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Learning from Louis Theroux and Dorothy Gale: How to be a culture mediator

To me, it's almost a privilege to be welcomed into these communities and to shine a light on them.

Louis Theroux

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz

Wizard of Oz, faith, truth and culture, Little Ponderings

Recently, I experienced a little epiphany about my love for Louis Theroux of BBC fame and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. It may seem a peculiar comparison: nerdy, wry-humoured documentary-maker versus shiny-shoed, fictional character.

However, as I watched the Wizard of Oz for the [insert big number]-th time the other day and pondered my long-held love of this film and Judy Garland’s Dorothy, I realised that she embodies many of my own values, and weirdly, also shares some of the same ideals as Theroux’s documentaries, particularly his more recent ones. As his documentary style has developed, it seems to have lost some of its facetious edge, resulting in a more nuanced, compassionate depiction of humanity.

Watching Theroux immerse himself in various subcultures is not dissimilar to the experience of seeing Dorothy enter the upside-down world of Kansas. Perhaps the reason I have such a fondness for Dorothy and Theroux is that they act as ‘culture mediators’; they step into another culture, listen and learn from the culture’s community, and shine a light on their way of life for others to learn from too.

(And just to clarify, ‘culture mediator’ is my own home-made term, not based on any knowledge of ‘cultural mediation’ as defined by Wikipedia. I’m afraid I don’t have a clue about “cultural–historical psychological theory”.)

Another little disclaimer before I go any further…. I don’t think Theroux is always successful in his role as mediator, and he sometimes encourages scorn more than compassion, especially in some of his earlier documentaries. However, at his best, he creates space for us to listen to the ‘outsider’ and to realise our common humanity.

Having pondered these two very different characters, I’ve identified a few things that I think we might learn from both of them. And so here’s my very own step-by-step guide on ‘how to become a good culture mediator’…

Step 1: Make friends

Wicked witches aside, Dorothy is gifted at making friends wherever she goes. Even when she first arrives in Oz and experiences some major culture shock, she still makes an effort to be polite and is quick to learn from her mistakes, readily apologising for her false assumption that witches are old and ugly.

Whilst Theroux also makes some enemies along the way, he often seems to genuinely connect with the subjects of his documentaries. He warmly extends a hand and introduces himself to his interviewees in a surprisingly natural way, despite the frequently odd or awkward nature of his meetings.

Step 2: Listen, learn, and don’t be afraid to ask questions

Theroux and Dorothy share the ability and boldness to ask the kind of questions that almost seem too obvious to ask.

And perhaps even more importantly, they know how to listen well to the answers.

As I re-watched The Wizard of Oz the other week, I was struck by how little the older characters listen. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry don’t take Dorothy’s concerns seriously in the very first scene and so Toto ends up being her confidante. (Poor gal, it’s no wonder she’s distraught when he gets taken away…)

Her aunt and uncle are similarly dismissive at the end of the film when she is trying to tell them about her dream. The doorman to the Emerald City abruptly shuts the door in Dorothy’s face before she can properly explain the situation, and Glinda, in spite of her magical wisdom, has to be told multiple times that Dorothy really is not a witch.

Dorothy on the other hand shows herself to be a very good listener, even making time to listen to ordinarily inanimate objects. (Although I’m not recommending this, unless you happen to live in Oz!) The musical structure helpfully facilitates narrative space for each character: Dorothy asks a question and the stranger (i.e. the scarecrow, tinman, lion) then answers in the form of a song. It’s the perfect opportunity for her to listen, empathise, learn, and of course, join in at the appropriate moments.

I don’t think much needs to be said about Theroux on this one - his whole job revolves around listening and learning about other cultures. Although, it is interesting to note that his ability to remain poker-faced (except for his signature eyebrow movement) often enables his documentary subjects to talk freely, without the distraction or discomfort of any judgemental body language.

Step 3: Be ready to challenge the cultural narrative

Whilst Theroux and Dorothy are good listeners, they aren’t just passive by-standers. Theroux isn’t averse to intervening in his subjects’ lives to some extent: "It's not a case of anything goes," he explained in one interview. "You are a moral being and that's how you've got to operate. You don't cease to be a human being just because you're making a programme."*

In some episodes, we clearly see his desire to break into other people’s narratives and change their minds. His documentaries about the Westboro Baptist Church are some of the most obvious examples of his attempts to reason with a community whose mindset is so utterly different from his own, or to put it in more fancy terms, he attempts to break down the culture’s ‘plausibility structure’.

A plausibility structure is a web of beliefs that are so embedded in the hearts and minds of the bulk of a society that people hold them either unconsciously or so firmly that they never think to ask if they are true. In short, a plausibility structure is a worldview of a society, the heart of a community…One of the main functions of a plausibility structure is to provide the background of beliefs that makes arguments easy or hard to accept.

