The nation is reeling from news that 35 teachers, principals, and other education leaders in Atlanta have been charged with being part of a cheating ring – altering and fabricating test sheets and inflating test scores. The alleged architect of the ring is celebrated former superintendent of schools, Beverly Hall, who won Superintendent-of-the-Year in 2009, and an invitation to the White House, and has earned more than half a million dollars in reward bonuses over the years. She now faces the possibility of 45 years in prison.
As I read the details of this case, I was reminded of another cheating ring, led by a much-celebrated, larger-than-life winner who fell far from grace as of late: You guessed it, Lance Armstrong.
What do these Atlanta teachers and world-class cyclists have in common?
They both seem to have fallen prey to a culture of what we might call “ethical slip” – little by little, one by one, each adjusted his or her own internal compass to point the way of the growing crowd. (In the case of the Atlanta teachers, it seems their compasses may have been adjusted under threat, in many cases, rather than more subtle kinds of pressure.) What might have felt uncomfortable at first likely became increasingly normalized by the frequency and volume of its occurrence. What might have once been unthinkable likely became mind-numbing routine. And before long, a whole internal culture was created where the unethical act – doping, cheating – becomes a foundational internal logic.
Mr. Armstrong, no longer trusting his own soul, groped for answers in books. He told Oprah in his infamous interview that he “looked up the definition of cheat,” and it means “to gain an advantage on a rival or foe.” Armstrong explained: ”I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”
Both Dr. Hall and Armstrong deserve their due. Just as they were cast as leaders in front of the cameras, they were, if the case holds up in court, leaders behind the cameras, too – cultivating “ethical slips” from others by example and, sometimes, even coercion. Both are powerful reminders that when we make gods out of people, we can expect to be disappointed.
But before we grow too comfortable on our thrones of judgment, we must consider our own capacity for adjusting our internal compasses when it’s convenient and/or culturally normalized. People fudge on their taxes, tell their doctors they don’t really smoke, gossip even when they feel slightly gross about it, maybe even adhere to some questionable protocol at work that they used to think was unethical. After awhile people can get used to these ethical gray areas; instead of a sharp jolt to their moral barometers, these transgressions invoke just a dull twinge.
Many city-dwellers walk past homeless people on the street without a second glance. They may contribute time and money to help those struggling with poverty, mental illness, and addiction, but most are desensitized to their presence there on the sidewalk. They are able to depersonalize the situation in a way that they never likely would have been capable of doing as children, still deeply sensitive to the suffering of the world. But children learn. All the other adults are walking by. If they don’t do anything for this person, why should I?
Little slips, as any addict will tell you, can grow into a whole shift in identity. Armstrong himself said: “[b]ehind that story is momentum…it just gets going and I lost myself in all that.”
So what stands between each of us and the momentum that might get us truly lost? What could have stood between the cyclists and the dope or the Atlanta educators and the cheating?
Some of the simplest gifts in the world, actually: self-reflection and friendship. Just as fire needs oxygen, the ethical life needs reflection. And that reflection often requires time – moments of mentally unplugging and turning inward. Our compulsively overscheduled, hyperconnected lives are actually the perfect conditions for unethical behavior to compound itself, unnoticed underneath the frantic 21st-century buzz.
When we are forced to pause, disconnect, and reflect on who we are and what we hold dear, the places in our lives that are ethically incongruent suddenly pop out. We are alone with our thoughts, less able to justify behavior that others might find acceptable but that we, in our most honest moments, know doesn’t match who we want to be in the world. These kinds of moments can be formalized, through retreat experiences like those that the Center for Courage and Renewal and other institutions offer, or informal – a morning meditation, a moment of prayer, a lunch break devoted to journaling, a quiet walk.
The ethical life also requires brave and graceful feedback from people who trust and love us. As I watched Armstrong, and now Hall, flash over and over again on nightly newscasts, I couldn't help but wonder where their real friends were. Was there no one who loved them enough to tell them that what they were doing was out of alignment with their best selves? Were they so insulated by their fame and honor and the pressure to succeed that they became protected from any kind of critique, as well?
We must risk our friendships for the sake of integrity. We must have the courage to call one another out – with unconditional love, with empathy – when we witness the kind of ethical slips that can hurt whole communities. We must take it personally – not because we are any better than those who have fallen prey to a culture of cheating – but because we can all lose our true north at some point. And that's something we need to keep.