Last week, “Survivor” aired an episode in which two of its contestants hit a crossroads.
During Tribal Council (don’t worry if you are not a “Survivor” fan; you don’t have to be to follow this column), contestant Jeff Varner “outed” fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender — a fact his fellow players and many people in Smith’s personal life did not yet know.
The next day, that story was everywhere, with links of the emotionally raw episode’s clip just a click away. Outrage was sparked, and organizations scrambled to release statements condemning Varner’s actions, while Smith was thrust into the public consciousness in a way he could never have imagined.
After the episode aired, the company Varner worked for fired him, saying he was “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.” Varner responded by calling that decision an “ugly, knee-jerk reaction.”
To be clear, outing someone who is transgender is not only irresponsible, but dangerous. While Zeke’s story has turned out well, prompting education and dialogue, it could easily have been much different. There have been many, many cases of people being harassed, beaten and even killed after it is revealed that they are a member of the trans community.
For their part, the creators of the show defended their decision to broadcast the episode as it ran, stating Zeke was fully aware his outing could end up hitting the airwaves, and he never communicated that he did not want the episode to run.
Many argue (and with some validation) that “when someone signs on to a show like ‘Survivor,’ they are clearly aware they are signing away their rights to privacy.”
But how far should that be allowed to reach? Is there anything … ANYthing … that is “off limits” in the realm of human decency? Chances are if Zeke had not been on a reality program, he would have had the chance to reveal his past to the people in his life on his own timeline, using his best judgment. And putting myself in Varner’s shoes, if I were to be on television and do something that vicious to a fellow contestant, it would be naïve for me to think the entire country talking about it the next day would have no negative impact on my career.
But for the sake of argument, let’s take the case of David Dao, a doctor who was dragged from a United Airlines flight by authorities on April 9, bloody and battered, because he refused to allow the airline to remove him from the plane due to an overbooking situation. Within hours ... hours ... his ordeal was being played out everywhere, and the backlash against United was immediate, growing literally by the minute.
Within days, lurid and unsubstantiated details of this man’s past, having nothing at all to do with the United incident, were splashed all over the net for everyone who was following the case to see.
Dao never signed on to do a reality show. He didn’t spend his life trying to break into show business. He was sitting on a plane, trying to get to his patients. And while United will continue to feel the effects of this and other public relations blunders for years to come (and the company’s responses to recent incidents are certainly not helping its case), the baring of black marks against this doctor’s character, whether accurate or not, is a genie that cannot be put back into the bottle.
Even in this scenario, some may argue, “Yes, but he had a chance to avoid all of this notoriety, and he chose to dig his heels in and refuse to leave the plane.”
Well then, how about the man in Cleveland who was randomly executed on Easter Sunday? It was captured on video by the killer and then posted on Facebook, where it remained, accessible to anyone, for three hours. This poor victim was literally doing nothing but walking down the street in broad daylight, minding his own business.
By that night, a quick search of “Cleveland murder” brought up obnoxious links with headings such as, “WATCH: Gunman kills man in Cleveland. GRAPHIC VIDEO!” This man’s privacy was violated in perhaps the worst way of all — his death became an attraction aimed at curiosity seekers.
News media sites passing along information literally as the news happens. Movie reviews available before the film is in theaters. Questions posted on every topic under the sun getting answers from legitimate experts within seconds. Startup businesses reaching across the country for customers without ever picking up a phone.
The internet is, by all accounts, a transformative development that has changed our lives forever. I sometimes wonder what a homemaker from 1977 would think if she were suddenly transported into the immediateness of 2017. In “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” John Berendt describes the town of Savannah as “‘Gone with the Wind’ on mescaline.” That is probably a good way to describe the culture shock that time warp would initiate.
As talk of internet spying and algorithms continues to at once magnify and unease, it seems we are either paying the price for technology we can no longer control, or we are on the cusp of a new era in the development of privacy protection, depending on how you choose to view the situation. Either way, one thing is clear. While the reach of the web is an amazing and exciting thing, and something of which we as a generation are fortunate to be witnessing, now is the time to realize that everyone in the world does not have the best of intentions. Placing a weapon as powerful as the internet into the hands of less scrupulous people without restriction or repercussion could very well be leading us down a dark path … one from which there may be no easy return.