James Sire, Naming the Elephant

Dorothy also attempts to deconstruct the Oz plausibility structure, although it is Toto who eventually succeeds by revealing the man behind the curtain and showing the people of Oz the true state of their so-called Wizard. Throughout the film, Dorothy fights for her values, seeking truth and justice, as well as a way home. Unlike Aunt Em and Uncle Henry who are so afraid of the powerful Almira Gulch (the witch’s Kansas doppelganger) that they give into her demands, Dorothy bravely speaks up for others even when she’s scared,

There’s an Alice in Wonderland-ish feel to Oz, only Oz isn’t quite as amoral as Wonderland. Dorothy is able to make some sense of things even within a frequently nonsensical land, and she does this by finding something that transcends culture – courage, friendship, family, and kindness. It’s through these values (and of course the fatal water fight), that she frees the oppressed people of Oz from the wicked witch.

Step 4: Reflect on what you’ve learnt

One of my favourite parts of Theroux’s documentaries are his mini conclusions at the end of each episode. It’s a rare moment where we see a glimpse of Theroux’s own opinions, and this fascinates me as much as the unique perspectives of his subjects’ lives, because it says something about our own culture, not just the subculture we’ve been watching in the episode.

His conclusions nearly always consist of a negative and a positive reflection on the subculture he’s experienced. The choice to comment positively on the lives of his subjects, however bleak, weird, or difficult they may be, leaves his audience with a small ray of hope. By commenting on the good and the bad, he encourages us to learn from the documentary subjects; rather than simply encouraging a judgement on their way of life.

Dorothy shares this ability to bring compassion and curiosity into the lives of the people she meets and forms friendships with the most unlikely, even hostile people (or should I say creatures?) She sees potential in the Cowardly Lion, even though he behaves pretty badly on their first meeting, frightening her friends and chasing after her beloved, Toto.

Putting it into practice…

To conclude, I thought I’d offer my own reflections on the cultural narrative of Oz and Theroux’s documentaries. It’s time to bring my own beliefs into this discussion (let’s see how meta this can get…)

Both Dorothy and Theroux challenge the toxic elements of the culture they see before them, and yet we can’t ignore the fact, that even whilst they call out the implausibility and inconsistencies of another culture’s structures, they too are living within the web of their own beliefs. If Theroux and Dorothy represent the everyman/woman, they reflect to us the secular humanism underlying much of our own western culture.

The secularist viewpoint only goes so far in bringing insight to other cultures. It successfully points out the false delusions of religion, whether it’s the twisted Westboro Baptist version of Christianity or the veneration of the fraudulent Wizard; and yet every culture, even secular ones, can’t escape some form of religion.

Daniel Strange argues in his book Plugged In that “Culture is ‘religion externalised’ – it’s how we show on the outside what we believe on the inside. Culture is how we worship – it’s the way in which we show what is really valuable to our hearts.”

In The Wizard of Oz, we follow Dorothy’s pursuit of her object of worship: family. The phrase, “There’s no place like home” echoes through this film like a kind of liturgy. In surrounding herself with the motely Oz crew, she forms a family around herself even whilst she is away from home. And yet, if Oz acts as a hymn to family, it also reveals to us that home isn’t perfect either. Sometimes, we’d rather run away from our families than towards them.

Theroux’s documentaries comment on the importance of family too. Many of the 'foreign' subcultures he visits are made up of people who are family; they may not always be blood relations, but they have nevertheless formed a community around a set of beliefs or experiences. They are often very close-knit groups, and yet too often, it becomes apparent that these families are broken and dysfunctional.

The episode Murder in Milwauke epitomises this tension; we watch families weep over the murder of their loved ones, even whilst they cling onto their own guns, ready to shoot at anyone who seems like a threat. The need to protect their families is part of the vicious cycle that is tearing their community apart. (Of course the problem is far more complex than that.)

This is where I think humanism fails to provide answers. Humans are capable of great affection and compassion, but we will never be perfect family to one another. We cannot satisfy each other’s need for unconditional love and belonging. As a Christian, I see the church as my family. And of course, like any earthly family, it is very far from perfect, but it's my belief and hope that God is changing our hearts to love each other more fully. Earthly families, like Church, are only a small, imperfect picture of heaven when I believe we will see and experience the beautiful redemption of family.

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on the Wizard of Oz and Louis Theroux’s documentaries? What meaning or truth do you find in the stories they tell?

These sorts of questions are the fuel and fodder for my ‘little ponderings’. Part of the reasoning behind this blog is my belief that it's important and healthy for us to recognise that we are immersed in our own society’s plausibility structure(s), constantly bombarded by all sorts of narratives. Some of these narratives are helpful and wholesome…and sometimes they are not. Quite often, they’re a bit of both.

My hope is to create a little bit of space to ponder these cultural narratives, so that we can learn to become more thoughtful consumers.

Thank you for joining me on my pondering journey! Let me know your thoughts...


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