Friday, October 31, 2014

The Politics of Criminal Minds

A criminal mind is all I've ever known
They tried to reform me but I'm made of cold stone
A criminal mind, is all I've ever had
Ask one who's known me if I'm really so bad
I am
-"A Criminal Mind" Gowan

Criminal Minds is one of a series of American cops and robbers shows that have been on the air for a long time. I don't know exactly how long the series has run but it must be a decade. If you haven't seen it ... don't worry. There are a slew of others of various levels of quality striving for a niche market in the 1000 channel-narrow cast universe. Some try to hit a comic note (Bones); others play up different angels but they are all -- in one way or another -- basically the same. Criminal Minds, however, is perhaps the most political of all these shows, made more political by the fact that the show seems to overtly deny politics. Unlike, say, Law and Order, politics -- the merits of capital punishment, say -- are never discussed. I want to argue that the non-political politics that pervades the show speaks clearly and directly to a specific frame of mind and to specific political positions and views as they relate to crime. How so? There are several important points to make but I'll begin by first describing the show. 

I'm going to gamble that a great deal of introduction is not needed. If you want, you can google the show and read over a quick blurb on wikipedia or some other similar source, if you are interested (or, I suppose, distrust my nutshell description). Criminal Minds is an episodic crime drama. Other than the occasional "to be continued" cliffhanger, the show  follows a team of FBI profilers as they track down -- and almost always catch -- a variety of serial killers. The cast has changed a bit over the years but not a great deal. Each of the key characters has been given, over the years, a backstory, but one that is not  too extensive. We know that one character was abused as a kid, one's parents were killed, another is divorced, etc. Extensive descriptions of their youth, however, are, like most of these dramas, lacking. As the years pile up, we know more as the writers need to produce more stories but the focus is not really on the characters past and development. This holds true, interestingly and importantly, for both the main cast of "good guys" and the "bad guys" that are caught each episode. Instead, the focus is on the here and how. Each character is a different, allowing for a wider audience identification (one assumes). There is the awkward young genius, the gifted technie, the tough hero, the caring mother-type, the experienced veteran, etc. Each character -- again interestingly and importantly -- is individualized and there is a serious effort  to make them into "real people" with whom we -- the audience -- can identify. They have various foibles, to be sure, but also there are no tragic heroes in the lot. Each show begins and ends with some quote from some important novelist, thinker, or scientist that is supposed to frame the story of that episode read in voice over by one of the characters. Each episode also follows more or less the same format. A crime has been committed. The crime involves a serial killer or mass murder (or, some other type of horrific crime like kidnapping). The local police force ask for the assistance of the FBI and the team (usually) flies somewhere to solve the crime and catch the bad guy. (There is, as well, usually some effort to run an individualized sub-plot through each episode relating to one of the characters and their personal lives or demons). 

Watching TV can be good fun. If you don't believe there is a politics to TV -- that it is all just good fun -- then what I have to say will likely not make a great deal of sense to you, but I do want to acknowledge that watching TV is, for me at least, fun. It is other things as well. I watch the news to try to stay informed, follow the odd documentary on a subject of interest, to admire the artistry of an particular film-maker's work. But, by-and-large, I watch TV to relax or enjoy some time with my family. I'm a particular fan of Dr. Who; my wife and I watch Castle, and my daughter and son and I watch the Raptors or the Jays. In this, I don't think I am particularly unusual. 

I also think, however, that we need to recognize that the images and stories that surround us in various media are not politically neutral. Sometimes the politics is overt; other times it more by implication or because the screenwriters are using material that they think will appeal to an audience or network. Sometimes the two can be combined. A good example from US TV is the classic American comedies like MASH or Mary Tyler Moore or All In the Family. These were all shows that explored important issues (war, feminism, racism, in that order), but I'd also contend that they did so in a subtle way that forced audiences to think. Archie Bunker was a racist, to be sure, but audiences had to confront the fact that he was not an altogether bad person. He could respond to people on an individual level and he harboured his own demons. MASH explored the absurdity of war without providing audiences with easy pat answers with regard to international relations. 

