CONTENT WARNING: this piece contains discussion about sexual assault and harrasment.
CONTAINS SPOILERS: If you have not already watched The Push, Compliance, Spotlight or Black and White, the author of this article needs to reveal the ending of these films in order to discuss the nature of compliance. We suggest you bookmark this article and read this after you have seen those films.
When a Netflix show prompts a group of mostly atheist and somewhat anti-religious friends to question morals, values and ethics, it tends to make the single Christian in the group prick their ears in interest. The show in question was called The Push and, from what I could get out of those who had seen the documentary, it was an experiment to see if someone could be made to commit murder.
Before I could watch and analyse The Push, SBS On Demand informed me that I would miss out on great shows that were being removed in March. I dutifully went through the list and picked out a handful that looked interesting. Compliance was one of these movies. Based on 70 odd cases in over 30 US states, it is one of the most emotionally disturbing movies I have ever seen.
It provides an account of one particular case (that occurred on the 9 April 2004) of a man, posing as a police officer, calling a busy fast food restaurant and informing the shift manager that one of the female front counter workers had stolen money from a patron. He needed the manager’s assistance to interrogate the teenager as it was part of a larger drug investigation and the police would be delayed in getting to the restaurant. What results over the next couple of hours is the strip search, sexual assault and rape of this young woman.
What made it disturbing, was the way in which this one man could make not only the shift manager, but her fiancée, the assistant manager and the teenager do exactly what he wanted, without even being present. Every question they posed, he had an answer for; every act that they resisted, he was able to convince them it was right and in their best interest to comply. Fear, threats, praise, encouragement, manipulation, playing people off one another, were all tools in his repertoire of tricks to ensure obedience by the people on the end of the phone.
An ethical social experiment?
When I next saw my group of friends and told them about it, they actually thought I was describing The Push! With my interest further piqued, I watched it the next day. The Push is a social experiment where English mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown creates an elaborate scenario with actors, celebrities, immaculate props and perfectly timed and controlled incidents to utilise social pressure in order to get a completely unsuspecting member of the public to push a man off the top of a building. Brown is in contact with the actors via ear pieces and is able to control what they say and do. There are four ‘participants’, who have been very deliberately chosen as being especially compliant, through a fake audition for a separate show. Three of them commit ‘murder’ while the fourth refuses to push the man to his death. At the end of the show, after revealing himself and the experiment to the participants, Brown encourages viewers to resist manipulative social conformity.
The questions that my friends and I raised included: Was the social experiment ethical? What was the difference between what these two men did when they used the same methods to get people to do the ‘wrong’ thing? Why is one labelled entertainment and the other criminal? What effect or possible trauma did this have on the victims?
While mulling these over in my own mind, along with some others, I continued to watch movies. Alarmingly, everything I watched during the next week seemed to contain elements of social compliance. There was Black and White, an Australian drama retelling the story of the 1958 South Australian court trial of indigenous man Max Stuart. Stuart was originally sentenced to death for murdering a little girl. Various appeals, witnesses giving him alibis for the time of death, the very suspect nature of the high English used in his confession and Rupert Murdoch’s media coverage of the case resulted in his sentence being reduced to imprisonment. Of greatest concern though was Stuart’s eventual explanation of the police bashing and strangling him to get the confession. A violent and racist expression of social compliance.
Another was Spotlight. This movie is based on the true story of a team of four investigative journalists at the Boston Globe, who uncover a systematic cover up by the Catholic Church in the local area of priests abusing children. The descriptions of the now adult victims of the targeting, grooming, molestation and rape of often poor and fatherless children was yet another confronting example of compliance. The pressure went well beyond the child victims, however, extending to the families to remain quiet, the law to hide and seal records, and media outlets to refrain from reporting the information. The end credits stated that ‘249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese’ with over 1000 victims and listed abuse scandals in 206 cities and towns across the world.
Compliance and the church
My question of whether social compliance happened in the church was answered by Spotlight. My question as to whether this was a modern-day phenomenon was answered on Good Friday. While attending the Uniting church in Cootamundra, the congregation listened to the story of Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution. The crowds yelling, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ is possibly one of the most powerful examples of social compliance in history, having one of the most important consequences. Herod’s capitulation to the crowd in Jerusalem resulted in an act of restoration of relationship between God and humanity, and the overthrow of death.
In one sense, these stories present nothing new. Christianity owns that all are sinful and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). It is an expected and natural reality of living in a broken world. So, these movies and documentaries give a vivid warning of the capacity of humans to do great evil, especially when pressured by others. None are immune. A little honest self-understanding and humility are helpful to identify when we are being pressured or tempted.
I do wonder, however, whether the opposite is possible too. Can social compliance be used for positive behaviour? The youth group at my church in The Gap, Queensland, built a vegetable garden for a group of refugees in Brisbane. They didn’t have to, but after one girl got passionate about doing something practical and beneficial for others, she managed to convince the group to get on board. It was well received and appreciated. I like the idea that compliance could be a way of being Christ in the world.
The Push and Spotlight are streaming now on Netflix. Black and White is streaming SBS On Demand. Compliance has now been removed from SBS On Demand but can be seen on Vex Movies.