The English-speaking world has Phillip Zimbardo, known for the infamous Stanford prison experiment. And us? We’ve got Rafal Betlejewski, a Polish performer and actor, who’s been responsible for several important social campaigns, like Burn the Shame (where various artists were invited to collectively set works they were ashamed of on fire), TV Shrine (in which a TV set was placed in the middle of Warsaw in a shrine), and I Miss You, Jew (a project protesting anti-Semitism). He’s interested in social communication, transformation, and social roles. Unlike Zimbardo, Rafal is an artist, but like Zimbardo he uses controversial means.
In a recent experiment he decided to find out how far would the people go to get a job. Unemployment in some regions of Poland is still pretty high, and Betlejewski wanted to see what kind of job offer could persuade a candidate to drop his or her moral rules. He conducted the experiment on TV, and for the last two weeks all I’ve seen in all the major media is Betlejewski—this bastard, this heartless motherfucker.
The recruiters were played by actors, but the candidates were real job-seekers—people in the city of Radom, where unemployment is at twenty percent, who were looking for literally any job. Among them we saw a former policeman, who—for four thousand euros—agreed to transport refugees from Croatia and Hungary to Poland and Germany under conditions that, for his cargo, would be downright inhuman. And the whole time he would have to wear a diaper in order not to stop during the trip—a bathroom break would be too risky.
Another candidate, an elderly man, agreed to become a housemaid, while also providing his employers with heroin from their supply. If the addicts were shaking too much to inject themselves, it would be the maid’s job to do the it for them (the actor who played the role of recruiter promised to teach him how to do this). He would also be trained to deal with the kind of life-threatening situations that can arise with heroin use, like suffocation or loss of consciousness.
A younger man, on the other hand, agreed not only to chauffeur his female employer, but also to entertain her from time to time—if you know what I mean. The woman even kissed him during the interview—he didn’t object.
An overweight woman agreed to do ten squats to show her commitment to slimming down, and also to give the president of the fictional company she thought she’d be working for a neck massage.
The Polish media went nuts over the experiment. They called the show unethical and abusive to the participants. Well… let’s try to take a look at the story from another angle.
I feel very sorry for people whose situation is so tough that they’ll agree to work anywhere and for any money. Still, one has to ask whether poverty is an excuse to deal with illegal drugs, or to sell your body, or to abuse refugees. If we put the candidate’s desperation on one side of the scales, and the horrific nature of the job on the other, can the former really outweigh the latter?
The jobs that people were offered were well-paid, and to me it seems like the money was the key—greed caused the candidates to suspend their usual moral standards. I don’t think it was only about the poverty—there are other ways to fill in a hole in your budget—but the amount of money was enough that people agreed to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Can you imagine yourself injecting someone with heroin? I can’t. But an elderly man decided he would. So who’s the real motherfucker, Betlejewski or the candidate?
What about the host, though? Betlejewski has apologized, and he seemed sincere, but is that enough? The project was interesting, but the media coverage he got was enormous, and I get the feeling that the goal wasn’t solely to show us who we are—fame was just as important. And now Betlejewski is famous.
The show will appear on TV soon, despite all the objections and criticism. I suspect that the participants must have been offered a lot of money for them to agree that their recordings could be used. And the producer must be rubbing his hands together at the prospect of the huge hit he’s got on his hands. Meanwhile, given the likely success of the show, Betlejewski will probably move on to another experiment, maybe even more unethical, in which case we’ll witness the death of a socially engaged performer as he’s transformed into a relentless media predator. Even the small TV station that airs the show will triumph over its much larger competitors. Everyone will get paid, and everyone will forget the question I asked at the beginning of this post—how far would you go?
“Love—no, no, sorry—money conquers all!” says one of the characters in One God. This is the sad truth I came to as I read about Betlejewski and his experiment. It was a striking confirmation of the conclusion I reached in my novel: everyone has a price. You and me, too. Don’t ever forget it—Betlejewski might be right around the next corner.