Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Borat Ethics

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has a major film hit with “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakh,” a crude movie-length prank in which he pretends to be an outrageously naïve and biased Kazakh reporter in order to trick unsuspecting Americans into exposing their own prejudices. Critics are falling all over themselves praising the film’s satiric edge, as in this rave from the Hollywood Reporter:

…The weapon wielded by Cohen and Charles is crudeness. People today, especially those in public life, can disguise prejudice in coded language and soft tones. Bigotry is ever so polite now. So the filmmakers mean to drag the beast out into the sunlight of brilliant satire and let everyone see the rotting, stinking, foul thing for what it is. When you laugh at something that is bad, it loses much of its power… 

Very few reviewers have expressed any sympathy at all for Borat’s victims, who are “hilariously” exposed as bigots, idiots or morality-free enablers Why no sympathy? After all, none of the reviewers would want to be fooled into looking and sounding like 19th Century rednecks to yukking audiences across the country. But the reviewers aren’t bigoted or stupid, you see. So they have no sympathy, because if a person is that prejudiced and biased, he deserves the “Borat” treatment.

Or so the films fans think. The fact is that Cohen’s act is simply the latest incarnation of a mean and condescending trend in media comedy, using people’s naivete and willingness to accept others at face value to humiliate and ridicule them. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” has been especially shameless at this, subjecting various eccentrics to sham on- camera interviews by Stephen Colbert and others in which everyone is in on the joke except the gullible victims themselves. Michael Moore employed similar methods to trick corporate executives and NRA supporters into showing their worst sides to the camera, and Cohen has refined the technique further. By masquerading as a bizarre and confused foreign journalist, he manages to turn his targets’ innate kindness and tolerance against them, aided by the knowledge that they are being filmed. Rather letting the supposed documentary record him telling a foreign visitor that he is an idiot for suggesting that Jews should be hunted like deer, a dim-witted gun shop owner humors “Borat” by discussing the best weapons for such a hunt, and ends up looking like a fan of the Third Reich. Funny or not, this is entrapment.

And entrapment by dishonest means. It appears that Cohen induced his victims to sign legal releases before he induced then to disgrace themselves on the big screen, and the releases themselves leave a lot to be desired. A release is essentially a waiver of legal rights, and legal rights can only be waived with informed consent. Using a misrepresentation to induce an individual to sign a waiver is a dirty trick, and might well leave Cohen open to lawsuits by those who feel they did not understand what they were agreeing to—their own humiliation. The “Borat” release states that the participant “agrees not to bring at any time in the future” any lawsuits or claims against the producer “or anyone associated with the film.” It also asserts that the participant “is not relying upon any promises or statements made by anyone about the nature of the Film or the identity of any other Participants or persons involved in the Film.” Maybe that will be enough to stave off the lawsuits, and maybe not. Misleading someone into signing a release that waives the right to sue because they were misled seems a bit too slick for this lawyer’s taste, but whether or not it is successful at protecting Cohen from the wrath of the people he held up to ridicule, it is undoubedly unethical, as is Cohen’s entire movie. Like the Jerry Springer Show and reality shows starring such mental defectives as Anna Nicole Smith, the movie encourages arrogance and voyeurism, entertaining audiences by allowing them to feel morally and intellectually superior. But even those shows do not deceive the objects of the audience’s condescension to put them on display. Smith was well-paid for her exploitation, and has long been beyond shaming; Springer’s guests know exactly what they have volunteered for. Even the dreadful “American Idol” auditioners understand that they are risking merciless personal abuse from Simon Cowell. “Borat” deceives, humiliates, and then profits by causing pain to the gullible and unsophisticated. That may be funny to some, but Cohen’s victims clearly aren’t the only ones whose ethical shortcomings are exposed by the film.

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