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The Book of Genesis tells the story of the Tower of Babel. After the Great Flood all of the humankind spoke the same language. People decided to build a city with the tower that can reach heaven. The Tower was built not to worship God, but to “make a name” for the builders: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ Afterwards, God came down to Earth, and was displeased with the intentions of the builders and the purpose of the Tower of Babel, and he confused their language to break the main principle of their power – unity. God also scattered the citizens of Babylon all around the globe.
Before going into the analysis of the movie, I would like to make use of the Clifford Geertz argument of cultural interpretations. Social facts and culture are different things, but they are interconnected. If to apply Geertz’s terminology we can call a movie director an ethnographer. And whatever the ethnographer researches or studies is highly interpretive to him, to his social facts, culture, norms and values. “Culture tends to resist, or is permitted to resist and thus can escape systematic modes of assessment. You either grasp interpretation or you do not, see the point of it or not, accept it or not”  . Therefore, this film in interpreted through the lens of director’s perception, so I as a viewer interpret it further through my perception of culture and social facts.
The movie “Babel” was directed by a Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez. The plot of the movie tells the story of 4 different families – American, Moroccan, Mexican and Japanese; and all of these families are interconnected by a series of events and face different social facts imposed by diverse societies with various values and cultural norms.
Emile Durkheim defined social fact in two ways. First goes as following “A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint”  . In this definition, Durkheim introduces the idea of “social constraint” which identifies reasoning behind actions as social facts. Meaning that there are various pressures on an individual on how to act, or of to act in the first place. If he/she violates and breaks this constraint, the consequence of this might be moral (sense of wrongdoing; being judged by people around you) or on the greater scale – legal  . In the movie we can see examples of social constraints to a different extent in all of the 3 story lines. For example, in the beginning of the film the father of the Moroccan family purchases a rifle for his young sons so that they can defend the sheep from jackals. When both of the sons test the rifle, it appeared that younger brother (Yussef) shoots better that the older one (Ahmed). This can be interpreted as a social constraint for Ahmed, who felt being judged by the others, even if he was not. What might have given boost to this feeling of judgement is the case of a strong patriarchal rule in Morocco, where more pressure, to some extent, is put on a man. To some level this led to the incident of the bus shooting, where Ahmed was trying to prove that he can shoot better than his younger brother.
Another example can be given from this storyline. Yussef was spying on his sister while she was bathing. She knew that her brother was spying, but did nothing to stop it, which on the contrary meant encouragement on some level. This brings the topic of incest taboo to the table. This is constraint which will be not just judged upon, but the legal action can be taken as well. The topic if incest is extremely sensitive and is not tolerated in modern days, although it was acceptable from ancient times in various royal families (e.g. Cleopatra’s first husband was her brother). Later on, when father found out about what was going on, he physically and verbally punishes children. One of the Durkheim arguments included the way that the children are brought up: “Parents impose upon the child ways of seeing, thinking and acting which he himself would not have arrived at spontaneously”  . Further more, Spencer argues that rational education should be reject in favour of giving the child complete freedom. I personally disagree with this view. I do realize that not all of the people are parent material, but this sort view is extreme. Children should be taught certain limitations, rules and values; but the correct balance should be found. As the saying goes “Children are their parents reflection”.
Durkheim’s second definition was that social fact “is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations”. This definition takes more general approach to social facts. In order to better understand this concept Durkheim introduced the term “social currents”  which are collective emotions, feelings and thoughts in a group, which have stronger impact than any individual’s own emotions. The group’s experience originates outside of the individual and moves on to all of the members of the group. Durkheim argues that this has certain coercive effect, meaning that while individuals in the group allow shared experience to strengthen, they also keep an “illusion of having created, that which actually forced itself from without”  . Moreover, if an individual separates himself from the group emotion, he will find out that the emotion was not his own and will be met by resistance from the rest of the group, if to attempt to show another felling or emotion. This is exactly what happened to American family in Morocco.
American woman got accidentally shot while on the bus tour. Bus driver goes to a nearest village, which only had a veterinarian who sewed the wounds. But the wounded woman still needed full medical care because of severe blood loss, so they were waiting for the ambulance which was driving from the nearest hospital (3 hours away). At the same time other tourists on the bus wanted to leave the woman and her husband (Richard) in the fear of another attack (the first attack was quickly labelled “terrorist”) and concerns over heat. The tour group and Richard engage in several arguments, eventually resulting in tour group leaving while Richard was on the phone. So if we put this example in previously mentioned Durkheim’s arguments we can see that after the accident the bus group was divided. The group’s experience originated from outside, which in this case was the shooting. But Richard and his wife were quickly separated from the group; because now the group did not share same emotion and the same goals. Consequently, the tour group resisted Richard’s arguments and left. It is not certain what would have been the outcome of this situation if someone else would have shoot. Every group has a leader, which in the movie was played by a British tourist. What if he got shot? Would have this made a different outcome? Or just actors change and the end result remains the same? I guess the outcome will vary significantly depending on parameters of the situation.
The next issue of the movie I would like to address is suicide. We observe the story of a Japanese family – Yasujiro and Chieko Wataya. Yasujiro is a widower, whose wife committed suicide and is confronted with communication difficulties with his daughter Chieko, who is deaf mute. Because of Chieko’s disability, she is seen as an outcast in the society, with people constantly shutting her down while she is in need of a simple human contact. Later in the movie, she told a police officer that her mother committed suicide by jumping off the balcony, while the truth was that she shot herself. And in the end of the movie we find Chieko standing on the edge as the balcony, which I interpreted as suicide intent. Durkheim wrote extensively on topic of suicide, implementing social current into the issue. He took various approaches such as quantitative and statistical, analysis of weather and season, etc  . But this data just showed statistics and patters, but not the cause, which in Durkheim’s view was social.
Durkheim argues that one of the most important aspects for explanation of suicide rates are the degree of integration into and regulation by society. Also depending on the size of the family – the larger the family, the lesser the chance of suicide within it. Thus, Japanese families in general (inc. the Wataya’s) tend to be small in size, which according to Durkheim makes members within them more prone to suicide.
Coming back to the role of the society, Durkheim gave a sociological explanation: “Each social group really has a collective inclination for the act, quite its own, and the source of all individual inclination, rather than the result. It is made up of the currents of egoism, altruism or anomy running through the society. These tendencies of the whole social body, by affecting individuals, cause them to commit suicide.”  We can see an example of this in the movie, when Chieko and her friend are approached by the boy who invites them for a drink with his friends, but as soon as he realises that both girls are deaf mute, he leaves and laughs with his friends. Such tendencies can cause intent to commit suicide. But what Durkheim does not mention, is how and what people attribute to the actions and behaviour of others, which undermines his theory significantly.
Overall, “Babel” brings out various interesting issues in sociological terms. The movie after all is fictional, and so are the characters; but the social facts and culture are real. Durkheim’s theories are sound, clear, and are easy to put into real-life situations. But on the other hand, if to completely follow his idea of social facts, our behaviour is more or less predicted by them, and we almost have no option but to accept them.
“People can do anything they like as long as it does not harm others”
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