Ambiguity. If you are an average American, you are likely to be more comfortable with ambiguity than most people around the world. Professor Geert Hofstede conducted a study examining the ways that culture influences values. He found four dimensions of culture, one of which is uncertainty avoidance and is defined as “the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.” 1 The U.S. received a score of 46 on that dimension (which is relatively low) indicating that Americans are “uncertainty accepting” and that there is more openness toward “new ideas, innovative products and a willingness to try something new or different.” It also indicates Americans are more free in expressing ideas and opinions and are “less emotionally expressive.” 2 By way of comparison the Japanese have a score of 92 and are one of the most “uncertainty avoiding countries on the earth.” 3
However, one area Americans don’t like too much ambiguity is in their entertainment. Consider the last episode of Dexter. I’ll admit, I haven’t watched it but from what I’ve heard it wasn’t a great ending and, from my quick look on the Internet, it appeared to result in a number of unhappy fans. One website even reported: “‘So did Dexter fans, who, witnessing this Showtime drama end in a heap, were subjected to the lamest series finale since Seinfeld.'” 4 While I did watch some episodes of the show, mostly those leading up to the finale, I never was able to identify with the show. The idea of trying to sympathize with a serial killer, no matter how “redemptive” his killing was meant to be, just never did sit right with me. So for me to watch a poor ending to a show I never did “get into” just isn’t likely to happen.
But since that sounds negative, let me be clear that my issue with the show wasn’t the violence per se. If it were, that would be most ironic considering my more positive assessment of an older show, Bonanza. If you’re not familiar with it, Bonanza is a western TV show that aired primarily in the 1960s. It follows the exploits of the Cartwright family near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. This is another show I never watched consistently, but while I lived in Germany our British-based Sky TV package sure liked to show it a lot. So that’s how I grew familiar with a show that ended before I was ever born.
As I reflect on it, Bonanza is also a violent show (possibly more violent than Dexter). I don’t think an episode went by where at least one person didn’t die. What makes it different is that, unlike Dexter, the Cartwrights do not have to kill. In fact, to the extent possible, they seek to capture criminals so that they can face the justice system. They only kill to protect the innocent, although there are times that the Cartwrights’ passion and desire for revenge get the better of them. Dexter, on the other hand, is a darker version of the Lone Ranger. Dexter fancies himself judge, jury, and executioner. He kills because he has a compulsion to kill. This causes me to ponder, “If there were no other serial killers or morally bad people toward which he could direct his violence would he still kill?” My conclusion is that, yes, he would. And this implies that, no matter how righteous his acts might be in apprehending others, he is not really a “good” person.
But whatever his faults might be, I’m more concerned about the moral ambiguity surrounding this show. It surprises me the degree to which people are willing to side with someone who is so morally corrupt. (Although perhaps I ought not be so surprised in light of Professor Hofstede’s analysis of Americans’ acceptance of ambiguity – in this case, moral ambiguity.) I’m no Shakespeare, but I think such acceptance of moral ambiguity might justify introducing a new word into our vocabulary: ambi-Dexter-ous. You see, just as the word “ambidexterity” refers to the ability to write with both hands and “ambiguity” is the uncertainty inherent in a situation, so “ambi-Dexter-ous” is an adjective to describe people who are comfortable with (often unconsciously) suspending their moral and ethical beliefs when they consume entertainment. The result is an inherent moral discrepancy between the entertainment they consume and the lives they live.
I doubt it will catch on, but I hope that as you watch television that you learn to critically examine the morals and ethics of characters. I really don’t mind if someone wants to watch Dexter or not, but if you do, don’t necessarily be pulled into siding with Dexter simply because he’s presented as the protagonist and the show is told largely from his point of view. From a neuroscience perspective, he may or may not be able to control his urges, but either way it doesn’t make his actions right simply because he’s able to channel them toward more socially acceptable outcomes. That’s what we call utilitarianism and, as but one ethical system among many, it has its flaws. So, if you want to watch Dexter, then do so…just try not to be ambi-Dexter-ous!
1 “Dimensions,” The Hofstede Centre, Accessed 8 October 2013, The other dimensions from Hofsteder are power distance, individualism versus collectivism, and masculinity versus femininity. Since his initial study, two additional dimensions are long-term versus short-term orientation and indulgence versus restraint.
2 “Countries,” The Hofstede Centre, Accessed 8 October 2013, http://geert-hofstede.com/united-states.html.
3 “Countries,” The Hofstede Centre, Accessed 8 October 2013, http://geert-hofstede.com/japan.html.
4 By Daily Reporter, “Dexter series finale branded ‘lamest series finale since Seinfeld’ as show gets lukewarm reception from fans and critics,” Mail Online, Published 23 September 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2430093/Dexter-series-finale-branded-lamest-ending-recent-TV-history.html.