Armstrong deserves the liar’s punishment
Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 24, 2013 23:01
When George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1891 that, “the liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else,” was he revealing an uncharacteristic naïveté about belief and deception? After all, the daily life and basic functioning of human society requires that every one of its members be skilled liars and subtle deceivers. We treat the lie, the conscious and calculated untruth and bearing of false witness against the universe, as the great moral transgression of our existence, but nowhere is it a criminal act outside of the antiseptic space of the governmental tribunal. The problem remains that it would be as impossible to enforce a law that banned the lie as it would to enforce one that prohibited people from blinking. We all lie with abandon, with ease and without remorse.
The prospect of being compelled always to be truthful, reminiscent as it is of tales of science-fiction dystopias, is so horrifying that we could never desire it even if it does represent moral perfection. When we ask the question of others, “how are you?” we do not expect to receive, and are rarely told, the truth. Neither do we volunteer an honest answer when we are asked the same question in turn. That is because we all experience the world in deeply personal and emotional terms and struggle to convey those terms intelligibly to others. The opportunity to truly open one’s heart and mind to the inspection of someone else is one from which we usually shrink from fear – the potential for being hurt, ridiculed or misunderstood is too great. Lying is thus a defensive maneuver, a cloaking device for our identities and insecurities.
We’ve become accustomed to the lie and strive to detect it wherever we can for our own benefit, but we remain remarkably willing to trust and to believe. What would become of us if it were otherwise – a Hobbesian world of ruthless deceit and malice? Just as we require for our survival the defensive stance provided us by the lie, so too do we need the spiritual succor of trust. Perhaps then, Shaw was wrong. The liar’s punishment is that he cannot free himself from belief. He – we – must look outwards even more desperately in hope of forthright and unashamed spiritual communion with others, but all the while knowing all too well that his lies have made that impossible.
Thus having witnessed the downfall of professional cyclist Lance Armstrong this past week, I found myself unable to join the chorus of indignation and outrage surrounding his eventual admission to having taken performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his hugely successful athletic career. Perhaps I should have felt enraged. I had, after all, selected Armstrong as the subject for a 5th-grade essay of mine on the subject of who I admired, believing him at the time to be the paragon of human heroism and utterly beyond reproach in his personal and athletic exploits. But somehow I could not muster the acute sense of betrayal that the situation demanded of me. I felt that I could only pity him and wonder absently at the moral crisis that must have ravaged his soul for so long.
What was notable about Armstrong’s fall from grace? Certainly it was not his presence for well over a decade in the public eye, the high financial stakes involved by his deception or the nobility of his charitable endeavors. It was not even Armstrong’s unremitting vehemence in lashing out at his detractors with lawsuits and vitriol. It was, instead, our willingness, by the millions, to believe him. We wanted, even needed, to confide in the potential for miraculous resurrection after a catastrophic illness, for an athlete to remain “clean” amidst the thoroughly soiled sport of professional cycling and to attain unrivaled, unaided dominance in competition – shame on us, not him.
It turns out Shaw was right, but in an unexpectedly subtle way. The liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, nor in the least that he cannot believe anyone else’s lies, but that he cannot believe others’ belief in his own lies. But those others, too, cannot believe that their belief in his lies can in turn be believed. Thus the web of deceit spun by Armstrong may have been exceptionally intricate and tangled, but we should not be fooled by the comparative size of our own into believing that we, unlike him, are not spiders of the same genus and species.