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Monday 25 May 2009

Convince a Little Man: Peer Pressure in Film Drama

The tagline for the entertaining two-part 2003 TV mini-series “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” is the famous, yet sometimes contested[i], quote popularly attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”. Unfortunately history reveals that “good” men (and women) have not just been passive or apathetical, they have also contributed to evil. Peer pressure wields an incredible amount of power over otherwise moral, respectable and rational people, as does the force of a natural leader, orders from a respected authority or a strong enough cause.

Another two-part mini-series, “Jack the Ripper” (1988), has Sir William Gull give Inspector Abberline these profound words when trying to explain how one person could convince a co-conspirator to aid him in committing a terrible crime:

“Convince a little man that he is serving some great cause; some grand experiment and he will do practically anything for you…He’ll burn witches for you, torture your enemies and he’ll do it with a smile if he thinks it is right”.

It’s a phenomenon that prompts many debates, especially among those arguing the case for or against religion or atheism. Cinema and television have used it as a focal point in many productions. The most obvious examples seem to be the film adaptations of William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies”. The story focuses on how the lure of savagery under a brutal leader is far stronger than leadership under the forces for reason, fairness and order. Jack’s path, in the story, is an easy and simple route akin to the “Social Darwinism”[ii]of the “Me Generation” that just believes in survival of the fittest and the most violent.

Classic bullying takes this extreme a stage further with the strong not just attacking whoever they feel challenges their authority but actually preying on the weak as if it were a right. “Ben X” is a Belgian film made in 2007 about an autistic boy’s eventual revenge on the bullies who humiliated and physically abused him. The film explores several interesting subjects including a genuinely sympathetic attempt to show the world through the eyes of someone with Asperger’s syndrome, the internet as both a place of sanctuary and persecution, and the fact that even in these supposed enlightened and politically correct times the afflicted are still openly abused. Perhaps the most disturbing issue raised is the way the main character’s main two persecutors are supported by the majority of their peer. The peer pressure in this instance is the lure of ridiculing the weak.

German cinema in the early 21st century has thrown up two films that deal with peer pressure in institutions, both inspired by dubious and controversial experiments, “Das Experiment” (2001) and “Die Well” (2008). The psychology behind what allowed Germany; now a liberal country with strict laws against extremism, to become an autocracy in relatively recent times is a subject that has fascinated many Germans. Interestingly both the experiments mentioned were conducted in the USA.

“Das Experiment” (The Experiment) is clearly inspired by the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. This was an experiment to determine how institutions, such as prisons, affect human behaviour. A group of predominately white middleclass volunteers were made prisoners and another group were made guards. The experiment was cancelled after only six days. Apparently the inmates had been increasingly humiliated and brutalized by the guards. “Das Experiment” dramatically took the whole matter to extremes and emphasized the point that brutality was bred by such conditions. The Stanford Experiment has been heavily criticized in academic scientific circles, as it was not peer-reviewed and some argue it was orchestrated for a predetermined conclusion. “Das Experiment” has a similar moral core to “Lord of the Flies”, but rather than putting normal middleclass boys in a savage uncontrolled environment they look towards a heavily controlled institution and argue that it produces a similar result.

Die Welle” (The Wave) is based on the alleged 1967 Third Wave experiment[iii]. This experiment was conducted in a high school history class over a week to demonstrate how easily an ideology like Nazism could win the hearts and minds of many normal people. Through a series of exercises to inspire strict discipline and community, the students saw immediate positive results and began recruiting others to the movement. There is even more controversy over the Third Wave experiment as very little material and no accounts are given outside those written by the school teacher who claims credit for conducting it. Nevertheless, there have been documentaries, two fictionalized feature films, an award winning young adult novel and even a musical based on the story. Whether the events happened or happened in the way popularly described is not the issue. There is something in the core idea of mass conformity that fascinates us as a species of individuals.

“Die Welle” seems to take a lot of its base material from the novel written by Todd Strasser[iv], where the whole experiment quickly gets out of control and members of “The Wave” start intimidating other students and even resorting to violence. In the novel, “The Wave” the teacher is able to convince his followers to abandon his movement after revealing to them the comparison with Hitler. However, Die Welle’s teacher leaves matters just a bit too long before he comes to his senses and reminds the students of the original purpose of the experiment and dangerous path they are now taking. Die Welle puts a far darker spin on the book’s ending. In the novel an enthusiastic and successful member of the now defunct movement expresses his sadness at the experiment’s termination because it gave him the popularity and also gave his life meaning. Before hand he had been unpopular and lacked motivation. In “Die Welle” the equivalent character takes matters to extremes and pulls a gun, wounding another student and killing himself.

