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‘Thinking outside the Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung’

Ich bin Brüno!Brüno, the latest work by British comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen, has just achieved the highest-grossing opening weekend for an 18-certificate (i.e. adult-rated) film in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

This ‘mockumentary’ revolves around the reactions of various celebrities and members of the public to Baron-Cohen’s portrayal of the eponymous flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista. Since those involved believed they were dealing with a genuine rather than fictional character, their responses to his outrageously exaggerated portrayal of stereotypical homosexuality provide a satirical comment on the prejudice and hypocrisy present within a supposedly enlightened modern society.

Extreme reactions provoked by the filming led to Baron-Cohen being both threatened with assault and arrested multiple times, as well as facing subsequent legal action. This mirrors the response to his previous controversial film of the same format, in which he played ‘Kazhakhstani’ Borat. Not only did this similarly result in legal action, but the ensuing furore culminated in an international diplomatic incident.

Whilst such films may claim to provide a revealing insight into homophobia, anti-semitism, and the like, they also raise uncomfortable questions for the audience themselves. For example, it is debatable as to whether they are truly viewed by all cinema-goers as a sophisticated piece of social commentary, or whether they simply allow the ‘politically correct’ an opportunity to laugh at otherwise unacceptable stereotypes.

In terms of their technical approach, many of the humorous scenarios featured within these films echo the ‘breach studies’ of ethnomethodologist Garfinkel, which examined the responses of unsuspecting participants to deliberate violations of social norms.

In a further psychological link, Sacha Baron-Cohen is the cousin of Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge.

(And in case you were wondering, ‘Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung’ is German for ‘speed-limit’!)

Square-eyeBrüno’s official MySpace page

Square-eyeFilm review from the Guardian

Square-eye£1.99 - smallSmith, J. R. & Louis, W. R. (2009). Group Norms and the Attitude–Behaviour Relationship

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‘Spanish practices’

BullfightFirstly it was bonus payments for bankers seen as largely responsible for the ‘credit crunch’, and then excessive expenses claims by members of parliament (MPs).

Although these activities were not necessarily illegal, the British public has been enthusiastically encouraged by the press to denounce them as immoral.

This common view that dubious morality is endemic amongst those in positions of power has been highlighted recently by the ironic election success of a Croatian politician with a campaign slogan of ‘All for me, nothing for you’.

From a psychological perspective, such beliefs illustrate the ultimate attribution error, where negative behaviours of individual members are seen as typical of an entire out-group.

On closer inspection, however, this simple moral dichotomy is more complex than it may first appear. For example, MP’s expenses have been likened to so-called ‘Spanish practices’, a derogatory British term that continues to be surprisingly widely-used despite its racist implications. Such practices are questionable non-contractual working arrangements that benefit the employee and have become accepted as normal over time. These typically occur within heavily unionised industries, and have previously been the subject of industrial disputes.

Rather ironically then, many of those claiming the moral high-ground in terms of MP’s expenses commonly take advantage of exactly the same kind of ‘unofficial benefits’, suggesting that morality is a somewhat flexible concept.

Interestingly, the very term (mis-)used to describe these practices is a further example of the ultimate attribution error, being one of a number of historic British slurs attributing negative behaviours to foreign nationality out-groups.

Square-eye‘Spanish practices’ of MPs from the Mail Online

Square-eye£1.99 - small Sunar, D. (2009). Suggestions for a New Integration in the Psychology of Morality

Square-eye£1.99 - smallGiles, D. & Shaw, R. L. (2009). The Psychology of News Influence and the Development of Media Framing Analysis

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