"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cheating And Lance Armstrong

I grew up in an era and in a family which prized honesty. It was the right thing to.  My parents understood that lying and cheating were not only ultimately destructive to me, but to society as a whole.  Without honesty, all social contracts would be suspect.  Contractual obligations between couples or corporations would be worth less; and the world would be governed by suspicion and doubt rather than moral certainty.

My father went out of his way to explain why, when receiving a restaurant bill with an error in his favor, it was important to bring the matter to the attention of the manager.  If he did not, the difference would certainly be taken out of the pay of the inattentive waitress.  “A bill is a contract”, disagreed my sister, echoing my father’s words.  “Once the bill is given to us, our only obligation is to pay it”.

Little did we know that this disagreement went to the heart of the matter.  My father explained in legal terms that the contract was invalid because of the error; then switching to his real reason, he said, “And that waitress has far less money than we do.  Passive cheating” he said – allowing someone to cheat themselves – was as bad as taking a few quarters from her tip jar.

I inherited my father’s sense of honesty, and although I have cheated and lied, I have tried to establish and maintain the principle within my family.  One of my children took advantage of a liberal store return policy and bought, wore once, and returned clothes. “They can afford it”, he said.

“Perhaps”, I replied, “but think of who is hurt by your action.  The clothes cannot be sold again and the store has lost the money it could have made. Rather than absorb the loss, the store raises its prices, and many people have to pay more than would have if you didn’t cheat”.

The other side of the honesty-dishonesty coin – if you lied and cheated you would eventually be found out; and your marriage, your academic career, your job, your friendships would be eroded or destroyed – seemed to fall on less sympathetic ears.  My children seemed to feel the risk might, in some cases be worth it.  In their own way they began to justify cheating in cost-benefit, risk-analysis terms.  “If I get caught, then I will pay the penalty”, they said.  Injustice will be punished, they argued, and certainly that protects the integrity of the system I was so bound and determined to preserve.

Lance Armstrong’s decision to dope, not once, but throughout his long career; to involve scores of colleagues, minions, and unsuspecting supporters; and then to lie, distort, and evade the truth in the most spectacular display of chutzpah, arrogance, and contempt is simply staggering.  Yes, it is but one case in an unfortunate string of illicit doping; but perhaps it more than any shows how corrosive cheating can be. Lance Armstrong built his reputation on having beaten cancer, and his winning one Tour de France race after another was a testimony  to his superhuman physical abilities and a beacon of hope for cancer victims.  In his cheating and lying, Armstrong not only deceived his sports fans, but those people suffering from a disease which would likely kill them.  It was unconscionable. 

Armstrong broke all my father’s rules and the consequences he predicted came true – people were hurt – many people, not just him.

I have written recently on the cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High in New York City, where the brightest students in this elite ‘exam school’ felt it necessary to cheat to have a chance at the very top colleges in the country.  Because there were so many smart students at Stuyvesant, only a relative few would get into Harvard.  The students justified their cheating in all kinds of ways.  It was OK to cheat in a class taught by a dunce or in a required class because they were wastes of time and time in a winner-take-all footrace was all important.

The issue in both cases is that neither the students nor Lance Armstrong  showed any remorse whatsoever.  Everyone does it, they claimed.  Cheating has become part of the game, and they were simply playing by the new rules. Barry Bonds who gamed the system did not care that his actions threw the whole game of baseball in doubt.  Which records were fairly attained and which were because of cheating?, fans asked.  If baseball players cheated, then football, soccer, and basketball players must also cheat.

Lying and cheating by public figures are not restricted to sports.  Politicians distort their war records and academic achievements; lie about destructive sexual affairs or shady financial manipulations; and present images to the American people which are fabrications.  The onus of responsibility is on the recipient of the fraud not the perpetrator.  Politicians repeat the now commonly heard words: “I will accept the consequences if I am caught. Is that not fair?”.

This political duplicity has the same effect as that in sports – the whole system is tainted.  If one politician lies and is caught, then one has to assume that many more are also cheating and lying and who, then, can one trust? 

There is a canny arrogance among politicians who know that the ‘truth’ has become only a relative value.  There are so many Internet sources which do the distortion for the candidate, that he knows that whatever he says will make the viral rounds and come back in a hardly recognizable form.  He can tell a bald lie and supporters in cyberspace will make it seem true.

There has been, then, a complete shift in perspective on the moral issue of lying and cheating.  It is no longer intrinsically bad, but only relatively so. Honesty-dishonesty has been subsumed within the larger legalistic context of risk-crime-consequences and has lost its moral tenor.  If you can get away with it, you have beaten the game. 

Lying and cheating have become conflated with image.  Creating a false but seemingly credible image as a way of swaying voters, sports fans, or consumers is a way – perhaps the way - of American life.  Unfortunately to survive we have to put on a new pair of moral glasses, ones which are not prescribed to see the truth, but variations of it.  The social contract is no more a fixed and permanent feature of life; but a moving target where half-truths and illusions make up a kaleidoscopic pastiche.

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