Other shows pick up politics more by implication: what they present as important, common sensical, or the nature of the world. A good example, might be another American comedy: Roseanne. No one doubts that Roseanne Barr had strong views on a range of subjects and the show did -- perhaps more than I remember -- provide a soapbox for her to air her views. But, what was interesting about the show was the way its politics worked by other means. The show was about the effects of tough economic times on a family and how the family both survived these and was challenged by them (or, at least it was until the last episode when the focus was changed dramatically). In other words, the show was about coping with a bad economy (unemployment, for instance) while trying to raise a family in which the children maintained their modern consumeristic demands. 

I could go on but you get my point, I hope: politics can emerge from a show without the show being overtly political. What about Criminal Minds? I want to argue that it has a very dark politics indeed that feeds into an tough law-and-order political agenda but in ways that might not be immediately evident. It does so without showing Republican campaign adverts, something I think might make its politics all the more powerful. In this regard, we can note several recurring themes and I'll specify these below and then conclude with a further thought on the politics of popular culture. 

The law-and-order right wing agenda shows up in Criminal Minds in important ways. The first and most evident of which is the character and nature of the criminal activity. Criminals have "criminal minds". These minds are fashioned in different ways -- sometimes trauma, sometimes genetics, etc. -- but that is not the important point. Criminals -- particularly the very bad criminals with which this show deals -- just are. They are like a bad re-run of the old Gowan song called, interestingly, "A Criminal Mind":

Before you hand me over
Before you read my sentence
I’d like to say a few words
Here in my own defense
Some people struggle daily
They struggle with their conscience
'Til the end
I have no guilt to haunt me
I feel no wrong intent

The point is this: criminals are not like you and me. They are a different breed, as it were, lacking a moral conscience, impossible to reform, and dangerous.

This criminality becomes who the bad guys are. The exact reason why they are how they are (more on this below) is irrelevant to the plot. Bad people do bad things and they keep doing it until stopped by the forces of justice. Like Gowan's song, they will not stop because they "feel no wrong intent." Indeed, they take pleasure from their crime. In the context of the show, this is usually a very bad, nay horrific crime: rape, dismemberment, torture, and the like, often graphically described and shown. One of the recurring lines in the show (said by different characters) is "and they will not stop." The first recurring theme of the show that strikes me as having important political dimensions, then, is the nature of criminality. It just is and it cannot be reformed or stopped except by police forces. 

The second point I'll raise follows from the first. Criminals are very very dangerous. They are a clear and present threat to ordinary people who are just going about their ordinary lives. Ordinary people are kidnapped by these criminal monsters, raped, killed, tortured, taken unawares. And, another point made frequently on the show (at least in the episodes I've watched) is that there are a lot of them. The world, in other words, is a dangerous place. You can be happily jogging one minute and because you happen to look like a person a psychopath might want to kill ... you're captured and killed. Or, some variant of this theme: shopping can result in the kidnapping of your child, going to work can lead to your death, sitting in your house can see your entire family slaughtered. If someone did not mention that there were far more criminal minds out there than we generally realize, the sheer weight of the show would lead in that direction as in episode after episode bad things happen. That is the nature of an episodic drama but the effect is what interests me. After years of being on the air, the slew of bad guys builds up to where danger seems omnipresent. 

Third, the heroes of the show are heroes. They arrive on the scene after crimes have been committed but they usually save at least one person -- and sometimes many -- who have been caught  by the bad guys. The good guys have their struggles, but usually as a subplot. The key, however, is that they overcome their struggles to "do good." The police are heroes, both the FBI agents who are the focus of Criminal Minds but also -- usually -- local police forces who call in FBI help. The key characters around which the show focuses, however, are all good. They keep doing their jobs and saving people and bringing criminals to just to ... as often happens ... killing them in the line of duty. 

These good guys feel no remorse for having killed a bad guy and ... why would they? After all, they did not kill you or me (no one is every serious caught, for instance, in the crossfire). They killed only a monster who, if left to roam free, would continue to kill or main ordinary people (like you and me). The metaphor of family is often used to refer to the main characters as a group. They care for each other, help each other, love each other. They are just good people: the reflecting mirror of the criminals. This says something about family (it is good) and about the police. They have a tough job that affects their personal lives but they keep doing this job, bonding with their coworkers becoming a surrogate family united in duty and love. And, the characters -- the good guys -- are likeable. They are good fathers, caring sons, loving mothers, close friends. 

