Monthly Archives: January 2013

Sociological Ha Ha or Sociological Faux Pas?

Now that I’m teaching sociolinguistics again, I am having to consider the line between presenting a topic humorously in order to reach out to students and coming off as being either flip or sensitive.

If I may have an ironic sociological moment here, this is an issue that many educated white people of the sarcastic persuasion have to consider. What I may see through an ironic lens someone else really could see as insulting.

Consider the 80s film The Gods Must Be Crazy from South Africa. The plot is that Xi, an indigenous African still living the ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle discovers a Coca-Cola bottle dropped from a plane. The tribe has theoretically never seen anything like it and consider it a gift from the gods. At some point Xi goes on a quest to learn more about the divine object and ends up encountering the bizarre civilization of white modern South Africa. It was crazy all right.

If you take the plot literally, it sounds like an insulting portrait of “naive” natives. However, I and others have actually considered it a parody of how white anthropologists work with non-Western cultures. Although most academics no longer see these cultures as being “barbaric”, they may still be seen as sweetly childlike, which can be just as damaging. This movie though shows that Xi and his people have plenty of common sense, especially in comparison to the ditzy white South Africaners.

In reality of course, almost all “indigenous” peoples have been in contact with the West for decades now and many have either voluntarily or been forced to give up their traditional lifestyle. This can often be very tragic, but it can also lead to juxtapositions of people in traditional African dress texting on their cell phones. Or men shopping in an Afghan bazaar. It’s a good reminder that traditional peoples can adopt to new technology quite well when they see the benefits.

But as much as I like the satiric aspect of the movie, I will admit that it’s still a white perspective of indigenous peoples, and that means there is always potential for misunderstanding and offense. This why I may have to create a “Foot in Mouth” badge to capture those times when my sarcasm goes awry. On the other hand, sometimes humor makes a point more efficiently and more memorably than any sincerely heartfelt presentation ever could.

I think the world really needs is more movies from around the world and definitely more snark from everyone around the world. Maybe then we can all have a good laugh together.