“A Few Good Men” was a major US motion picture based on the Broadway play of the same name starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Of all the films and TV specials mentioned here it is easily the most commercial, but that doesn’t mean it handles the topic of peer pressure less seriously. The institution this time is the military, the US marines stationed in Guantanamo Bay. The story revolves around a legal defence team in the court-martial of two young low-ranking marines accused of murdering one of their fellow marines. It transpires that the accused marines had been covertly ordered to “train” the unfortunate victim with a “Code Red”, a type of unofficial discipline administered by fellow marines, when he went out of the chain of command to request a transfer based on his substandard performance and poor health. The victim is disliked by his fellow marines and superior officers, and his willingness to trade information on one of his soon-to-be killers disgusts the bullying Colonel who gives the order for the Code Red. This unintentionally ends in tragedy. Orders are justifiably a very serious matter in the military, but there is much controversy regarding unofficial rituals and methods carried out by fellow officers that range from “hazing” to outright persecution.

One small scene highlights the essence of herd instinct. After hearing witness testimony on Code Reds from a serving marine, the prosecution demonstrates to the court that this is not an official procedure. He requests that the marine show him where in the Marine Corps Outline for Recruit Training or any other official documentation issued to soldiers will he find information on Code Reds. The witness laughs and admits that there is none. “No further questions” the prosecution says smugly heading towards his seat, the manual in his hand. Without missing a beat the lead defence lawyer moves in for his questioning taking the manual off his opposition before the latter can return to his seat and asks the witness where in the book he will find the mess hall. The witness replies that the mess hall isn’t in the manual either. Following the logic implied by the prosecution, the defence makes the conclusion that the witness has never had a meal during his time at Guantanamo Bay. The witness replies that this isn’t correct; he gets “three squares a day”. When asked how he knows where the mess hall is when it is not in the book he answers, “I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir”.

However, sometimes the excuse cannot just be pinpointed on a great cause or seduction by primal instinct or even the charisma of a strong leader. All too often the “little man” does terrible things knowing that they are wrong and he does them when he puts his standing in a group ahead of his conscience. The fear of being excluded or ostracized by a group can have a very controlling effect on a person’s actions. This is a far harder subject for us to consider and even fewer films address it. There are two, however, that do a very convincing job.

“The Accused” is quite rightly critically acclaimed for tackling many difficult aspects of the issue of rape. Breaking with the stereotypical convention, even in the late 1980s, the lead character is not a virginal heroine who is pounced upon while she is minding her own business. She is a working class girl who decides to go out, get drunk and do what many people do when they want to get their own back on an ex-lover. In a horrific turn of events a flirtatious dance ends up with the girl being gang-raped in a bar in front of a crowd of jeering spectators.

The peer pressure is evidently displayed in the effect these onlookers have on the rapists. A student, Bob, feels compelled to join the rape presumably under the pressure of wanting to prove his masculinity to the older males, even though his fellow student, Kenneth, is disgusted and rings the police. The third rapist, a formidable looking thug called Kurt who holds the victim down throughout the previous two rapes, comes across as a slow witted man who aggressively throws off the student and then joins in to stave off the jeers he is receiving from the onlookers. Although already actively involved in the crime this character’s further actions are clearly influenced his peers.

Such action can be seen in the way a crime is committed by a group of people. Often we see them behaving in a frenzy, but as time goes on individuals feel the need to make their own personal contribution often trying to “better” the violence administered by the person prior to them. It is not unheard of for people not involved with the initial assault to be drawn into making a violent contribution[v].

