I planned to give this week a miss. After all, I’m moving house today, and as I’m sitting here writing the time is ticking. But it feels like that episode was one that you can’t idly sit by on and say nothing. So, I’m not writing in my usual format today, I’m not analysing the episode, and I’m keeping it brief. I’m just going to talk about the one episode that is going to dominate the discussion of this episode, and which I hope doesn’t end up dominating discussion of the season.
I want to start by taking you through some of my personal experiences.
My experience of the transgender community
First, I want to give you some context. The city I live in – Wellington, New Zealand – has traffic lights where the little green ‘walk’ man is replaced with the figure of Carmen Rupe. She’s one of a handful of famous Wellingtonians who has been immortalised with green light markers in different parts of the city. What makes Carmen different is that she was a transgender woman.
I’m willing to bet it’s one of the only cities in the world, if not the only city, that would do this. I remember meeting Carmen once myself – as a teenager, I was competing in a choral competition, and a few of us decided to busk in some spare time. She listened to us the whole time and was exceedingly generous and really lovely to us.
Then there is Georgina Beyer – the world’s first transgender member of parliament (at least, openly). I met her too – as she kindly offered me the first taxi when we were both waiting for one.
My experiences with both of these public transgender figures was overwhelmingly positive. But, I can’t recall either of them ever being controversial, either. They were who they were, and everyone else went about their business.
When I hear even the idea that being openly transgender in the United States of America is a decision that is potentially putting people at risk of violence and death, that is an entirely foreign concept to me. I’m sure it’s true - I only need hear of things like the bathroom bill and see the way social conservatism plays in American politics to understand this. But it’s difficult for me to make sense of, and so my initial reaction might be very different to the reaction of an American. This is important.
My experience as a mafia player
I mentioned in my introductory post here, that I’ve played a bit of mafia online. Most readers probably know this as a party game – and so did I, originally. Then I discovered the vast and very competitive world of online mafia, a world in which you don’t have physical tells and have to judge people based on the faceless words they write down.
For those who don’t know mafia, it’s the most adjacent game I’ve come across to Survivor. While it has a key difference – there are two sides (a small but informed mafia, and a large but uninformed town) and the idea is to vote people off from the side that you’re not on. Once the other side is gone, your entire side wins. Nevertheless, you spend your time judging who you can and can’t trust based on their behaviour, and then you try and remove people before they become a threat to your game, with the ultimate goal of winning.
I’ve long ago lost count of the number of mafia games I’ve played – upwards of 100, I’m sure. I’ve also competed in, and won, the closest thing online mafia has to a world championship. I’ve seen the very best players in action, and many others beside.
In that time, I’ve seen every tactic under the sun for people to survive a vote when they feel under pressure. Until you’ve been there, you don’t know what it is like – the mindset you’re in, especially when you’re part of the mafia and outnumbered, is to be manipulative, to use anything you’ve got to your advantage, and to come out the other side still standing at all costs.
Sometimes, every now and then, people cross the line and use tactics they shouldn’t. They say something – perhaps pre-meditated, perhaps not – but it’s something that does damage. It goes too far, it hurts other people, and usually it ruins the fun of the game for everyone involved. No-one wants to see other people get hurt.
However, the people doing the damage? They’re good people. They’re my friends. And one of them is me. They would never have dreamed that putting them in the heat of the battle and setting everyone against them would lead them to try such a tactic, and they feel bad about it afterwards. I’ve seen friendships lost, I’ve seen people walk away from the game, I know exactly the damage that can be done.
Now, for all of that, I’m sure none of what I’ve seen has ever been on the scale of outing someone as transgender. But it’s still real, emotional, personal stuff that has crossed big lines.
My experience as a lawyer
I still remember the most important lesson law school ever taught me. In first year, they spent an inordinate time teaching us about material facts. You had to learn to distinguish a fact from something that wasn’t a fact. You had to learn to distinguish what was material from what was immaterial. Once you’ve spent a whole lot of time studying it, and then you put it into practice in your career, you realise how quick people are to trust things that are not facts, or to focus on things that are immaterial.
At a time like this, I think it’s really important to focus on the facts, and not to try to fill the gaps with conjecture, perception as to motivations, and personal judgments or opinion.
My experience as someone who has suffered from mental health issues
I’m also someone who spent five years going through a very challenging time of depression. I’ve seen Zeke write about how he has gone through a similar period, and I know that relapse is something that can happen to anyone who has suffered from mental health issues.
I also know that it attaches to life experiences. There are things about my life that I was doing during my low mental health times that I can never look at the same way again even if they give me joy.
How I respond to this episode
Here are the material facts as I see them:
Jeff Varner came out to play Survivor for a third time, having never made the jury. Here he was, 6-1 down in his tribe, one vote away from making the jury. Jeff believed he saw an opportunity to survive through the vote by casting Zeke as someone who isn’t truthful, specifically by pointing out that he hadn’t revealed himself to be transgender.
Jeff then used this pre-meditated tactic at tribal council. The tribe’s reaction was overwhelmingly defensive of Zeke. Jeff realised that he had made an error (I’m sure it was immediately apparent he made a strategic error. The fact that he’d made an error of judgment in outing Zeke in that way at all may or may not have taken him a bit longer to realise).
Jeff has apologised unreservedly. Zeke has forgiven him.
I look at the facts, and at how each of Jeff and Zeke have handled the situation, and I can’t help but feel a deep compassion for both of them.
Zeke clearly did not want the fact he was transgender to define him, however now he has been saddled with having to deal with the fact that it might. Despite the fact that it shouldn’t make people see him any differently, it’s clear that it’s reasonable for him to fear that it will – especially amongst people who are out to villainize transgender people. I can’t imagine that he will ever be able to feel the same way about Survivor again, and that’s tragic. He’s written about how much the show meant to him, and I’m sure that it still will, but his experience of interacting with it will be forever changed.
But I’ve also seen so many Jeff’s in my time playing mafia. People who say things that they shouldn’t when under pressure because they are trying to win a game. I can’t begin to imagine how it must have felt for Jeff to realise he was probably going to go home one vote before what I’m sure was his goal going in to the game – simply making the jury. It must have been devastating. I can completely understand why he might have rationalised that doing what he did would be his best shot at staying in the game. And that’s without understanding how the hunger and lack of sleep were factoring in. Until you’ve played games like this, truly played them at a high level of competition, I don’t think it’s easy to understand what normal, perfectly nice people will say to try to make it through the day and be standing in the next. They don’t even know it themselves.
This is all a very long way of saying that the right thing to do here isn’t to read into motivations. It’s not to attack Zeke for being transgender. It’s not to be the judge of whether or not Varner was being malicious, or whether his apology isn’t sincere. It’s not to take sides, as though it’s a dispute with a winner and a loser. We can’t put ourselves into their shoes, in the heat of one of the most challenging games that has been invented, and say that we can understand all of the emotional and rational factors that went into things playing out the way they did.
All we can do is accept Jeff’s apology and Zeke’s forgiveness at face value. When we make mistakes, often the only thing we have is our sincerest apology. Nothing else Jeff could do would make any difference. And no amount of people who say Jeff’s actions are unforgiveable and say that he should pay can take away from Zeke’s sincere forgiveness.
There’s probably 100 different lessons that can be learned from that Survivor episode, but if there’s one thing I hope no one takes from it, it’s that Jeff or Zeke ‘deserve’ anything negative that comes their way. They both, in their own way, deserve our kindness and understanding.
See you all next week!
By day, Ben Martell is a public commercial lawyer from New Zealand.
By night, he moonlights as a self-described Survivor 'expert'.
By day or night, find him on twitter at: @golden8284