You can’t turn the page of any newspaper without seeing a new article or photo of Sacha Baron Cohen – usually in character, either as his Kazakhstani journalist Borat, or the British rapper Ali G. or the gay Austrian fashionista Bruno. Half or more of the articles for the past three days have told us how offended people are at the crudeness of his new film and the way his crew tricked people into humiliating themselves before the camera.
Some of my best friends refuse to see the movie, whereas I continue to enjoy every sketch by Baron Cohen that I can find. Before I go to bed late at night, I often stay up and watch some of the three-hour marathon of his clips, mostly ones that were produced for a show in Britain.
Since I am so concerned about doing “ethical criticism” I guess I have some sort of duty to explain myself. Why don’t I hate Baron Cohen the way a principled person presumably should?
Of course, I might actually dislike the man himself if we met socially – I don’t know. It’s his characters that I enjoy, and not all of them equally. The fact is, I don’t like Bruno at all. That gives me some comparative basis for judging what makes the other two characters likable.
I think the people who dislike Baron Cohen’s sketches are talking about them in the abstract. Critics usually say that they cannot justify their amusement. What the shows reveal ought to be shocking instead of funny. And of course, what he does is trick people into revealing things about themselves that they are later embarrassed about. The idea that some of his naive interviewees were humiliated is what gets people’s ethical backs up. But not mine. Why not? He exposed the poverty of a backward Romanian village, making the inhabitants’ way of life look even worse than it really is, which must be pretty primitive. Yet I was not indignant. Yes, I hope he sends them a nice big cheque – say, $500,000 – but just because they need it, not because they deserve damages for any harm done to them. He can afford to be generous now, having made many millions of dollars in a single weekend. But why doesn’t his humor bother me?
I think it’s because his two likable characters, Borat and Ali G, are not themselves judgmental. They are ignorant — outrageously stupid — but they do not seem to wish harm to anyone. They are journalists earnestly questioning their interviewees, apparently seeking honestly to get their opinions or knowledge about a subject. Baron Cohen does not express hostility to anyone. He has some backward ideas about women and Jews, but he is likable nevertheless. For example, in one session with some physicians he asks them to discuss medical ethics – especially those of youth in Asia, whose principles seem questionable to him. The good doctors soberly inform him that what they are concerned about, euthanasia, has nothing to do with Asian doctors or youths. Oh, he says – much as Gilda Radner’s hard-of-hearing character used to respond to similar corrective information. For example, during one presidential campaign, her character claimed to be perplexed by all this talk about the presidential erection. When informed that they were actually discussing was the presidential election, she just said. “Oh. Never mind, then.” Baron Cohen probably would not be able to assimilate this information. He kept pursuing the question: what Asians were the source of the problem, if not youths? No, no, there’s no connection to Asia, he was told. But still that did not easily sink in.
I guess the thing is, Borat and Ali G are well-meaning and innocent. Stupid and crude, yes, but not inexcusably evil and not even resentful toward the interviewees who disclose their own disreputable opinions. I keep thinking: Baron Cohen is a devout orthodox Jew. What does he feel when he hears these people uttering anti-Semitic remarks? As Borat, he of course shares those views and even instigates these outrageous comments.
How does he get people to say such things? I think it’s because he says them himself, and he’s a likable guy. He’s an anti-hero. Nobody could admire him, but we can like him. It’s perhaps more this: We can feel for him. We can excuse him, since we can remember making a fool of ourselves sometimes, and here he’s doing the same thing. He’s human, that’s all. We benefit by taking an anti-hero’s flaws lightly and empathizing with him.
But we cannot empathize with just everyone. I personally can empathize with any character who seems to be trying to understand, but there are some characters for whom I feel contempt. Bruno, Baron Cohen’s gay Austrian fashionista character, is so shallow that I cannot empathize with him. I don’t like to ridicule anyone or laugh with hostility and contempt, so I prefer to stay away from that fellow.
The wonderful thing, in general, about Baron Cohen’s humor is that he can pull me into empathizing with such idiotic characters. He does that by empathizing himself with the people he interviews. He seems to be genuinely trying to understand them, genuinely taking their opinions seriously.
In an interview with the Rolling Stone, not yet published, I have read that Baron Cohen claims he could not do these things to other people if he were not in character. If he were his own personality, with the full knowledge that he possesses as a sophisticated, Cambridge-educated man, it would be inexcusable to treat people that way. Why so?
Because, I suppose, he would have to react honestly with shock and disapproval, and that would be really hurtful to others. In character, on the other hand, he can allow them to discredit themselves because he too is a discreditable character. There is mutual tolerance as the conversation goes along, and we observers can tolerate them too, strictly out of empathy.
I once had a conversation with Baron Cohen’s distinguished cousin Simon, who is a famous psychologist at Oxford. His research deals with the process of empathy. One of his projects is to gauge the extent of empathy that people have by determining whether they will adopt the speech patterns of their interlocutors. In a way, Sacha must be testing his theory all the time. In one interview, for example, Borat or Ali G (I don’t remember which) is questioning an expert about weapons of mass destruction – WMDs. But the interviewer forgets the acronym and keeps referring instead to “BLTs.” The expert answers his questions by referring also to “BLTs”. He has adopted the frame of reference of this idiotic journalist. Wonderful! He wouldn’t do that with just everyone – only with someone extremely likable, as Baron Cohen is. I love it. I’ll empathize with practically anything he proposes — except that mindless Bruno character.