James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture and hosts Church and Culture.org.
It seems Lance Armstrong is getting ready to admit doping in an attempt at a comeback in competitive sports. Doing so would not only admit to having cheated, but acknowledge years of egregious and repeated lying. News of the anticipated admission comes the same week baseball writers refused to name any new players to the Hall of Fame. Famed players Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens were among those eligible, but their career achievements have been tainted by alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.
As Sharon Jayson of USA Today noted, dishonesty has been on something of a roll. “Cheating is nothing new,” she writes. “But the stream of famous faces and institutions that got caught up in it this year seems unprecedented.” She calls 2012 the “Year of the Cheater.” Need a reminder?
Beyond Lance Armstrong and the baseball snafu, there was David Petraeus, Goldman Sachs, Harvard, the Air Force Academy and Olympic athletes. “From sports doping to cooking the books, test-taking schemes and extramarital affairs, the list of very public cases goes on and on…Americans hardly seem shocked anymore.” And what is the effect of such widespread and publicized behavior?
As people are exposed to more dishonesty around them, says criminology consultant Tom Gabor, it “has a snowball effect. It legitimizes further dishonest behavior.” So the increase in high-profile cheaters is desensitizing all of us to cheating as a whole. If it seems “everyone” is doing it, then it becomes even more pervasive and socially acceptable. This would explain the annual high school survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics which found that 51% of all high school students admitted cheating on an exam in the past year.
Technology seems to be helping us fall in the moral abyss. Donald McCabe, a professor of management at Rutgers University, says the Internet has created new opportunities to blur ethical bounds. “People have redefined what constitutes cheating in line with the technologies available now.” A study in the Journal of Business Ethics concurs, finding that the more online help college students were able to use for an assignment, the more likely they were to copy others’ work.
As I pointed out in Serious Times, the radical nature of this shift in culture should not be missed. It is not simply that people are less moral today than in previous years, though they arguably are. What has emerged in new and startling ways is the claim that things such as cheating are no longer wrong. To borrow from the prophet Jeremiah, we have become a people who do not even know how to blush (Jeremiah 6:15). We no longer even think we need to.
Today, “a man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct” to borrow from Dorothy L. Sayers, “- and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man.” And we certainly are not going to say it of ourselves. But why should we? What matters is what everyone else is doing. And everyone else is cheating.
First published on January 14, 2013 on Church and Culture. Reprint according to policy.