Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Not to put it too delicately, I've often wondered why so many Christians get knicker-wettingly uptight about comedy -- especially satire. It's as if some of us were born with a massive irony defecit. What prompts this thought is the lastest rehearsed outrage at the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Borat is, of course, deliberately intended to make us uncomfortable about how we and those around us see things and each other. Its main target is prejudice itself. Well, apart from making us belly laugh and feel a bit guilty for doing so at the same time. No bad thing. Comedy can be a good way of disarming both ourselves and the powers-that-be, refusing to take either too seriously, though it is rarely morally unambiguous (if it's any good).

But as with Jerry Springer The Opera, many apparently worried and defensive Christians just don't see the point, and seem to take an almost vicarious delight in "being offended". We urgently need to learn to be more mature readers of texts, whether films or our own founding documents. I do feel a bit sorry sorry for the Kazahks, though. For some this kind of thing is culturally alien (the style of comedy, not gratuitously racist insults). When the Borat character was created, it probably wasn't anticipated that it would go quite as global. Having said that, their president has now sensibly decided to laugh it off. Moreover, it's difficult not to see that the real joke is on Westerners who believe in, or play along to, these crass stereotypes. And that is why Borat is an important challenge, albeit one which evidently lacks a bit of potty training. I wouldn't justify all of it (and nor would Sacha Baron-Cohen if pushed, I suspect), but it is far from devoid of redemption. So go on, smile! Jesus won't hate you for it, and you might just learn to be a better person when you've looked into the comedic abyss a bit less fearfully.

(Incidentally there are some interesting comments by Baron-Cohen in The Times. And a good review by Stephen Tompkins in Third Way. I have written more on this general theme in 'The cross, salvation and the politics of satire', a chapter in Consuming Passion - DLT, 2005. And here is a piece on censorship and cultural freedom).

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