The final thing I'll note is that alternatives are not never explored. This might not be the job of an episodic police drama, someone might now say, but we are dealing with a very long-running show (and others that have been on the air about the same length of time). No one ever pauses to wonder if more social equality will help alleviate crime, if there are not social patterns that make some types of crime more prevalent than others at different moments in history or among different subcultures. In other words, no one ever stops to ask if there is another way to combat crime other than through well armed police forces. Hence, alternatives to well-armed police forces (or, more exactly, complementary policies) are never presented. The choice is police or victimhood. 

What is also important about this show is precisely that it never raises an overtly political agenda. Instead, its characters seem not in the least interested in politics one way or  the other. They don't support the NRA any more than they wonder whether or not effective social programmes might help address criminality. But, this makes the message all the more powerful. We can, after all, dismiss neo-con ramblings about law and order because -- for those of us who teach about such things and read the reports -- we know that they are inaccurate (in Canada, we know, for instance, that the federal government has engaged in a massive prison building programme at the same time that the crime rate is going down). But, this show is not a neo-con show. The hero lead characters are people we like (and, of course, are meant to like). They have no political axe to grind. 

What effect do shows like Criminal Minds have? I honestly don't know for sure and can only speculate. I don't think they serve simply as some sort of tool of hegemony convincing people of things they might otherwise not believe. But, there is some evidence, that they do have effects and this effect I would say is twofold, one of which might be ironic. First, they do naturalize certain ideas. And, in this regard, I'd argue that one of the objectives of the political analysis of popular culture is to expose the ideas that are naturalized (or, conversely challenged) by TV shows, movies, novels, songs, etc. I don't think that the people who write criminal minds are involved in some conspiracy, but I also think that shows like Criminal Minds can tell us things about certain forms of politics that we otherwise might miss. We might ask, for instance, with regard to both Canada and the US, why do people believe things that are not true. Now, I am not talking about all people here. I'm talking about specific publics and I'm not trying to "shoot down" these people. Why, for instance, do some people believe that world is a  dangerous place? What contributes to that sense of danger? What contributes to that sense of danger? 

Popular culture is not philosophy but it can show us an approach to a social problem that is not discussed in philosophy, ethics, sociology, etc., because most of the people who write for those disciplines do their homework. No serious criminologist, for example, argues that crime is increasing in Canada. Moreover, serious criminologists develop explanations for criminal behaviour. You don't need to be a "bleeding heart liberal" to be interested in this question. Indeed, one need not have much sympathy with criminals at all to ask if there is a good way of making society safer through social policy and, if there is, why not do that? No serious academic would argue for a view of criminality that we see on Criminal Minds. So, having a show like Criminal Minds helps us out because it allows us to see why some people believe in that we are in danger all the time and only random chance (I happen to not look like the type of person a serial killer wants to kill) or heroes save us. Knowing this helps us to understand the popularity of law and order politics. 

The second implication is ironic and potentially more grave. It does not fit well with the law and order agenda. There is some evidence (I was reading a study on this, this week) that long-term exposure to violence on TV desensitizes people to that violence. I know, we have known this for some time. The study I read this week focused on parents. Parents who see a lot of violence on TV will expose their children to television violence and have milder views about it. Said differently, if Criminal Minds feeds into a law and order agenda it might be having an odd counter effect as well: it might be making violence more natural. The irony here is that it could be creating tolerance for the very forms of criminal behaviour that the law-and-order agenda claims to oppose. This point is, however, speculative.  Feel free to comment on it. 

To sum up, Criminal Minds has a disconcerting politics to it. That politics is not neutral and, I'd argue, it is not just fun TV watching.  There is something more going on and, to judge from the run the show has had, it has an audience. Personally, I think these views are more common in the US than in Canada but as we have seen at least some Canadians share law and order views with their American neighbours. What makes this politics disconcerting to me is a number of things (I find the violence of the show a bit too much for my taste), but I'd point to its simplistic view of crime, the dangers of the world and answer: trust law enforcement. As we have recently seen, there are other Americans who don't share this trust and these views but that does not lesson the politics of Criminal Minds. 
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