This is a quote from Byron Katie which always makes me squirm because while at some level it feels true, I don’t particularly want it to be accurate. It would mean I’ve got a ton of spiritual work to do before I achieve perfection, and we all know I was getting so close…
Nevertheless, as with many things I come to eventually believe, this one lodged like a splinter under my skin. I’ve since been looking for a real-life examples of the principle. Something that isn’t personal, so I don’t have any investment in the outcome. A way to externalize the idea and see if it works before asking more of myself in my interactions.
Then, a few days ago, when looking for some outrageous “fun,” I think I spotted it in Da Ali G Show.
Are you familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen’s work? If not, here is the series’s premise from imdb:
An ignorant, wannabe-Jamaican British b-boy; an anti-Semitic, misogynistic but friendly Kazakhstani television reporter; and a homosexual Austrian fashonista–all played by Sacha Baron Cohen–conduct interviews on unsuspecting Americans, who include prominent pundits in the political system and celebrities, that reveal deeply hidden prejudices and challenge social mores within American society.
Here’s a clip of the Ali G character. To make it clear that human frailties cross international lines, I’ve chosen a now-deceased Canadian hothead in a less-than-fine hour:
This show is not easy to watch. Though there are plenty of comedic moments, Baron Cohen has a diabolic genius for honing in on people’s hot-button topics and pushing them with a gusto familiar to bullies.
His work reminds me of the famous Milgram psychology experiments where people were guided into giving supposedly fatal electric shocks to test subjects simply because they were asked to by an authority figure in a lab coat. Baron Cohen comes armed with a character’s bombastic personality and camera. That’s all it takes to expose troubling veins of elitism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism.
To bring this back to the defense-is-the-first-act-of-war premise, however, Baron Cohen’s “subjects” seem to follow four distinct trajectories:
Is this the worst of all patterns? I don’t know, but there seems something deeply tragic in this kind of personal malleability. You’ll see no act of war in this piece, but it does contain violence. To devalue one’s one work and beliefs to this extent seems like the ultimate act of self-destruction.*
2. Collusion with the Character’s Ignorance or Racism
In this case, I’m referring to people who openly agreed with Baron Cohen’s homophobia, etc. These people know what they stand for, and while it ain’t a pretty picture of humanity, it’s honest. (As a doctor, I always welcomed open disagreement, because what’s on the table can be addressed and accommodated. It’s the hidden agendas that disrupt negotiations every time.)
Hidden amongst us are true heroes — people so secure in their self-knowledge that they can disagree with another, engage with them fully, but draw firm boundaries around their own conduct. Your bad behavior will not push them into treating you as anything less. They assume you are open and teachable, presumably because that’s their own identity.
Interestingly, though Baron Cohen doesn’t break from character, I can tell when he meets one of these people. He cannot maintain his character’s ferocity. There’s a softening of his body language and tone and an almost palpable unwillingness to push them to the point of disillusionment.
Want a subtle example? Look at this clip with Boutros Boutros Ghali.
4. Defensiveness (Overt and Covert)
And then there’s the pattern I sought. Defense as war? You decide.
Whether there were abrasive words and threats of violence, or simply a flushed face and repressed hostility, there were a subset of people who had to make Baron Cohen wrong in order to be right. They weren’t interested in listening or educating. There were sides in this battle, though not a single hostile word need be exchanged.
Check out the gentleman second from the left in this clip on Science and Techmology. (No, that’s not a typo.)
So, I’m convinced and I know my goal during debates at the dinner table — assertion, not aggressiveness or defensiveness.
How about you? Have you seen Da Ali G Show? Does it make you think or repel you? I particularly wonder about the fate of the individual in clip #1 afterward. Would he see this as an impetus to make a change or be emotionally harmed? Should entertainers embrace the same ethical constraints as psychologists? Talk to me about satire.