How easily could you be persuaded to murder someone?
Derren Brown has just demonstrated how it could be achieved within a couple of hours. Pushed to the Edge, pitched as an experiment in social compliance, saw a manipulated sequence of events result in three out of four participants shove an elderly man to his death off a roof (so they believed).
The usual questions have been raised about the morality and desirability of creating and televising such an event for entertainment purposes. The point emphasised at the end, and no doubt the justification which Brown used to quell any questions, is that this is intended to highlight our social compliance.
Brown's modern version of the Milgram Experiment is certainly every bit as disturbing as the original, and proves yet again that every time the experiment is repeated, the results are the same.
We think we are sophisticated people, beyond manipulation, in control. We credit ourselves as free individuals, beyond the biological imperatives of our brains that have been set in stone in every person who ever lived. So knowledgeable and clever that we can override our physiology.
To a certain extent, of course, we can. But that's the point. Almost none of us ever do.
Social compliance is the means by which some of the most atrocious acts in history have taken place. We sometimes still hear people claiming that had they lived in Germany under the Nazis, they would have been standing up against the system and defending the Jewish people.
Of course they wouldn't. It is naïve in the extreme, even aside from historical relativism considerations, to presume that you or I would not have been in the vast majority going along with our state. The classic example of the frog in a pot of water that is gradually heating until it is boiled alive is directly applicable.
We are of course still now under the spell of social compliance, individually and nationally, and the most striking current example of this is our attitude towards the refugees fleeing into our continent.
I was deeply struck when a friend who left the UK to live in the USA several years ago got in touch to express support for the efforts to help Calais's Jungle. This friend is distinctly on the right, politically. I am convinced that had he been present in the UK throughout the last few years, the prevailing opinions and media attitudes towards the refugees would have been the views he claimed for himself too. Yet outside of that influence, his natural instinct is to find the situation unacceptable and to applaud the effort to assist.
Here are the stark facts. If we try to comprehend them outside of the viewpoints we have been fed, it seems impossible not to find them shocking. Twenty miles from Britain, there are babies who are dying from hypothermia because they are forced to live outdoors. People are starving. Children are by themselves and subject to abuse. Many thousands of unaccompanied children are missing throughout Europe, over 5,000 in Italy alone. In Calais and other locations, police work in cooperation with neo-Nazis to brutalise populations whose only crime was to flee from even more extreme violence.
Does it even matter who they are and why they are there? Surely we would not treat our worst enemy with this level of cruelty?
Since when was it ok, in 21st century Europe, to force people to live packed like meat into shipping containers? Since when was it acceptable to load individuals onto coaches, 'destination unknown'? How about states forcibly taking people's cash and valuables from them? Or making those of a particular faith register and carry special identification?
The very first volunteer I met after arriving in Calais many months ago was Holly, now a dear friend. Holly is Jewish. I asked her about this. Is it offensive that we should even begin to see comparisons between the current situation and the treatment of Jews during the rise of Nazi Germany?
"I think the similarities are startling. In fact, as I was helping today in camp watching them scurry around in the dirt and muck I thought of the ghettos of Europe and how the Jews were dehumanised. I think you can make the comparisons for sure. Many Jews I know are finding this situation so difficult because it reminds them."
For those who think the comparison is extreme, you can bet your bottom dollar that populations had similar feelings of it's not that bad at the time of the Third Reich. The frog does not realise the water around him is heating until it is too late.
One of the other volunteers I met soon after arriving in Calais was Rob Lawrie. Rob spent many weeks building shelters in the Jungle and developed a wonderful friendship with four-year-old Bahar and her father, adopting their situation and doing everything he could to make their conditions more bearable.
Rob got too close. After days of begging from Bahar's father, he agreed to take the child away from the abuse, filth, starvation and danger of the Jungle to live with her relatives in the UK, who lived just a few miles from Rob himself.
Last week, Rob was cleared of smuggling charges specifically and has been released with a suspended sentence and a fine of 1,000 euro, only to be paid should he attempt the same again.
Should Rob have stuck to the letter of the law or tried to rescue a child from danger? Which is morally better?
Whichever is the right choice, Rob chose to not remain subject to the prevailing opinion without question. He chose to get involved with a situation which most choose to believe is not to do with them, is not too bad, is excusable. Even if you do not agree with his final choice, his decision to open his eyes a little wider and then take action is one to be applauded. It doesn't take Derren Brown to manipulate us into committing murder; by looking the other way we are morally complicit in what is already happening.Suggest a correction