Saturday, 26 January 2013

Can You Handle the Truth?

For a while, I thought motorcyclists looked menacing – many ride behind dark sunglasses on machines with modified mufflers, scaring the daylights out of others nearby.  I wondered if they were high while cruising on their monstrous noisemakers.  But it turns out that the most doped up hog was a cyclist.  He was so famous that there was literally a stamp (of approval) on his work uniform, and millions proudly paid to wear bracelets practically with his name on it.

Going from being worshipped (or thinking of himself) as a demi-god to being called a “pathological liar,” a “bully,” and a “manipulator” must hurt more than crashes, surgeries, and chemotherapies.  I couldn’t care less about this guy who made a living riding a bike.  Cheating was (literally) in his blood.  But still, should we take the moral high ground in wagging our fingers?   We have a professional sports system where one can win or lose millions in prizes and endorsement revenue, and sponsors could reap even higher returns on their investment when their athletes win.   With corporations cashing in from fans’ cheering, cheating on the massive scale and cover up can be expected.   Could we have handled the truth?

It also turns out that – gasp – lying is very common among mere mortals. Maybe that’s why the former head of the International Cycling Agency's anti-doping foundation said that if the cyclist were simply a “single, one-off liar,” or a “drug cheat,” he might have deserved a second chance after appropriate sanctions.  In one study, participants engaged in a recorded conversation with another stranger for 10 minutes.   Looking at the footage later, participants were amazed of the little lies that came out. In just 10 minutes, they told an average of 3 false things. 

Most people don’t start out cheating in egregious ways.  When we can cheat just a little bit, we may rationalize it.  But this grey zone can get us in trouble.  After we take one dishonest step, we become a slightly different person. And then we take another step, and another step. We gradually rationalize what we would once have considered to be unacceptable dishonesty.

We shut little kids’ mouths when they tell embarrassing truths, and they quickly learn that lying can get them out of trouble.  Adults insist that sometimes we need to lie for altruistic or utilitarian reasons.  My undergrad students would all say that they would lie to the Nazis to protect the Jews hiding in the cellar.  

Sure, philosophers are great at coming up with thought experiments to prove a point.  But the line between altruistic lies and self-serving lies isn’t all that clear in most cases.  I doubt that any lies I’ve ever told was necessary to save another person’s life.  Their ego, perhaps.  Or more likely, my own ego.  We are prone to fudge the truth and excuse our embellishments.  We hear what we want to hear, and we shun those who have the courage to tell the truth.  We even need protections for whistleblowers.  (If we were all willing to hear and investigate the truth, there wouldn’t be such a thing as whistleblowers.) 

So before we wag our fingers again, we may need to stop putting others in situations where they think they have to lie to us, or excuse our deceptions as simply white lies.  We benefit from a system where we can trust others, but that also demands that we all fulfill our responsibility in showing that we can handle and would deliver nothing but the truth.  

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  1. The thing with the whole Lance Armstrong thing is that we hold these athletes to such a high standard of excellence and the way we view reality is slightly askew. I think if we all tried even a mile on the Tour de France maybe we wouldn't have such a bad opinion of athletes doping.

    It's not only that we lie to others, but we lie to ourselves.

    1. Points well taken, Greg. And certainly, cycling isn't the only sport where there is such systemic issue. TV networks, sponsors, and sports organizations all want to push athletes as much as possible so that they can also drive up their revenue. Sometimes I wonder whether we can really say that we are pushing for a high standard of excellence. When so many cheat, it seems that doping is ironically becoming the way to level the playing field.

  2. I think the article would have had more impact without references to sports heroes that largely are a non-factor in people's day-to-day lives.

    People (all people) do what they feel they need to do to stay sane and happy. It's a very personal thing.

    Here's what makes me happy: I don't watch spectator sports, and never will. It frees me to do more important things or just to have fun.

    1. You are missing my point, Anonymous ;) I made reference to the athlete's situation partly to explain that cheating isn't just about one person's action. We point our finger at the individual, but those actions are part of the larger professional/spectator sports culture (or as some would say the whole industrial complex). And we also can't forget that we have a society where we sometimes don't want to hear the truth.

      You may be underestimating how much influence sports stars have in people's lives. I'm not claiming that the influence is good, or that we shouldn't care more about other important things instead. I'm only saying that the influence is there, and so if we want to change our social structure, we need to pay attention to these factors.

    2. ... or we need to stop using sports as examples, thereby drawing further attention to them. That to me seems like an easy first step to freeing people's attention.

    3. Point well taken, even if you're missing my point :)