August 04, 2004

Empathizing with Simon Baron-Cohen's cousin

In an earlier post, I mentioned British neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, recently famous for his theory that autism is a symptom of an "extreme male brain", where male "systematising" takes over at the expense of female "empathising".

This 4/2004 weblog entry says that Simon Baron-Cohen is the brother of Sacha Baron Cohen, who performs as the hiphop journalist Ali G (the hyphens come and go in both Baron-Cohens' names). Ali G's HBO TV show is starting its second season, specializing in comically outrageous interviews with subjects who are not in on the joke. This 2001 article in the London Review of Books says that Simon "is also rumoured to be Ali G's cousin". An article in the August Vanity Fair, which seems to be authoritative, confirms that Sacha and Simon are cousins.

The sociolinguistic theory of accommodation "starts from the premise that speech accommodation takes place when people modify their speech so that it conforms more with the way their conversational partner speaks". This can involve echoing particular words, adopting features of pronunciation, using similar syntactic structures, and so on. Accomodation might be blind adaptation to experience, or it might be a more complex negotiation of identities. Some ideas about accommodation suggest that a form of empathy plays a role, at least in some aspects of the phenomenon. I don't know whether anyone has checked to see whether sufferers from autism exhibit the usual phenomena of sociolinguistic accommodation or not.

In any case, Ali G's act often involves contrasts of identities, speech registers, and sometimes simply word usage. He often gets his victims to accomodate to his choices in ways that make them seem a bit ridiculous, as in this conversation with Sir Rhodes Boyson from his British show:

Ali G:  "Do you believe kids should be caned?"
Rhodes: "I do. I..."
Ali G:   "You do! Wikkid, man. You believe kids should be caned even in school?"
Rhodes: "Even in school."
Ali G:  "Do you not think, Sir Rhodes, if you get caned in school you can't concentrate 
         as well. Because a lot of people out there say that if you're getting caned..."
Rhodes: "Well, I was caned in my time and I've concentrated all my life."
Ali:    "You were caned? Respect, man. Respect."
Rhodes: "It shouldn't be done evil and it shouldn't be done badly."
Ali:    "Aye, You've got to have good stuff."
Rhodes: "You have to have rules in life."
Ali:    "You have to have good cane."
Rhodes: "You have to have a good cane."
Ali:    "Okay, but you're saying the caning is cool."
Rhodes: "The caning is cool, and most boys prefer it to being told off."

His greatest triumph, as far as I've seen, was his success in getting Pat Buchanan to accomodate to the malapropism of BLT for WMD. Here's the transcript, courtesy of the Chris Matthews Show:

ALI G: "Does you think that Saddam ever was able to make these weapons of mass destruction 
or whatever,  or as they is called, BLTs?
Mr. PATRICK BUCHANAN: "The--was Saddam able to make them?"
ALI G: "Could he make BLTs?"
Mr. BUCHANAN: "Yes. At one time, he was using BLTs on the Kurds in the north. If he had 
               anthrax, if he had mustard gas..."
ALI G: "Whatever he put in them."
Mr. BUCHANAN: "No. No, no. If he had mustard gas, no."
ALI G: "Let's say he didn't have mustard and the BLTs just was plain. Would you have been 
        able to go in there then?"

There's some evidence that Pat Robertson might be another empathetic, linguistically accomodating kind of interview subject, though by now it would be very surprising for a public figure (and his handlers) to be unaware of the Ali G act.

Besides Ali G, Sacha's current alter egos include Borat the Kazakh TV reporter and Bruno the Austrian fashion writer. He apparently moved to the U.S. because Ali G had become too familiar for interview subjects to be fooled, but the U.S. remained a fertile field for this particular kind of con, as his success with Buchanan showed. According to the Vanity Fair article:

On the American version of Da Ali G Show ... he asked Boutros Boutros-Ghali (whom he introduced as "Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali"), "Wot is da funniest language?" The former secretary-general of the U.N. was flustered. Ali G pressed on: "It's French, innit?" Boutros-Ghali laughed and momentarily agreed that French was indeed an amusing language.

In dealing with people like Ali G, honesty and consistency seem to be the most effective policies, as in this interview with Tony Benn, where Ali G more or less fails to accomplish his goals. I've never seen his show, and probably wouldn't like it, but that's not the point here.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 4, 2004 04:16 PM