Earlier this year a current affairs program announced that they would have an interview with the man who didn’t get swallowed by a giant anaconda. Taken literally, this doesn’t restrict the options much. There’s getting on for three billion men who haven’t been swallowed by giant anacondas; you probably know several yourself. On the other hand, everyone knew which guy they meant.
There’s a branch of linguistics, called ‘pragmatics’, that studies how everyone knows what you mean in cases like this. The “Cooperative Principle” and Grice’s Maxims look at the assumption that everyone’s trying to move the conversation along and isn’t deliberately trolling.
One of the US opinion polling companies, Public Policy Polling, seems to make a habit of trolling its respondents. This time, they asked whether people were in favour of bombing Agrabah. 30% of Republican supporters were. So were 19% of Democratic supporters, though for some reason this has been less widely reported. As you know, of course, since you are extremely well-read, Agrabah is not a town or region in Syria, nor is it held by Da’esh. It is, in fact, the fictional location of Disney’s Aladdin movie, starring among others the late, great Robin Williams.
I’m pretty sure that less than 30% even of Republican voters really support bombing a fictional country. In fact, I’d guess it’s probably less than 5%. But think about how the question was asked. You’re a stereotypical Republican voter dragged away from quiet dinner with your stereotypical spouse and 2.3 stereotypical kids by this nice, earnest person on the phone who wants your opinion about important national issues. You know there’s been argument about whether to bomb this place in the Middle East. You can’t remember if the name matches, but obviously if they’re asking a serious question that must be the place they mean. And it seemed like a good idea when it was explained on the news. Even the British are doing it. So you say “Support”.
The 30% (or 19%) doesn’t mean Republicans (or Democrats) want to bomb Aladdin. It doesn’t even mean they want to bomb arbitrary places they’ve never heard of. It means they were asked a question carefully phrased to sound as if it was about a genuine geopolitical controversy and they answered it that way.
When Ali G does this sort of thing to political figures, it’s comedy. When Borat does it to unsuspecting Americans it’s a bit dubious. When it’s mixed in with serious opinion polling, it risks further damaging what’s already a very limited channel for gauging popular opinion.