Borat, Milgram, Goffman

November 18, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
I showed the Milgram film in class last week—the film Stanley Milgram made of his famous experiments on “obedience to authority.” In the experiment, subjects are asked to deliver very painful and even apparently fatal shocks to a person in another room. When we discussed the ethics of the experiment, I drew an analogy to the Borat film, especially the amount of deception.

Both Borat (i.e., Sacha Baron Cohen in character) and Milgram lie about who the people involved really are and about what’s really happening. Borat is not really a Eurasian journalist making a documentary; in Milgram’s experiment, the “learner” supposedly receiving the shocks is not really a volunteer, and the experiment isn’t about learning. Both Borat and Milgram lie to their subjects about the true purpose of the project. It is not about the things taking place around the subject (a dinner party, a comedy coaching session, or a learning experiment); what it’s really about, and what the camera is zooming in on, is the reactions of the subjects themselves.

The two projects are similar not just in their ethically questionable methods but in their results. What both movies show is the power of social norms, the unwritten rules of everyday politeness.
Borat and Milgram can get away with their outrageous questions, requests, or behavior because people are just too polite to tell them that they are way out of line.

The rules of everyday politeness also require that both people in an interaction must agree as to when it ends. (Try breaking off a conversation with someone who wants to continue. It’s not so easy.) So once Borat’s victims have committed themselves to the interaction, which always starts out being normal enough, they can’t figure out how to end it even when Borat’s behavior goes far beyond the bounds of good taste. The humor, like that of the old TV show “Candid Camera” depends on people continuing to try to be polite even when circumstances would seem to call for confrontation and even when that politeness makes them increasingly uncomfortable.

The same goes for Milgram’s subjects. The experiment starts off quite normally— no howls of pain for the low-voltage shocks— and the subjects become committed to their place in the situation. The norm against breaking up the interaction kicks in. One subject shown at length in the film says to the experimenter, “I don’t mean to be rude, Sir, but . . . .” To us watching the film, it seems ridiculous that he’s apparently less affected by the extreme pain, injury or death of someone in the next room than he is by the possibility of being rude to the experimenter a few feet away. But that’s because we don’t realize the power of the norms in the immediate situation.

The other unwritten rule that enables Milgram and Borat (and Ali G and “Candid Camera”) to take things so far is this: don’t question what someone says he is, at least not
without very, very strong information to the contrary. (This insight is the basis for one of the classic books in sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, by Erving Goffman.)

Borat presents himself as a very naive Eurasian journalist trying to learn about America. To act towards him as though he were an uncouth fool — even though he’s behaving like one — would be an insult. Milgram says in effect that this is a learning experiment. To discontinue the experiment would be saying in effect, “You’re not really the psychology researcher you say you are. You don’t know how to run an experiment.” Yes, some people discontinue the experiment, and no doubt some people didn’t go along with Borat (though of course they get edited out of the film). But even those brave people must still overcome the pull of very strong norms.

As in other scams, the set-up is crucial. For the game to work, Borat (like Ali G and Milgram) must first get the other person to commit himself to the interaction and to accept Borat for what he claims to be. For the scammer, going in cold may be risky, as Sacha Baron Cohen found out two weeks ago. After doing Saturday Night Live as Borat, he went out in New York still in character with fellow Brit Hugh Laurie. They were on the street in the Village when Cohen, with no set-up, approached a stranger and reportedly said, “I like your clothings. Are nice! Please, may I buying? I want to have sex with it...your clothings...very much.”
The guy began punching Cohen and didn’t stop till Laurie came and pulled him off (making a House call, I guess).


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