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.
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.