“Dexter” is the first TV show to have a serial killer as the main character. Its creation has revitalized the debate about possible negative influence of popular culture, raiing a central question: will the fictional Dexter inspire someone to become a real-life murderer?
The show had recently ended its 8 year run, finishing at 7 seasons and 92 episodes. This gives us a chance to look at its entirety, and try to objectively measure its impact on society.
Negative influence of popular culture has been most recently debated in 2012, after the theater shooting in Colorado, USA. On the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises, the last installment of the Batman trilogy, 24 year old James Holmes opened fire on unsuspecting viewers, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. He was armed with a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and gas grenades. Why did Holmes pick this particular film?
He was said to be fascinated with Batman’s eternal adversary – the Joker, a sophisticated master of evil.
However, the Colorado tragedy wasn’t a case of pure, lunatic fanaticism, despite being branded as such by certain media outlets – according to which Thomson shouted “I’m the Joker” while being apprehended by the police, implying that he closely identified with the character. The media tried to establish a link between both, focusing on Thomson dyeing his hair orange just a few day before the massacre – despite Joker’s hair always being green.
Joker’s character was further stigmatized by the fact that Heath Ledger – the actor who played the part in the previous Batman movie – died from a drug overdose shortly after finishing filming. The media tried to insinuate that there was more to his death, and suggested that it was a suicide – a result of the actor’s personality disorder, which he developed after closely impersonating the Joker. Ledger was posthumously awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Does popular culture really lower moral standards and incite violence, which can end in murder? To answer these accusations we need to look at the big picture, and ask the fundamental question:
What are the factors which influence the shaping of human character and behavior?
This is a question which dates back to Aristotle, who formed the concept of tabula rasa (lat. A blank slate). For Aristotle, a newborn person was a blank page, whose attributes – character, intelligence, behavior – are “written” entirely by the environment – culture, people, nurture. The idea appealed to later thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and even Sigmund Freud. Aristotle’s conception influenced human thought and laid foundation for behaviorism, which dominated psychology in the late 20th century. The founder of behaviorism, John B. Watson, uttered a memorable quote which presents his theory in a nutshell:
“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
This approach reaped bloody harvest during the 20th century, when various totalitarian regimes tried to shape the character of their citizens by controlling the population through extensive state propaganda. The origins of modern debate about human behavior can be dated to mid-XIX century and the research of Francis Galton – a distant cousin of Charles Darwin, and a precursor of studies on the heritability of intelligence. Galton’s work began the scholarly discussion about nature and nurture, which attempts to answer the question: is the development of human behavior primarily influenced by the individual’s genetic code (nature), or by the individual’s personal experiences and social factors (nurture).
However, up to the 1970’s scientific inquiry was largely focused on the environmental aspect and influence of nurture – innate differences were seen as contradictory to the principle that all people are equal. The impact of eugenics (also invented by Francis Galton) on the 20th century was still fresh in memory – racial segregation, compulsory sterilization and extermination of the “inferior”, which reached its horrific peak in the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Eugenics focused entirely on genetic determinism, and was the antithesis of the tabula rasa. It wasn’t until the development of behavioral genetics – a field of study which analyzes the influence of genetics on behavior – that the debate shifted towards a more balanced approach, acknowledging that both genetic and environmental factors shape the development of human.
Nevertheless, the question remains – which of the two factors forms a bigger influence, and what is the balance between them? Since both are impossible to separate, what is the best way to conduct research?
A perfect situation would involve two (or more) test subjects, of the same species and with identical genetic code – clones – being put into strictly controlled environment (such as a laboratory) just after birth. Human cloning, though, is considered highly unethical and remains forbidden. Luckily for science, identical twins share the same genetic code, and are natural clones – rendering them perfect for such study. Still, to fulfill its requirements, the twins would have to be separated from the rest of society and kept in isolated environment for observation – and be effectively imprisoned, which is also illegal and highly immoral. Therefore, behavioral genetics focuses on identical twins who have been separated at birth and raised by two different families, each forming a different environment and providing different influence.
