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The role for vigilantes: A little duct tape and plastic sheeting and all’s right with the world

Posted Mar 01 2010 11:08pm
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by John Rutledge & Pamela  Rutledge

A version of this  article was published on PsychologyToday.com in the blog “Positively Media.”

Dexter is a Showtime series about a serial killer with a code. He only kills the bad guys who deserve it. We love Dexter precisely because he finds bad guys and kills them before they can hurt us. In a world plagued by terrorism, lost jobs, shrinking retirement accounts, political scapegoating, outsourcing, and freeway shootings, it’s nice to have a guy around with strict code of honor who doesn’t mind getting his hands a little dirty to restore order. There are many television programs on this theme that identify and defeat bad guys using a spectrum of innovatively-employed physical and mental talents: Leverage, Human Target, White Collar, the Mentalist, not to mention the uber-avenger Steven Seagal, whose movies frequent Spike TV.

Humans are order-seeking creatures. Our brains work hard to make things fit into the patterns we know; the patterns that we can predict and that make us feel comfortable. The ability to predict is what defines our intelligence, according to Jeff Hawkins ( see his 2007 TED conference talk ). Making sense of patterns by matching incoming information to the things we already have in storage is how we know what’s going on, and tells us how safe we are. If what we see or hear doesn’t fit with how things are supposed to be, we get scared. When we get scared, we seek order more than ever. We will do almost anything to get it.

Hindering this drive toward cognitive consonance is the fact that humans are hard-wired to notice things that are dangerous.  Out in the wilds, noticing the lion was much more important for our survival than the noticing the tree.  Right down to our eyeballs, we are made to detect movement.  If things are stationary, they can’t hurt us.  If things change abruptly (or run and jump), we have to watch out.  And we do.  All the time.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the mass media, marketers, or politicians.  Fear messaging gets our attention.  We’ve been on orange alert ever since 9/11.  In the absence of real emergencies, there is no shortage of topics to escalate to a fever pitch and blame when necessary: crime, drugs, outsourcing, video games, television, illegal immigrants, China, Iran, North Korea, Internet, corporate conglomerates, and Wall Street.

The trouble is, that leaves us in a permanent state of craving for someone to blame and someone like Dexter who promises to restore order by making them pay.

Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel repeatedly shocked sea slug neurons and learned that nerve cells never fully recover from repeated assault.  As a society, we are suffering from a kind of post-traumatic generalized anxiety disorder, a by-product of a decade of rapid change, economic difficulties, and relentless fear tactics.  We are all convinced that there is danger at every turn.

Dexter may be addicted to killing, but we have our own addiction for order.  We’re in a permanent state of fear arousal about the state of the world, vibrating away like Kandel’s sea slug.  We want order and we want it badly.  So badly, in fact, that we are willing to be a morally flexible and embrace Dexter’s methods of achieving it.  In real life, moral flexibility is a slippery slope.  History is replete with examples right here in the US of abusing people’s rights under the guise of restoring a sense of order in society.  Dexter is just a TV show, a fictional narrative, albeit at the more violent end of the vigilante continuum.  We might,  however, want to take note of the overall themes of popular programming.  They are a good barometer of our social anxiety and vulnerabilities.   It is not a big leap to get from Dexter’s code to things like McCarthyism or Guantanamo, all in the name of good.

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