Three tribal councils and the final jury vote all in one episode, so I’m just going to focus on one thing from all of them. For a discussion of the strategy of the whole gigantic multi-hour extravaganza, I recommend Dalton Ross at Entertainment Weekly. I will say I was surprised that Nick and Kara didn’t take out Mike, since he was a bigger threat than Alison. These things are easy to say when watching from home, but I didn’t get why some players were so obsessed with voting out Alison.
Rather than discussing the essence of Mikeness, though, I want to write about how Survivor makes the final three players plead their cases to former opponents. As with all the final juries, Nick, Angelina, and Mike had to gain the approval of the same people who they had deceived and betrayed. I think there’s something beautiful in the way that shows like Survivor do this. It reminds me of the best way for a democracy to function.
Throughout history, of course, people have often had to plead their cases to enemies. However, usually these people asked for the mercy of their judges and tugged at their heartstrings. Survivor is different. Although there is certainly some of that here too, the finalists generally try to use reason. They try to give evidence that they played the game better than anyone else, even though that involved eliminating the jury members. They’re asking people to think: “Hey, you betrayed me really well!”
This is a willingness to value the process of an institution over personal feelings. A willingness to recognize a greater good beyond the shifting tides of subjective emotions. It might seem odd to equate the gameplay of Survivor with “a greater good”, but I believe the analogy holds. Although reality television is sometimes attacked for feeding base emotional hungers, the Survivor final jury has become an excellent example of placing reason above emotion. This connects to a line of philosophical thought that became especially strong during the Enlightenment, but stretches back to some Ancient Greek thinkers (though certainly not all) like Aristotle, who said in Rhetoric: “It is not right to pervert the judge by moving him to anger or envy or pity – one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it.”
We are currently seeing a fight over this way of thinking in American politics. Many people on both the right and left seem willing to discard concepts like free speech and judicial independence whenever these concepts impede their personal feelings. Fortunately for American democracy, there remains a significant percentage of people who have opposing visions yet can unite in their respect for the democratic process. These people are disturbed by conspiracy theories, censorship, and the breakdown of dialogue with people who have different opinions.
The philosopher Karl Popper explored these issues extensively in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies. (Actually, I think he explored them a bit too extensively. That book would probably be more effective if it were shorter, but Popper wrote it during World War II, when fascism and communism were real global dangers, so it’s probably forgivable that he got riled up.) For Popper, doubt is one of the keys to the best societies. Despite the passions of our beliefs (whether left or right), those beliefs rest upon a swamp of unknowns. If we do not recognize that reason can eventually falsify our beliefs, then we are at risk of stifling the betterment of society and even moving backwards.
Unfortunately, we do give up something powerful when we make the choice to live in a society built on compromise and reason. An open society contains a lot of emotional pain, because it forces us to give up our visions of Utopia. It undermines the sweet righteous feeling of knowing what it best for the world, and there are few feelings more delicious than that.
See you next season!