The Push on Netflix is a deeply disturbing replication of the Milgram Experiment. The question it asks is whether someone can quickly be convinced to commit a murder? Spoiler alert: yes. British mentalist Derren Brown and a cast of confederates create an evil version of the Truman Show. By taking an individual from one seemingly minor moral deviation–labeling meat canapes as vegetarian–to another, to another, Brown puts people in a situation where by the end of one hour they are so emotionally disoriented and stressed that they will try to commit a murder to relieve their tension.
If you had asked me yesterday whether I thought it would be ok to run the Milgram experiment again, I would have said yes, as science. Today, I am not sure. What Brown does to these people for our entertainment (?) is disgusting. I feel complicit in having watched. Yes, I know, I am writing about it. I’m not sure what to make of that either.
As far as I can tell, the experiment is real. I’d be happier if it were fake but the results are consistent with previous Milgram replications. But if it is real did we then watch attempted murder? I am reminded of Leo Katz’s, Bad Acts and Guilty Minds. If a man fires a gun aiming to kill but the gun is defective is it attempted murder? Surely, yes. If thinking it a deadly poison a man adulterates a drink with sugar is it attempted murder? What if a sincere believer in voodoo tries to kill by sticking pins in a doll?
Aside from the legal issues, what Brown does to the participants is awful. How will they live the rest of their lives? Jordan Peterson says that you cannot be a good person until you know how much evil you contain within you. Well the people Brown experiments on know the evil that they contain but will they become better people? Or will they break? Brown doesn’t seem to care.
In some sense, the subjects have consented. Months earlier they applied to be on a show but they were told that they had been rejected. Perhaps you think the participants figured it out. You will have to judge for yourself but it all happens so quickly that I don’t think that is plausible. Moreover, if you figured it out wouldn’t you want to be the hero rather than the prison guard directing the Jews to the ovens?
Does The Push have any socially redeeming value? I hope so. Phillip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment was so upset by his research that he started the Heroic Imagination Project, (I wrote about it here). The Heroic Imagination Project attempts to turn the issue around by asking what helps people to resist authority? And how can we train people under stress to draw on their heroic reserves? Netflix has shown us that the Heroic Imagination Project is sorely needed. Maybe next time Netflix can devote some of their considerable resources to helping us resist the push.