I'll admit that I've really gotten into Big Brother this summer. I've never been super into it before, just watched episodes here and there with friends, but this summer, I'm into it. I've even started listening to podcasts about it while I run. Yeah, I'm a fan.
But part of the challenge of being a scholar is balancing fandom with critical analysis....
I often wonder if reality tv shows-- Survivor, Big Brother, etc.--create worlds where ethical norms don't apply in the same way that they do outside the show. In the world of the shows, people blatantly and continually lie to each other, screw over their "friends", backstab (all the stuff that makes good tv), and they think it's ok. More than that even; they think it's necessary. Often the cast member who "played the best game" is rewarded by the jury. Being sincere and honest is discouraged, if not explicitly, then at least implicitly by the rules of the game.
But what do these shows say about the way that we understand and enact ethics?
First, it seems, they say that there are states of being (re: inside the world of the show) where the ethical expectations are different than they are in other aspects of life. There is a "state of exception" on the show wherein ethical dilemmas are solved in ways that would be unacceptable outside the show. And cast members are usually not held accountable for following this changed set of ethical expectations. In most cases, people who lie or cheat and get away with it are not understood as being bad people; they are understand as playing the game well.
Does the way that people are not held accountable for following a changed set of ethical expectations on these shows demonstrate that most of us act in ways that demonstrate that ethics are relative to context? Does this mean that we actually accept (even though we often protest) that people can (or should) follow different ethical principles in different contexts?
Might this also help explain the way that we understand our own ethical decisions, believing that we are in a "state of exception" (which turns out to be constant but feels rare) wherein ethical principles are changed to fit the current context?
Do you think it would possible for someone to win a reality tv show without lying? Can you think of any examples? Do you think that anyone would be motivated to try to do so?
A notable exception to this suspension of accountability is the firing of Aaryn and Ginamarie from their jobs because of their racist comments on Big Brother 15 (this season). These two women are being held accountable outside the show for their actions inside the world of the show. I feel like this rarely happens, although I'd be interested in knowing if people have other examples of this.
Does the desire to hold them accountable for their racist comments suggest that only some ethical expectations are flexible with context? Does it highlight that the "state of exception" is only an illusion? Or what do you make of this?
What do you think Big Brother demonstrates about ethics?