Dahmer and Candidness: The Increase of Moral Justifications Within the Media

Content warning: This article discusses violent crimes.

Written by Namuuka Mweene.

Graphics by: Ariadne Danae Chavez Salinas

With the release of Dahmer– Netflix’s most recent and popular true crime show– the buzz surrounding the ethics of the true crime genre has arisen. True crime has been present far before the 21st century; it finds its roots in the 1500-1700s British newspapers as they reported the horrific details of the latest murder cases in the country. Though this morbid curiosity has served as a relative staple of pop culture over the centuries, it is only within the past 100 years that the genre has proliferated through the internet’s unprecedented cultural diffusion properties. The increase in popularity has inadvertently led to the exacerbation of some of true crime’s issues, specifically in the social sense.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of true crime is its reliance on the exploitation of people’s trauma for financial gains. The uptick in the commodification of real people’s explicit and tragic deaths truly epitomizes the capitalistic nightmare that we live in: we happily and uncritically watch what these big corporations put out while they gain exorbitant profits off of their immoral doings. In addition, the general increase and interest in gruesome subjects has led to desensitization. It works the same as anything else; the more you look, the less shocking it becomes. It’s this decrease in shock factor that allows people to unabashedly make jokes about some of the most atrocious aspects of true crime cases. These factors and more all contribute to the pushback against true crime, and there are many fantastic articles that delve into these issues in further detail.

We feel inclined to morally justify every single one of our actions. It’s no longer enough to claim that you like or dislike a piece of media; instead, you must come up with a convoluted explanation of why you attach yourself to a favorite movie or TV show. This especially rings true when a large proportion of society begins to consume a morally nebulous piece of media. There exists a sort of cognitive dissonance within many people; they know they should not watch a show that monetarily capitalizes on the death of innocent people, but they want to satiate the morbid curiosity that naturally comes with serial killer cases. Additionally, unashamedly associating yourself with a problematic piece of media is to invite a tirade of vitriol against you and your character. The safest route is to euphemize the worst of habits and hide behind a shield of excuses just strong enough to ward away the condemners. When a degree of moral supremacy is added to the justification, the person walks away feeling even better while those who were on the fence will get drawn to the content in order to complete the “good” deed. It is a cruel cycle that brings more and more people in with every release of any slightly debatable series.

This self-deflection protection philosophy has exploded now more than ever with Netflix’s Dahmer. People are grasping onto any semblance of rationale to validate themselves as they binge the series. They will claim that watching the show is tantamount to raising awareness about serial killers and to the families directly impacted; never mind the family members who have come out and discussed the emotional trauma that the show reignited within them. Or, they will say we must face the truth about our past history through watching shows like Dahmer that delve into the good, the bad, and the ugly (of course, why else would we need a laughably high amount of shows about Ted Bundy, Jefferey Dahmer, and other notable killers?) I even saw someone humbly brag about watching the show only to then look up and examine the bodies of the victims online; their defense was simply a quick “that’s so tragic” in the caption of the video. When you extrapolate these excuses outside of the TikTok videos they reside in, you can see the hypocrisy and the tenuousness of them all. Yet, they still continue to prevail in the current zeitgeist.

We all need to be more candid with ourselves. We cannot continue this pernicious pattern: “watch bad things, justify bad things, and continue watching bad things with no guilt because you have come up with a reason to escape it”. It will only lead to the further enjoyment of people’s suffering. The Dahmer series has 196.2 million hours of viewing with Netflix (assumedly) collecting millions in profit. Would the docu-series have the same success if more people came out and admitted that Dahmer operates under an inherently unethical basis? Of course not: viewers would feel ashamed and move onto a less problematic and easily digestible show. However, Netflix has capitalized on these aforementioned tendencies to generate unprecedented buzz to the most controversial of their shows. The key to their success is creating contentious content that will garner enough discourse and a small amount of opposition, but ensuring the pushback is not significant enough to slow down revenue. It is an interesting, yet strangely effective, marketing tactic; Netflix and other streaming services will continue to employ this method until they see an observable downtrend in their viewings. This is where the consumer steps in.

It is wishful thinking of me to believe that the cries of the victims’ families or the scientific research into the psychological impacts of watching true crime will impede egocentric desires to watch murder content; the general population will continue to watch harmful videos, no matter what the opposition says. But as they say, honesty is the best policy! If you feel so inclined to watch Dahmer, do so with the knowledge that it comes at the expense of someone else and do not try to rationalize your decision. If we can all stay open with each other, then maybe the intense need to keep up with whatever is popular will cease; the billions that these companies make will decrease and we can edge towards a more ethically consumptive society.

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