Borat and the Stupid People Argument
The Anti-Defamation League has voiced concern over the satirical anti-Semitism of the film and television character Borat, a fictional television journalist from Kazakhstan (pictured with daughter-in-law). While the ADL acknowledged that the character portrayed by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, himself Jewish, is intended to mock bigotry, the group is worried that not everyone will understand the humor.
"We hope that everyone who chooses to see the film understands Mr. Cohen's comedic technique, which is to use humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear," the ADL said in a press release. "We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry."
This idea appears regularly in American culture and politics, and I call it the Stupid People Argument. As usually expressed, the S.P.A. warns that dumb people won't understand something or will react in an undesireable manner, so limits need to be placed on what everyone sees or hears.
To its credit, the ADL is not calling for a boycott or a cancellation of the release of the Borat film. But many activists who employ the Stupid People Argument do seek to impose some form of censorship.
The late C. DeLores Tucker made a second career out of demanding that media companies and record stores cease selling gangster rap albums, which Tucker said had a deleterious impact on impressionable black youth. The legions of high schools that refuse to teach Huckleberry Finn often argue that the novel's historical use of racist language is offensive to modern sensibilities, avoiding the fact that teaching the novel's historical context is what every competent English teacher should be doing. The current hand-wringing over MySpace -- and every teen fad since the end of World War II -- is a variation on the theme. Our teen fads were harmless, parents say, but I dunno if kids can handle this new stuff. Ban pinball!
The most disturbing aspect of the Stupid People Argument is its tendency to mimic racial, class and age divisions. Raucous Latin music will yield violent Latin men. The Confederate flag sends the wrong message to uneducated Southerners. This Elvis and his rock'n'roll will corrupt our innocent youth.
We -- however defined -- can consume these materials without ill effect but they -- however defined -- can not. I doubt the ADL had Jews in mind when it worried about audience members who were not "sophisticated" enough to understand Borat's high-brow jokes, like the one where he washes his face with toilet water.
Rap music is the best example of how the Stupid People Argument is simply a socially acceptable way of saying that you don't trust other groups. White adults worry about the effect of rap music on black teens, black adults and white teens -- but not about its effect on fellow white adults. It's only the "other" you have to worry about.
Depending upon the context in which it's deployed, the Stupid People Argument is merely a proxy for racism or ageism or the fact that the speaker harbors suspicions about the group he or she is talking about. I completely discount the argument every time I hear it, and I wonder why the speaker doesn't just say, "Those people over there -- they're ignorant and they're not to be trusted." In its press release, the ADL says exactly that, which is honest but is not what you'd expect from an organization committed to combatting bigotry.