An ethics bomb exploded on the CBS reality show “Survivor” last week.
Ethics bombs are unforeseen and unforeseeable incidents that suddenly start a chain reaction of ethics problems, dilemmas and conflicts in all directions. This was a lulu. Well, it was a lulu unless one thinks that nothing that happens on a reality show can teach any ethics lessons at all, since they are all, by definition, fake news. If you watch the show, what happens on it matters to you; you have accepted the devil’s bargain of pretending what is manipulated and edited by writers and directors is “real” in exchange for being diverted and entertained—so the ethics scenarios that periodically break out seem worthy of serious consideration. If you would rather watch paint dry—this is my niche—caring about the pseudo-real crises that actually happened months ago in the most contrived situation imaginable makes as much sense as cheering at a professional wrestling match.
However, just as illuminating ethics issues are raised on “The Walking Dead”—kind of a post-apocalyptic version of “Survivor” with zombies—they can arise on a reality show. In this case, the ethics bomb spread out into unscripted “reality.”
“Survivor” has been on the air for 17 years and 34 seasons—I can’t believe I just wrote that— and is itself an ethics bomb, since it launched the reality TV virus into the culture. Copied from a Japanese show, the idea is that a group of contestants are forced to compete in a remote and harsh location, divided up into teams (tribes) that are guided through daily challenges that yield various prizes, ranging from food to immunity from being ejected.. Each episode sees the losing team gathered around a campfire (“the tribal council”) where they vote on which team member to kick “off the island,” a phrase that has entered our lexicon. Contestants form alliances with each other and often reveal their character, or lack thereof, by engaging in various Machiavellian tactics to survive, all captured on camera. Some contestants lie, cheat and steal. Sometimes it works.
Last week, the tribal council took a sharp turn into real world social tensions when player Jeff Varner, knowing that he was poised to be jettisoned by his tribe and desperately trying to get their ire focused elsewhere, attempted to undermine fellow contestant and tribe member Zack Smith. Varner began by darkly claiming that all was not as it appeared, for there was widespread “deception” afoot.
“There is deception here,” Varner said. “Deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand.” “Continue,” said show host and producer Jeff Probst, who has presided over and moderated each tribal council from the beginning of the franchise.
Varner then turned to Smith and said: “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
The other tribe members, two men and three women, expressed what looked like genuine surprise and horror. They defended Smith, and angrily told Varner that he had crossed the line, though there are no rules in “Survivor,” just ethics, if one chooses to acknowledge them. Smith’s gender history, they agreed, was “personal” and had “nothing to do with the game.”
Varner argued that the ends justified the means. “I’m arguing for my life,” he pleaded. “I feel like I have to throw everything at the wall.”
“By outing somebody?” openly gay contestant Tai Trang replied?
Smith appeared to be the calmest one on the set, explaining that his friends and family at home knew he was transgender, but that he chose not to make this aspect of his life a part of his “Survivor” narrative because he did not want to be stereotyped as the show’s first transgender player. Varner, realizing that his perfidy had sealed his doom, then began to apologize pitifully. (Was it sincere, or the only strategy left to him?) Smith, adopting the role of Ethics Hero, said he hoped the episode “would lead to a greater good.”
In response to the upheaval, Probst decided to waive the established procedure, the formal tribal council vote where contestants walk to a hut “alone” (there is a camera crew there), write their votes on a ballot and explain the reasons for their choice of the “kickee.” This time he just called for a show of hands–meaning that anyone who didn’t signal their virtue by condemning Varner would face social media fury—and of course Varner was unanimously eliminated.
“I’m so sorry,” Varner said, weeping,, as he hugged Smith.
“It’s okay man,” Smith said. “It’s going to be okay.”
It wasn’t okay for Varner, though. He became the latest target of social media hate, and was excoriated in pundit columns and cable panels as the ugly face of anti-trans bigotry. Then his employer, Allen Tate Real Estate, fired him as a company liability.
Let us examine the explosion:
1.”Survivor” was filmed ten months ago. The contestants are bound by contract not to say anything about what transpired. The show decides what footage to include and what not to include: reality shows are miracles of editing. This means that
a. Varner outed Smith to the cast and crew, but CBS outed him to the world, and
b. CBS made certain that Varner would be the object of hatred nationwide.
It didn’t have to do either. The show’s staff knew that Smith was transgender; indeed, we have learned that this aspect of his background was a factor in his original casting. “Survivor’s” production team could have edited the tribal council sequence to keep Smith’s secret and to protect Varner’s reputation, but reality shows force contestants to agree to be vilified, misrepresented, exposed and humiliated in exchange for their shot at stardom. Thus it was CBS that ensured that harm come to both contestants, purely for ratings and profit. CBS and “Survivor” committed the classic Kantian ethical outrage: using a human life for selfish ends.
2. But did Varner and Smith consent to being harmed? Legally, sure. However, just because one can harm human beings without legal consequences, or because they have laid their throats bare, doesn’t make an unethical act ethical.
3. Even in a competition where there are no rules, one’s choice of tactics can trigger justifiable negative conclusions about one’s character. Varner’s revelation was an appeal to bigotry, a breach of privacy, anda rejection of the Golden Rule presented as a protest against “deception.” It is signature significance that he would even think of such a tactic, or believe for a nanosecond that it might work, or believe that such conduct on his part on national television—surely he didn’t forget that?—would not make him a cultural pariah and a social media clay pigeon. Thus he earned his villainy. He’s not a nice or trustworthy individual.
4 Or did the producers put him up to it? That can’t be ruled out. Nonetheless, if Varner agreed, he is still accountable.
5. His employer was not unethical to fire him. He should have expected it. Even though this all occurred ten months ago, his show contract prevented him from giving his firm advance warning. That alone was a firing offense: if an employee signs a binding contract forcing him to act against his employer’s best interests, that doesn’t mitigate the harm to the employer.
6. In a long, pathetic, rambling and incoherent defense, Varner said this:
“I’ve been with this show long enough to know that these are manufactured situations, and this is a manufactured environment, and editing puts facial expressions to comments that don’t necessarily go there, so I’ve learned to watch the show in a way that it’s just not authentic in a lot of ways.But I think CBS did a really beautiful job. And just not knowing how it would be portrayed and not knowing how it would be.”
Translation: “This situation wasn’t as spontaneous as the editing made it look and this made me out to be a bad guy, because as you know, a lot of this is fabrica–hey, what am I saying? I can get sued for this! What I mean is that CBS is wonderful, everything is real, and I’m not saying anything about the show. Not me!”
7. Jeff Probst broke one of the few rules “Survivor” has: secret ballots in the tribal council, and by doing so, rigged the results, ensuring that Varner would be voted off unanimously. He cheated, which means the show cheated. “Forget it, Jack: it’s Realitytown.”
Like a real bomb, ethics bombs leave rubble and confusion, and it is impossible to put everything back together again.