TV Review The Heist

TV Review The Heist

Watching Derren Brown’s program The Heist on SBS recently made me think of the Lord’s Prayer: the “lead us not into temptation” bit. It was a chilling exploration of how to break down people’s resistance to dishonesty and even violence. It was calculated, artful and frighteningly effective. Though the documentary it was late to our screens (made in 2006) it was timelessly relevant. It shows ordinarily ‘good’ people carefully (some might say fiendishly) manipulated and groomed, gradually coming to decisions that they would steal, that they would (at least) threaten violence.

Derren Brown is a famous illusionist, hypnotist and magician whose programs go beyond rabbits and hats. He makes us wonder about reality and illusion and the role that these play in our way of life. In The Heist he created a fake seminar for middle-management business people who wanted to enhance their career achievements and personal confidence. The real purpose was to see if he could break down their value systems enough to get them to commit what they thought was an armed robbery.

There was a wide cross-section of people who were selected, although the ones who were sent for the final test of character were carefully filtered through the process. There was only one of four who was able to resist the powerful pressure to threaten a security guard with a toy gun and steal a large amount of money. Of course the security guard and indeed the whole setup were as fake as the toy gun though far more elaborate. What it showed was that you can, literally, tempt people to do evil against all their previous conditioning.

What makes us do evil? When given choices, why do some people fall down and others not? The late, great Jewish writer Jacob Rosenberg often said: “it takes a lifetime to make a person good and five minutes to make them evil”. He had good reason to know, as a Holocaust survivor, as a man who, without religious faith (he described himself as like Spinoza, ‘a God-intoxicated agnostic) had a deep joy and hope in human love and goodness. On one occasion when I had to write a piece for The Sunday Age’s Ethics column about Bystander Syndrome, I asked him what he thought made some people help Jews during the Holocaust while others turned away or participated in the evil.

His answer was illuminating: during a time when evil reigns, it is not only easy to commit evil, but overwhelmingly difficult for ordinary good and decent people to do otherwise. The strength of character needed to perform actions that challenge an evil status quo can be measured by the strength of the pressure to do evil. Jacob said that those who were able to act with “ordinary” human decency during those terrible times were “like angels”. Such people were not ordinary, the few righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust; few because though there were thousands, they were vastly outnumbered.

Deliver us from evil, we say every day: lead us not into temptation, because the temptation that can bring us down is the one that is tailored exactly to our own personal hopes and fears. But we always want to think we would be among the righteous ones. So when an action challenges our societal or religious norms and ethics, we can at first find it easy to condemn, to say we would never do such and such a thing. But watching Derren Brown meticulously break down a lifetime of ethics under the guise of “freeing yourself”, with a nebulous but powerful promise of greater pride, enjoyment, prosperity and success, was sobering. He even revisited the Milgrom Experiment, and the majority of his subjects (by now it was apt to call them subjects in every way) fell by the wayside, obediently delivering what they believed to be painful and even dangerous electric shocks to a fake “learner” to supposedly explore the role of punishment in the learning process. What was of course being tested was the person delivering the shock: could they resist the pressure to continue, with a white-coated, quietly authoritative “scientist” telling them to keep going?

It was hard to watch: I cheered when some rebelled. Then I wondered, had no-one taught these people about such matters in school? Surely a basic history of ethics, even a glance at the history of WW2, with the Nuremberg judgement, had been on curricula?

Obviously not, since so few passed the test. It was frighteningly easy to manipulate people into thinking that their wish for more fulfilment, success and excitement in life was more important than others’ rights to their own property.

Brown’s subjects were, a postscript assured us, ‘debriefed’ and ‘counselled’ and presumably returned to their previous law-abiding attitudes. But what they could never regain, I suppose, was their innocence. Perhaps they would now be inoculated against future attacks on their value system. Does realising that you’re a susceptible manipulee make you less susceptible in the future?

The important thing to remember, I think, is that all of them were completely blindsided. We, the viewers, in on the secret, might try to comfort ourselves with the thought that we would be in the minority who resisted the siren call to do evil. But what are our personal trigger points? What would cause us to fall?

Such matters make one think of the formation of conscience and of how crucial that is to our soul and our being. We need some form of good authority, with rules of behaviour to keep those without consciences from utterly destroying everything that is human; but Jacob Rosenberg and the Derren Brown Heist showed us that when authority turns bad, then love and conscience are the only ropes we can cling to.

Little moments of grace were there: the gateway transgression (to shoplift some lollies from a nearby newsagent) was challenged by a man who said that he knew his teenaged daughter would see it and that he could never justify stealing anything to her. I guess you could say that he was saved by the power of love. And we all know the source of that, whether we know God or not.

Watch The Heist on SBS website:

Juliette Hughes is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.



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