Perhaps the film that most characterizes the effect of evil peer pressure is the Brian De Palmer directed “Casualties of War”, which was also based on a real incident. The film tells the story of a squad of American soldiers serving in Vietnam whose much-deserved leave time is cut short when they are re-deployed to a native village suspected of being sympathetic towards the Vietcong. The squad’s mentally unhinged sergeant, angered by losing his leave time and also vengeful because of the death of a comrade decides to order his squad to kidnap a village girl. The squad are then instructed to beat and rape the girl before eventually and clumsily murdering her – she is first stabbed and then gunned down on a railway track. The crime is then intended to be concealed by the cover of the war. However, this is not to be thanks to the conscience of Private Max Eriksson, the only man in the squad not to contribute to the rape. After he is almost murdered by one of the squad, an investigation is made and the murdering rapists are convicted.

The film largely focuses on the conflict between the sergeant and Eriksson, however, the relationship between Eriksson and another soldier, Private Antonio Diaz, which reveals the effects of peer pressure. Under normal circumstances Diaz would probably have never committed the indefensible crime of rape and murder. Diaz is reluctant to rape the girl and Eriksson knows this, trying hard to convince him not to join in the madness. However, in the end fear of the sergeant and the primal fear of going against the group force Diaz’s decision.

Diaz’s role is important as sadly he is very identifiable in most groups of people and therefore his fall is all the more uncomfortable to watch. He is the everyman: sociable, amiable, friendly, inoffensive and non-confrontational. Unlike various fallen anti-heroes we have seen in drama from Macbeth to Anakin Skywalker, Diaz was not gradually seduced by evil nor was there any valour salvageable from his crimes. He deserves our contempt, but deep down we know he is not a bad person. By comparison Penn’s sergeant may not be a straight-cut villain - the film opens with him saving Eriksson’s life and he clearly has some compassion for his fellow soldiers - but ultimately he and his main supporters are the agents of evil. They bully, they terrorize and they commit evil to satisfy their own warped sense of entitlement. Likewise, Michael J Fox’s Eriksson is not a formidable presence as the champion for good when the gang rape is being committed, but he certainly comes up to scratch before and after the murder. Diaz is Eriksson’s hope that there is some humanity left in the squad, a hope he sees dashed in front of his eyes. Diaz’s psychology behind the whole incident is summed by the response he gives to the prosecutor at his court martial.

“Prosecutor: You're saying, then you involved yourself in rape to avoid being ridiculed?
Antonio Diaz: When you go out on a patrol, sir you're not gonna be as good as you wanna be. These guys aren't helping you do anything. There's gonna be four people on that patrol, and an individual. And so I did what I did, and I got remorse about it. But I also got remorse about talking at this trial. I have a loyalty to the men I was out there with”

The loyalty Diaz speaks of is the need to be a part of a community. From our primate ancestry to the very origins of our civilisation we are social animals. We seem to operate best in small groups. The successful individualist who breaks from his caste may be aspired to and worshipped, but this has probably more to do with leader-worship than a desire to be alone. Chronic loneliness has been connected to life threatening conditions from mental disorders like clinical depression to cancer or even strokes. Some people, of course, are happy to be alone, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. The solitary are often persecuted and enforced solitude through ostracizing a person is a common form of punishment. And yet the hope many of these films offer comes from lone individuals like Eriksson in “Casualties of War”, Kenneth in “The Accused”, Markinson in “A Few Good Men” and Karo and Mona in “Die Welle”. Even the autistic hero of “Ben X” has his supporters. These characters are not leaders and not overtly strong people, but individuals nonetheless whose sense of morality or principles stopped them from conforming to something they could see was fundamentally wrong.


[i] “There is no record that Burke said this. The quotation became popular after John F. Kennedy began using it in speeches but after careful research by many persons, no source could be found. Bartlett's discontinued attributing the saying to Burke” – Zendam, “”
[ii] I use the term “Social Darwinism” not as any slight to the great Charles Darwin and his great Theory of Evolution, but in the negative sense opposed by the famous Darwin supporter, Richard Dawkins.
[iii] This experiment was allegedly conducted by Ron Jones to demonstrate the appeal of fascism to is sophomore history students. Apart from write-ups in three issues of the student newspaper, The Cubberley Catamount, the only other documentation of the experiment was an essay written by Jones.
[iv] This is the pen name of Morton Rhue. The novel, although essentially a novelisation of the 1981 TV movie “The Wave”, won the Massachusetts Book Award.
[v] Geoff Thompson often remarks in his seminars, his book “Watch My Back” and other works how the more lethal injuries in a fight come from those not previously involved.

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