The Principle’s Office: Borat’s epistemological contributions are ‘very nice’

While we may all agree that the world is shit, on average, we disagree vastly on why that is. We need to know the undeniably nuanced truth about how we got here so that we can start to fix stuff, but that can’t happen if we all disagree on the origins of these problems. Enter Borat. 

Disclaimer: I do not intend to imply that Borat alone will save the world (though this is my privately held belief). Instead, I argue that Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest work is a decent case study that provides insight on how comedy can be one of our last epistemiological weapons in the war against truth. 

First, let’s contextualize the current war on truth. Where we used to disagree on the implications of certain facts, we now disagree on the facts themselves. Pew Research Center published an interesting finding on this in April: “Republicans trust Fox News more than any other outlet. Democrats distrust it more than any other outlet.” To trust a news source is to believe that its reporting is factual and accurate, but if two sides of the country are so diametrically opposed on what is factual and accurate, there is a giant disagreement on what the actual truth is in the United States. To reiterate perhaps the coldest take of 2020: people are increasingly cherry-picking which facts count as facts to confirm their pre-existing beliefs. 

By contrast, we cannot cherry-pick which jokes to laugh at. Laughter is an involuntary 

physiological response by nature. While we can perhaps be primed to laugh or sometimes suppress our laughs, in general, when we are presented with funny material, we distort our faces, contract our muscles and chuckle, snort or giggle. 

While the answer to the question “What is funny?” varies from person to person, there are competing theories on why one might find something funny at all. The incongruity theory posits that comedy emerges from a violation of our expectations. The traditional set-up-to-punchline joke format elucidates this idea well: The former sets up the expectation for the audience, the latter violates it and if it is performed sufficiently, laughter erupts. From this perspective, then, laughter can be seen as an admission that something has transgressed our notion of reality. So, if we are all forced by our own physiology to laugh at something, we are all equally forced to agree that it at least lacks a resemblance to what we’d expect. This is the exclusive revelatory power that comedy has. 

This is not to say that comedy is inherently the great unifier. The cherry-picking problem does not evaporate entirely with regard to comedic material. People can choose which comics or writers they feel are dishonest or partisan in their craft and subsequently ignore them, just like they do with news sources. The difference is that there is more personal incentive to seek out funny comedy rather than strictly biased comedy — and that incentive is laughter. 

Borat addresses this cherry-picking problem by dealing with real people in real time. Baron-Cohen is not the sole architect of all his jokes; he coaxes real, unsuspecting people to generate comedic effect. 

Most notably in the recently released sequel to his original (2006) film, “Borat,” there is a scene starring Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and now President Trump’s personal lawyer. In the scene following what he believed was an interview for TV, (spoiler alert) Guiliani is lying in a hotel bedroom, his hands suggestively placed in his pants, with the interviewer nearby. This might be presumptive, but no one can help but laugh at how insane that is! Moreover, say what you will about Baron Cohen’s political bias, but no amount of partisan motivation could have forced Guiliani into such an unsightly position. It becomes very difficult to conjure up some accusation of bias to discredit his work.

By laughing at Borat, we’re all admitting that it violates what we feel reality should look like. We admit that we don’t think a man of Guiliani’s status should be behaving this way, we don’t agree that people should join in on songs about chopping up those who disagree with us, we don’t feel it is justifiable to sell gas tanks to kill Roma people. And the big joke of it all is that all of this stuff is actually real! Borat is showing us certain uncomfortable facts in a fashion that is hard to dispute, no matter who you are, and forcing us to acknowledge them as problems. All this is accomplished by presenting us with these facts in a way that makes us laugh. 

We find a rare shining light of optimism deep inside of Borat and it is, as he would say, very nice. What we see is that laughter has an exclusive ability to force individuals to acknowledge certain objective truths all on their own, even in a time when people bend over backward to avoid doing so. I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes of all time (that I may use as a consolation prize once the election results are in):  “Let me make the songs of a nation and I care not who makes its laws.” Sing Borat sing!

Julia Leb is a junior writing about philosophy, politics and social issues. Her column, “The Principle’s Office,” runs every other Friday.