Through analysis of many different features of human personality in their research, behavioral geneticists have generally agreed on the conclusion that heredity accounts for about 50% of the differences between analyzed subjects, while the other 50% is formed by environmental factors, which consist of everything that isn’t influenced by genes.
Is television a large factor which significantly shapes our environment?
According to A.C. Nielsen Co an average American spends 5 hours a day watching television, and during their lifespan will spend a total of 9 years in front of the small screen. People have been devoting increasingly more time to television since its inception, and its content also became increasingly more graphic and violent. Critics of television argue that watching violence provokes violent behavior, which can end in murder. Is the increase of time spent on watching brutal content on television reflected by a corresponding increase of real-life murder rates?
Let us look at the chart below:
There is no constant, linear growth of murder rate in the United States. There is a sharp increase from the 1960’s (5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants) to the 1970’s, when murder rate doubled in 1974 (10 murders/100K). However, throughout the 80’s murder rate has oscillated between 8 and 10, and since 1995 has been falling sharply to the levels from the 1960’s. Therefore, the argument that watching television is responsible for the increase of real-life murder is refuted.
Nonetheless, the chart shows a sharp increase of murders committed during the 1960’s. How can we explain it? One explanation focuses on the time period – the 1960’s was a time of rebellion, blossoming counterculture, sexual revolution and drugs. However, a more probable explanation is the change in criminal law of the United States introduced during that time.
David L. Bazelon, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, said in 1960:
“We desperately need all the help we can get from modern behavioral scientists”.
Along with the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Attorney General of the United States, Bazelon introduced a series of policy changes to the system.
How did they affect social justice?
Criminals were seen as the effect of societal negligence, and all the blame for what they done was put on their environment. Punishment was considered to be a barbaric and primitive instinct and a vengeful and socially stigmatizing process, which only succeeded in provoking more. The only way to solve the problem of crime was through resocialization and psychotherapy, which was aimed at making the individual aware that the best course of action is one which doesn’t harm anyone else. This vision of justice has grown to dominate the system, and rights of the accused and convicted felons have been greatly broadened – with such expansions as the introduction of insanity defense. This resulted in fewer convictions and shorter sentences, but also in great increase of crime rate.
“Crime rates skyrocketed. Murder rates suddenly shot up until the murder rate in 1974 was more than twice as high as in 1961.98 Between 1960 and 1976, a citizen’s chances of becoming a victim of a major violent crime tripled.99 The number of policemen murdered also tripled during the decade of the 1960s.100 Young criminals, who had been especially favored by the new solicitude, became especially violent. The arrest rate of juveniles for murder more than tripled between 1965 and 1990, even allowing for changes in population size.”
Let us go back to Dexter, the central figure of this article. Has he found his own imitators? Of course – and he was not the first role model, either.
“In Israel, a seven year old boy who broke his spine was reported to have shouted – “Look how Superman flies!” – before jumping out of the window. In Norway, a 5-year old girl was severely harassed by her friends following the viewing of a particular television series. In the USA, the viewing of the Oliver Stone’s movie Natural Born Killers (portraying a series of murders) was blamed for a 15 year old youth’s murder of his parents. In Thailand, a 9 year old boy hung himself in imitation of a scene from a popular series that had depicted a killing by the hanging of a victim.”
Dexter’s first copycat was a 29 year old Canadian, Mark Twitchell. An amateur filmmaker, Twitchell wrote a screenplay loosely based on the show’s plot, and began performing it in his own life. He created a fake online dating profile, and – pretending to be a woman – lured a 38 year old man into a rented garage. He followed Dexter’s modus operandi by putting the victim’s body on a makeshift autopsy table, wrapping it in foil, and dismembering it. Unlike Dexter, Twitchell did not have easy access to the ocean, and dumped the remains into the sewers; he was caught because he left a multitude of DNA evidence in the garage and in the trunk of his car, and meticulously wrote down all the details of the murder on his laptop. Interestingly, Twitchell was also a huge fan of Star Wars – his car’s license plate was DRK JEDI, which suggests that he had firmly embraced the dark side even before watching Dexter. On his Facebook page Twitchell boasted that he and Dexter have a lot in common; he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Similarly to Dexter, Twitchell tried to rationalize his murders – he saw his victims as adulterers, who used the dating service to cheat on their wives with impunity. To show one of the many problems with his reasoning, it’s enough to point out that his victim was a bachelor.
