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April 2007

Making sense of Borat

Due to the misguiding reviews I read (essentially that the film is offensive and low-brow), I wasn't the first in line to see Borat.  Well, I finally rented the DVD. 

I found the opening scene a bit silly, though many of the Slavic references were accurate.  However, when I finally realized that the character's experience in the USA was filmed in documentary style, I understood the appeal of the film. 

Between my uncontrollable and sometimes uncomfortable laughter, I found the film profound.  Borat brilliantly illustrates the America that I see.  Frankly, the Americans in the film are proud, profoundly idiotic, and completely out-of-touch with reality.  So, how was it that a comedian playing a seemingly semi-retarded foreigner could illustrate this point? His formula was to make them feel superior and then he tapped into their conformist thinking.

The US is an enormous country of self-declared individualists.  Yet, in reality, Americans aren't individualistic at all.  They are obsessed with conforming to the pre-existing variety of off-the-shelf social movements...the New Yorker, Southerner, God-fearing Christian, good Liberal, frat-boy, cowboy, gangsta, whatever.  The reason every American featured on the film appeared foolish, loathsome, or idiotic was that they were incapable of perceiving the character Borat without bias...without stereotype.  Rather than relating to him as one individual to another, they attempted to relate to him as they might think a (New Yorker, Southerner, Liberal...fill in the blank) might relate to a foreigner.  The humor and discomfort is found in the repeated attempts to put Borat into a neat box when, in fact, everything he did was absurdly outside of any box.  The Americans refused to drop their programatic thinking, their political-correctness, and their identity with a social movement, long enough to to perceive the situation as any independent, critically-thinking person might.

The film Borat highlights how ridiculous we look when we fail to conceive of our lives as something unique and authentic...and when we, instead, follow the herd.  It highlights how unthinking and ignorant the herd mentality of conformity is (in every case, not only for those associated with "the wrong movement"). 

This topic is personal to me.  When I lived in Seattle, I defined myself as "a good progressive" or "green activist" who shared all the "proper beliefs" about what "ought to be".  In conversation, I was eager to "make a difference in the world" by turning others on to "my way of thinking" which was "correct".  However, it wasn't really my way of thinking at was predefined and I was acting as a salesman selling a cause.  How did this conception of myself fit with the fact that I made good money as a business person?  It didn't.  How did my socially liberal beliefs coexist with my status as a faithful husband?  They didn't.  How were my trips to the gas station justified within the context of my beliefs in sustainability?  They weren't.  But I had my mind in a twist with many, many arguments and justifications for it all.  Oh, how I would define my identity by my favorite politicians, my tastes in music, my shoes, the books I would read.  Yet none of that was ME!

Today I see myself as more-or-less just a human being trying to be the unique genetic mutation that I am...trying to perceive people and things as they actually are and trying to let my voice speak for itself rather than on behalf of some movement.  There is an emmense difference.

Virtual relationships

How are on-line (virtual) relationships (email, chat, MySpace, etc.) different from real-life relationships?  How are they different from the imaginary relationship one might have with characters in a Soap Opera or Film?  All relationships, imaginary or real, affect our thinking and our behavior.  They are a critical part of not just fulfilling our human needs, but a key element for us to grow and thrive. 

But is there really a difference between e-mail / chat relationships and in-person relationships?  Isn't it really all the same thing?  Would you really put TV-watching within the same realm as human relationships?  I think there are some important distinctions to be made.

Those imaginary relationships of TV, film, novels...well they do shape our thinking and influence us in the same way that real relationships do...but they are far less influencial than the universe that can be created between two people.  Relationships between real people have the element of interaction.  Interactive relationships are simply more real and carry a range of added dimensions: loyalty, sensitivity, complexity, attraction, and real consequences...whereas imaginary ones are kept neat and artificially simple...lacking these elements. 

Relationships we have with real people (in person or virtual) are healthier because they are authentic and exist outside of corporate / media influence.  These relationships allow us to grow and change.  Oftentimes, society tends to frown on (or at least fail to encourage) these relationships because today's society is controlled primarily by corporations and religions -- both institutions fighting for our attention and loyalty.  When, instead, our attention, loyalty, and energy goes directly to other human beings, the influence which these institutions have on our lives is their incentive to guide us away from authentic relationships is clear.

Institutional relationships (such as those one might have with religions, brands, TV characters, etc.) leave us weak, undeveloped, and unfulfilled.  Those who depend upon such relationships tend to look to prayer, shopping, soap operas, or pornography to fulfill deeper needs which remain unmet.  So why can't we simply awknowlage this and decide that it is ok to have deep, authentic, one-to-one relationships instead?  Unfortunately, those around us...loved ones, family, acquantances...unknowingly judge us by the rule laid down by the institutions.  When we fail to follow these socially-accaptable rules, we are punished.  Unfortunately, there is little room for, and also not much time for, many deep, authentic relationships in our lives.

It should also be noted that virtual relationships are sometimes destructive and oftentimes addictive (probably like anything that makes us feel alive).  All addictions have consequences...making everything else around us dull and encouraging us to neglect the people and things right in front of us, in our real lives. 

So, in the end, the choice whether to develop virtual relationships comes down to a personal choice.  All choices involve consequences, and I suppose it is the likely consequences of a situation, within the context of an individuals real life, that should be weighed.

The dos and don'ts

The idea of not doing something leaves us with an empty, frustrating void.  To not do something leaves us with a battle of will-power, a fight against our human nature, a seemingly less-than-full existence.  Most people focus so intensely on what they shouldn't be doing that the end up doing it!

Why not look at what to do rather than what not to do?  Don't not each junk food because it is bad for you, eat healthy food because it makes you feel great.  Filling yourself on vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins leaves you with little appetite for the other stuff.  Don't focus on not drinking to much tonight, focus on having a nice tomorrow morning without the hangover.

Don't focus on your flaws, but on your strengths.  In relationships, it isn't so much what you don't do to people, but what you do.  Why do they need you?  Why do they keep you around?  It probably isn't just because you aren't rude or aren't annoying, but because of whatever positive value they see.  Again, why do they need you?  What value do you bring?

The same perspective can be applied to work.  Don't focus on what you shouldn't be doing or staying out of trouble, focus on what positive value you bring to your boss and company and why they feel it is worthwhile to keep paying you.

It isn't so much about what you don't do wrong, but what you do do right.  The difference between these two paradigms seems invisible, but is actually immense.  If you focus on the don't, you'll fail in the fight against your human nature.  If you focus on the do, you are inevitably reaching toward something desirable to your human nature and in tune with it.  To do something right is to make up for what you invariably do wrong. 

It isn't so much about what you don't do, but what you do.