: "to allow people to bring out their own prejudices" (Cohen).
  7. Taking advantage of American society and stereotypes as in (5) can be harmful, in that it can further promote existing negative elements.
  8. People who understand that these stereotypes are being taken advantage of and who realise that many different things are being inaccurately represented may enjoy some of the humour, but probably won't appreciate it as much as others.
  9. People who don't understand that these stereotypes are being exploited and don't realise that many groups are being misportrayed are the ones who will go on believing in the stereotypes, potentially more strongly than before.
    1. The people mentioned here are more prevalent than I'd like to think, and they're the reason "society" gets "impressions" about things.
    2. It is not, in fact, that a view spreads out into society, but rather that people accept a view as truth, and purvey it themselves through hegemonic devices such as arguments of post-hockery. That fact that many people are not cautious about this is not indicative of problems in society, but itself does cause problems in society.
    3. Enough people (quite likely the majority in America) know that Borat is a fictional character, and that his Kazakhstan is even more fictional, that anyone who doesn't realise this will be ridiculed.
    4. ((Several of my friends have reported to me that someone they knew didn't know Kazakhstan was a real place, and/or that they thought Borat really was from Kazakhstan. These people have gotten laughed at for their ingorance, and have lost respect in the eyes of my friends who know them.))