Warning – Spoilers ahead!
I’ve just watched Craig Zobel’s film Compliance. It’s one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, brilliantly made, but tough to watch, and made all the more horrifying for being based on a true story.
Being a cynical kind of person I would usually take the words ‘based on a true story’ with a pinch of salt. But it seems that Zobel has taken the bare minimum of artistic license, if this article is to be trusted.
Normally I wouldn’t be overly concerned by the accuracy of a film like this. Bad stuff happens in real life, and sometimes people make films about them. I expect that certain elements of the story will be sexed-up, glossed-over, dumbed-down or some other verb-preposition combination.
But in this case, I find myself hoping that Compliance has heightened the reality of this situation. Sadly that really doesn’t seem to be the case.
For those of you disinclined to watch the film (for which I really can’t blame you) the premise is that a sociopathic hoax caller targets a fast-food restaurant posing as a policeman investigating an alleged theft. He succeeds in manipulating the frazzled manager into submitting one of her young employees to a series of increasingly horrendous degradations. It’s a grim study into what people will do when a supposed authority figure issues instructions.
Much has been made of the similarities to the infamous experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram, and various other instances of atrocities committed ‘under orders’. When I first heard about the Stanford Experiment (aged 17 studying for an AS Level in Psychology) my first response was to think that surely I wouldn’t do such a thing. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I wanted to believe the best about myself, that I would be capable of intelligence, compassion & courage under pressure. I desperately want to think that I wouldn’t throw the switch that supposedly delivers an electric shock to an innocent victim because a person in a white coat told me it was necessary.
But how accurate is that, really? Earlier I said I was normally pretty cynical, but in certain circumstances might my critical faculties desert me, as they seem to have deserted the people involved here? What might slip under my radar if I’m not paying attention?
I’m not saying this is in any way comparable, but several years ago I was at home by myself and a chap rang the doorbell. He rattled off some spiel about being in the area checking people were on the correct energy tariff. Somehow I got the impression that he was there to check the meter, so I let him in, (for my sins probably not checking his ID properly, more on that in a moment) and then he started taking details about our payment plan. After a few minutes I came to my senses, realised I was being doorstopped and made him leave. I was furious with myself for letting my guard down. I couldn’t quite understand how I had fallen for it to the extent that I had. I figured I must have been having an off day.
Ordinarily that wouldn’t have happened. I like to think of myself as a healthily suspicious person, and I’m usually pretty sensitive to being ‘sold’ anything. (One of the few good outcomes from my dark days in retail banking is knowing a few basic techniques for which I am constantly on the look out.)
If I had mentally identified this bloke as a salesperson, he’d never have got across the threshold. But the fact that I wasn’t concentrating meant that I mistook him for a meter reader, which meant that I identified him as an Authority Figure. Admittedly not a very senior authority figure, but instantly I had engaged my ‘compliance’ setting, rather than my ‘trust no-one’ setting. And it turns out these settings are wildly different. Whilst I do endeavour to treat every human on the planet with a basic level of respect, even if they are scuzzy salespeople, when I’m in paranoid mode I will be politely curt, and treat everything that is said with incredulity. But if I’m in Doing What I’m Told mode then all that goes out the window. Suddenly I am helpful, subservient, and ready to assist in any way I can. Because I don’t want to be told off. Or thought rude.
So, the ID thing. I knew that checking ID is basic self preservation, and that I really shouldn’t be putting the prospect of mildly inconveniencing a stranger above my own safety. (And for the record I am a lot more diligent about this than I used to be.) But I do feel a twinge of something like guilt thinking I might be insulting someone by demanding they prove who they are. Like I’m insinuating that I expect them to be a liar, thief, cheat or worse.
So might this impulse to please people whom I perceive to be in charge lead me to humiliate and abuse someone else? After giving it some thought I have decided not. While past experience leads me to think I might be capable of getting myself into some awful situation by being too polite, I actually don’t think I’d let that happen to someone else. I sometimes struggle to stand up for myself, but have rather less difficulty standing up for other people. As well as learning some crass but effective techniques for trying to sell packages accounts to little old ladies at the bank, I also learned that when push came to shove I wasn’t prepared to be part of that culture. Perhaps it sounds a little melodramatic, but I made an ethical decision to leave retail banking and make a career somewhere else. I was given orders to do things I thought were wrong, and when it became obvious that I couldn’t reason with the people giving those orders I walked away.
But it’s easier to come to a decision like that over time. When you’re under immediate pressure it’s much harder to think clearly. By the end of the film what’s taking place seems very extreme, but by this point the hoaxer has built up a relationship with his victim. I’m not usually a fan of the slippery slope argument, but you can clearly see it in action here. Once the manager has undertaken to obey a few basic commands, and crucially received praise for doing so, then I can well imagine how each additional step must seem like a natural progression.
Forewarned is forearmed, and if nothing else this film has reminded me of some potential pitfalls when dealing with other people. Real authority figures should not be offended if you check their ID or question their methods. Responding to an odd sounding request with polite scepticism is not necessarily the same thing as disobeying. And any genuine authority system should encourage such scrutiny. Of course if the authorities really are corrupt and regard the absence of mindless compliance as a threat then we have a whole different problem. But that’s for another post.