I was just admonished on Facebook by a friend (a real friend, not just the Facebook variety), for referencing the end of the last episode of Season One of “Orange is the New Black.” He hadn’t finished viewing the season yet, and this was a breach of spoiler ethics. Or was it?
Ever since I encountered for real someone who was angry with me for “spoiling” the end of “Thirteen Days,” ( “Yes, World War III started and everybody died”), I have been dubious about spoiler etiquette. The advent of DVDs and Netflix has made this all the more annoying. If I’m in a group of five, and one individual hasn’t kept up with “House of Cards,” are the rest of us obligated to censor our discussion? As a devotee and fanatic devourer of popular culture, I admit that my first instinct is to say, “Keep up, get literate, or pay the price.” If I actually live by that rule, however, I will be a walking, talking, writing, spoiler machine.
Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist” in the world of the New York Times, recently pronounced himself an anti-spoiler absolutist:
“I’m an anti-spoiler fascist. I don’t believe that any conversation, review or sardonic tweet about a given TV show is more valuable than protecting an individual’s opportunity to experience the episode itself (and to watch it within the context for which it was designed). I’ve never heard a pro-spoiler argument that wasn’t fundamentally absurd.”
Even Klosterman, however, excepted sporting events (the question posed involved mentioning World Cup scores to a friend who was annoyed that the game had been “spoiled” for him) from his fascism, writing, reasonably:
“I must concede that live, unrehearsed events are not subject to “spoiler” embargoes A live event is a form of breaking news. It’s not just entertainment; it’s the first imprint of living history. …Because this guy is your buddy, you might want to avoid discussing the games’ outcomes out of common courtesy — but not out of any moral obligation. It’s his own responsibility to keep himself in the dark about current events.”
For once I agree with Chuck. But what are reasonable ethics rules for dealing with the other kind of spoiler, involving literature and entertainment?
Luckily, this is not new territory, though it is evolving territory. The underlying ethical principles include fairness, trust, consideration, compassion, and empathy, which means that the Golden Rule is also involved.
Back in 2010, an erudite blogger calling himself The Reading Ape proposed a draft “Guide to Responsible Spoiling.” That blog is defunct; the promised successor is not around, and so far, I haven’t been able to discover who the Ape is. Whoever he is (Oh Aaaaape! Come back, Ape!) , he did a very good job, though some tweeks might improve his work, especially in light of the emergence of Netflix. (I have edited it slightly, not substantively…I hope he doesn’t mind, or if he does, that he’s not a big ape.) His approach is to frame the problem as an ethical conflict, in which two competing ethics principles must be balanced. I think that’s right.
Here is his “draft”—what do you think?
“A Brief Guide to Responsible Spoiling”
by The Reading Ape (2010)
The objective is to balance two ethical principles:
I. The Right to Surprise: The inherent right of any viewer or reader to experience the pleasure of not knowing what’s
going to happen next.
II. The Right to Debate: The inherent right of any viewer or reader to engage in public discourse about the content of
a given work of narrative art.
Part 1: When Spoiling is Fair Game
In the following circumstances, one can discuss crucial plot details and reveal endings with a clear conscience.
Group A: Canonical Works
These are works that have, to borrow from Jonathan Lethem on intellectual property, “infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone with the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses.” These are part and parcel of our cultural knowledge and to pre-empt a reference, discussion, or squabble because someone hasn’t yet read/seen/heard a given work hamstrings public discussion of narrative art.
Group B: Network Television more than a week old
If I want to discuss last week’s episode of Forensic Scientists and the Cops Who Love Them, then I need to be able to do that before too much more of the television river has flowed on. And yet, we must give folks some leeway to DVR. Given the short shelf-life of television programming and the readily available means of storing and accessing programs, a week’s moratorium on spoilers for television shows gives interested parties more than enough time to catch-up.
Group C: Movies that have been on DVD for more than 1 year
If you really cared that much about what happens, you would have seen it by now. [ JAM Comment: This would apply to the Netflix matter that sparked this post, I think. Presumably the “Spoiler Nazi” would still object.]
Group D: Adaptations and Re-Makes
Assessing the fidelity and experimentation of remakes and adaptations is the signal pleasure of discussing them. If you didn’t care enough about the book or the 1941 version starring Mickey Rooney to make a point to see it, you’ve forfeited your right to surprise.
Group E: Novels More Than 10 Years Old
See the rationale for Group C.
Part II: Exceptions to Part I
Exception A: The Age of Consent
This exception relates to Group A,D, and E. For these categories, spoilers are only permitted if the spoilee, the party who has no experience with a given work, is over the age of 25. This exception acknowledges that a certain latitude must be given to those who haven’t had sufficient opportunity to be exposed to even canonical works. In these cases, the spoiler must ask permission before spoiling the given work. If no permission is given and the spoiler still discloses key elements of the work, then the spoilee is given license to call said party a mild expletive.
Exception B: The Sixth Sense Procedure
This exception acknowledges that certain plot elements so rely on surprise that the Right of Surprise must be maintained at all costs, even The Right of Debate. In such cases, the potential spoiler is enjoined to use veiled references to the plot element that will not reveal the nature of the plot element, but that will also be readily understood by those who have prior knowledge of said plot element. For example, if I were to discuss the final scenes of The Sixth Sense, I would refer to it as “the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense.” This is a rare exception and must only be invoked in cases where the work’s central value is contingent upon preserving the surprise, as in The Sixth Sense. Note: this exception does not apply to Group A. Also, Vader is Luke’s father.
Exception C: Pay Cable or Satellite Television
As cable and satellite shows are often not available to the general television viewer until long after their original air date, spoiling these shows is unethical until six months after the show is available on DVD .
Exception D: Sequels
Generally, sequels will appear well into the ethical spoiling window, but in cases where they are released earlier, then spoiling the original work becomes ethical on the day of the sequel’s initial release. For example, the day “The Return of the King” opened in theaters, one would have been morally sanctioned to discuss plot elements of “The Two Towers.”