While “Dexter” broke the mold by having a serial killer as the main protagonist, it did so very carefully. Dexter is a serial killer, but also a very charming person; he kills people, but adheres strictly to his own rules. He murders only those whom he sees as deserving the ultimate punishment: horrible and evil criminals who have slipped through the cracks in justice system, soothing our social consciousness with certainty that each crime is met with a deserved penalty.
How did Dexter acquire his thirst for blood? His behavior can be seen as an example of the tabula rasa: As a child, Dexter witnessed the brutal murder of his mother – a drug dealer killed and dismembered her with a chainsaw. Young Dexter was locked in a cargo container together with his brother, and the two were forced to stay there with their mother’s bloody remains for several days. Therefore Dexter’s fascination with murder and blood can be explained by the horrible events from his youth.
Murder rate in the USA did not increase during the show’s run from 2006 to 2013, though; in fact it decreased by 10 percent.
“Societies which never had access to television still exist – if television is truly a harmful influence, its introduction to society which never knew the medium should be accompanied by a raise of crime rate and overall violence. An example of such society is the remote island of Saint Helena – the very one where Napoleon Bonaparte spent his final days. Television was introduced to Saint Helena only in 1995, but once again the assumption didn’t prove true: Saint Helenians did not become more violent.” ”Broadcast Television Effects in a Remote Community” Tony Charlton, Barrie Gunter, Andrew Hannan, 2002
However, if popular culture – sometimes called low culture – has a negative, dehumanizing influence on society and the individual, then high culture – classical music, theater etc. – should act as a counterweight, making people more humane and civilized, inspiring them to be moral and socially conscious. Legitimacy of this argument was addressed by the distinguished polymath and literary critic, George Steiner, who famously said:
“We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”
does one behaviorist say to another after sex?
That was great for you. How was it for me?
“The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” Steven Pinker, 2002
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading experts on language and the mind, explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of human nature based on science and common sense.
“The Vision of the Anointed” Thomas Sowell, 2008
Sowell presents a devastating critique of the mind-set behind the failed social policies of the past thirty years. Sowell sees what has happened during that time not as a series of isolated mistakes but as a logical consequence of a tainted vision whose defects have led to crises in education, crime, and family dynamics, and to other social pathologies. In this book, he describes how elites—the anointed—have replaced facts and rational thinking with rhetorical assertions, thereby altering the course of our social policy.
“Broadcast Television Effects in a Remote Community” Tony Charlton, Barrie Gunter, Andrew Hannan, 2002
This book reports findings from a major, multidisciplinary study of the impact of broadcast television on the remote island community of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. Broadcast television was introduced to the island for the first time in March 1995. This introduction represented a major event on the island, whose only televisual experience had been through video.
In the years leading up to the introduction of TV, the researchers who wrote this book collected data by observing the island’s young children in classroom settings, and during free-play. In addition to these observations they asked the children’s teachers to rate their students’ behavior, and invited the children to explain to them what leisure time activities they engaged in. With the data they were able to amass on these key variables they have assembled and coded the results into baseline measures central to the study. Once TV had arrived, they collected data annually on the key dependent measures to determine if the introduction of broadcast TV had any discernible influence on the behavior of the children.
“The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room” Steve Lillebuen, 2013
“A well-written and researched exploration of a very dark side of a young would-be filmmaker who is perhaps a tad over-influenced in his life and actions by the fictional TV character, serial killer Dexter Morgan. The horrific crimes and the trial of Edmontonian Mark Twitchell is deftly presented by Steve Lillebuen in a book that is a well-paced, hard-to-put-down, real-life thriller.”