The Bad Apple Hypothesis

Crime and Vigilantism in the Media

I recently watched episode 10, season 5 of Showtime’s Dexter, a popular show about Dexter, a bland crime lab analyst played by Michael C. Hall. We are along for the ride as Dexter solves murders, raises his infant son, and - here’s the catch - murders people the law cannot indict. The premise is that Dexter is a born serial killer who cannot help but kill, but he can decide who to kill. He might be a serial killer, but he’s our serial killer, and this makes it okay.

His victims on the other hand, are two dimensional. In the series’s naive interpretation of crime, to be truly deserving of punishment you must wear the trappings of the criminal. The guilty are inhuman sadists– they relish a crime committed, hate the police, and seem to be unable to speak in a normal tone of voice. Though they might speak like one of us for appearances’ sake, in their natural state they awkwardly rasp stories of sexual exploits and vague threats (usually at one another), hunch their shoulders, hang out in dark places, and wear hoodies or hats to obscure their features.

These portrayals lead to a mode of thought which has exacerbated the United States’ prison problem.

Criminals Are Alien

They talk differently, they think differently, they have different priorities, and as a result nobody you know or love could ever be one. This makes it easy to demonize the criminal, and relieves the bystander of some of her moral angst and social responsibility for the criminal’s actions. They were not part of our society anyway, so all we need to do is defend ourselves from them: Make sure that when they appear, one of us has a gun.

We demonize our enemies so we don’t have to understand them. It is easier not to see a little of yourself in the criminal. If we ever want lasting, humane solutions to crime prevention, we need to embrace that extrospection and sympathize with the villain.

Criminals Are Bad Apples.

The media sometimes paints convincing portraits of these people. For example the Columbine killers: Loners, anti-social, hate-filled, picked-on-too-much-by-bullies. This narrative makes sense, but it’s wrong. Some people certainly are the callous psychopaths we’ve all been taught to be afraid of, but given the current state of incarceration in U.S. with 3.1% of adults under some sort of correctional supervision, and the likely prevalence of psychopathy of no more than 0.6%, the majority of those locked up are probably more or less normal people like you and me.

I think the high crime rate is partly a consequence of the stories we tell ourselves. Criminals are not like us. In fact they are much, much worse, and they will not change. There is nothing be done with a bad apple except throw it out: Toss that theif in prison and throw away the key. Of course, there is an active debate whether whether purpose of incarceration in America is rehabilitation or punishment, but financial incentives for prison contractors (a $200 billion industry), the political power of said contractors and their employees’ unions, and the popularity of hard-on-crime politics 6 have pushed U.S. prison practice firmly away from rehabilitation and into punishment. Prisons do punish: Between over crowding, the incidence of rape and sex trafficking, and the callousness of wardens and guards for hire, it’s a wonder that anyone emerges from prison sane. For the full story, see Raise the Crime Rate over at n+1.

Why is this excusable? Because as a public we are enamoured of this bad apple hypothesis - the idea of the worthless man, deserving of infinite violence. Dexter is once again a good example. There is no chance that he could reform– his only path is to embrace who he is and use it for his idea of some ethical good, so what are we to do with someone like him but without his strong ethical code? Fear sells, and so the story of the psychopath, of the ‘hardened criminal’ with no regard for the rule of law and no sympathy for the weak dominates our discourse on criminality. We are afraid of being robbed, mugged or raped. We are afraid, so we idolize the officers of the peace.

Cops Are Paragons.

The police are the subject of countless dramas on modern television- Law and Order and it’s CSI offspring, The Mentalist, Monk, Sherlock Holmes, even The Dark Knight and of course Dexter. All these media focus on the righteous exploits of the police and their allies, and they all encourage the ostracization of the criminal. With the notable exception of The Wire, the media is afraid to explore the other side of line, except to indulge in gratuitous, Quentin-Tarantino-style blood letting. With such glowing portrayals of the negotiators across the table, is it any wonder that so many people take a plea bargain?

Dexter is especially interesting because the character is literally a serial killer. His moral authority does not extend from a higher calling to serve the greater good like a typical hero (more on that later). We are to beleive that Dexter can legitimately determine guilt and innocence. How has he gained such power? Why, through the same crime scene magic popularized in CSI. The moral of the story is it is okay to murder as long as you are a cop, and you have good reason to think poorly of your victim.

This brings us to The Dark Knight Rises (If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and care about such things, you should skip the next paragraph as I’m going to talk about the plot). New York City Gotham is taken over by a terrorist with a nuclear bomb who (yawn) is bent on destroying the city. In a probably unintentional echo of the American’s invasion of Iraq, the terrorists disband the Gotham police force, and kill anyone wearing a police uniform– immediately alienating the only armed, trained group in the city. Tactical decisions aside, this casts the police into a very strange role– suddenly they are leading an insurgency against a totalitarian state rather than their usual role as the fist of oppression. Then there is a climactic scene, where a mob of police in uniform storm the seat of government, charging foolishly into blazing machine guns.

It’s All Black and White

It isn’t surprising to see naive idolization of the police and demonization of the criminal in our media, but it is dangerous. It creates a context which reinforces the power of authority and the weakness of the weak. These portrayals may be trite and two dimensional, but the stories we tell influence how we perceive ourselves. When it comes to law and order, we could do with better stories which explore the motivations of the criminal. Crime is bad, but it’s time we stopped treating people as any less than people because of it.