Tag Archives: cheating

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The ‘disgusting’ Ashley Madison exposed: The impossibility of secrecy, and the promise of forgiveness

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I can’t imagine the sorts of conversations that might be happening in households around the world this week after a group of hacktivists unleashed a public sort of hell on millions of cheaters, and would be cheaters, by naming and shaming them as members of an online infidelity service. Well. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it, except that some commercial radio hosts in Australia told a caller on air that her husband was an account holder. And her response:

“Disgusting”

I don’t listen to commercial radio, because I’m old. And lame. I listen to the ABC. On the radio this morning the consensus on talkback on the Ashley Madison data dump is that it’s not so much the sex that matters when it comes to infidelity, it’s the lying.

“Disgusting”

We’ve tangled and contorted ourselves into a weird sort of moral knot if we somehow think that the problem here is not more complicated than lying. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure my wife would appreciate me honestly telling her that I seriously wanted to sleep with other people if only she’d give her blessing. I think that desire, itself, is a problem for one’s marriage vows. But maybe that’s where the dishonesty rests… in those vows.

This breach of security and privacy does throw a bunch of interesting ideologies into the mix. It invites us to consider just how coherent a view of morality based on ‘harm’ and individual liberty really is in the scheme of deeply enmeshed human relationships. It’s easy enough to ask “where’s the harm in a bit of consensual sex between adults” but much harder to ask that question so flippantly when one or both of those adults is already enmeshed in a relationship where their actions are not simply their own, but actions of a person-in-relationship. It’s interesting to consider what privacy really is, and whether its something to protect and pursue, or at least whether its something you can ever assume. Someone called this the “wikileaks of personal data.” There are some who feel the really egregious sin here is the breach of privacy. Others have asked about the place of vigilante justice for moral, not criminal, failings (the whole vigilante thing makes me uncomfortable, be it wikileaks, or Anonymous). The company behind Ashley Madison released a statement on the breach that says:

“The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”

The question of competing visions of personal virtue and what this looks like in a society where some aspect of life is shared is interesting. I think. I’m not sure you can speak of concepts of ‘society’ and ‘citizenship’ without trying to establish a sense of virtue, or some parameters, tht hold people in a society, or people group, together.

It also invites us to ask what is really private, and whether the thoughts, desires, and private acts of one’s ‘inner-man’ or ‘inner-woman’ are morally distinct from public acts. There’s a whole bunch of modern moral theory that says its only what you do that matters, what you think is private and its your own little kingdom with your own rules. That you can’t be morally culpable for thought crime. But doesn’t this just invite us to extend our private kingdoms as far as we can? To get away with as much as we can short of actually doing something? And where do we then draw the line? What’s the moral difference between fantasy and pornography? Between signing up for a cheating account with every intention of using it, and actually using it? What difference does it make if you are in a relationship and the private ‘inner world’ denies, dishonestly, your changed status?

If an Ashley Madison account exists but nobody is there to see it, is it still ‘cheating’?

“Disgusting.”

It’s pretty easy to jump up and down and point the finger at these exposed men (and women, though nobody can really tell what percentage of Ashley Madison accounts were really real, and really women). Lots of people are doing it. We love it when some horrible person gets EXPOSED. Imagine that text as a rubber stamp graphic being thumped onto your TV screen in one of those Current Affair exposé episodes. We love a good finger point. Somehow a crass commercial exercise like exposing a cheating husband on radio is something to delight in or be fascinated by, even as a family’s life potentially disintegrates in the voyeuristic ear shot of hundreds of thousands of listeners.

But what if it were me, and my inner man in the spot light?

What if my thoughts were projected on a screen, captured, hijacked, and released to millions of voyeuristic ears and eyes baying for blood?

It’s a horrible thought. Isn’t it. My hidden desires. The stuff that I would consider doing if I thought there was any chance that nobody would ever know. That nobody could ever find out. That my privacy was guaranteed… What is it for you? Where would you go given the cover of darkness? What would you do if you had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? I know I’d be dangerous with that sort of power… and that sort of opportunity.

“Disgusting.”

I hope I’m not alone in acknowledging that if the very worst of my thoughts were captured, catalogued, and released online I would be terrified that anyone could download a database and search for my name. Least of all that my inner thoughts would be exposed to my wife, and the nation, in a radio interview.

“Disgusting.”

I feel like most of us would be destroyed if this happened, most of our relationships — at least those built on the assumption of total honesty rather than love, grace, mercy and forgiveness — would disintegrate with the voyeuristic eye of the public turned on us. I don’t want to give the guys on this database a free pass. Signing up for a terrible website offering a terrible product is a terrible and disgusting thing to do. I’m not interested so much in excusing them, but in remembering to number myself amongst the transgressors. Not because I have an Ashley Madison account, but because the account that I do have, in terms of my desires and thoughts, is not clear. My guess is neither is yours, nor any of those jumping in to condemn the cheats. We’ve all got some sort of ‘account,’ a record that if revealed to the world would cause that sort of visceral response (so long as we’re prepared to forget our account when we judge others).

“Disgusting.”

For the record, just so we’re clear, Ashley Madison is destructive, its destruction would be terrific if it didn’t involve so much collateral damage, and if the collateral damage wasn’t the result of an outraged mob baying for the blood of these “disgusting” clients. Cheating, or attempting to cheat is disgusting.

But so am I.

“DISGUSTING”

And I don’t want my disgustingness exposed. The thought profoundly terrifies me. The cost would be excruciating.

And so. I empathise with these guys who have been exposed.

I understand the desire to keep our desires private. Uncovered. Hidden in darkness. Held in encrypted digital vaults rather than published for all to see. I wish I had that sort of control. The ability to keep things hidden. But I don’t. I can’t.

What’s perhaps most shocking is that while I may never be accountable to other people for the workings and perversions of my inner-man (so long as I keep them in check and don’t sign up for, or use, web services where I can be exposed), I will certainly be accountable to God.

The God of the Bible who has a little something to say about adultery that should put all of us on notice, and invite us to not be so quick to point fingers of judgment at those ‘disgusting’ folks who have been caught out using a disgusting ‘service’ (to call it a ‘service’ as though it provides some sort of beneficial act for its customer is to be a little too generous). Jesus says the life of the inner person counts. The stuff that you think is private, and secret, isn’t. And it’ll be exposed.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. — Matthew 5:27-28

In another passage, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns against hypocrisy because nothing ‘hidden’ stays hidden.

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. — Luke 12:2-3

When it comes to God, I don’t have secrecy. But I do have grace, love and forgiveness. I might try to keep the worst of my thoughts and desires from the people around me, this desire for secrecy and darkness to get away with stuff is fundamental to our humanity — it’s exactly what Adam and Eve do when they hide from God in the garden, and its what people do over an over again in the Bible. But I should be able to trust the people who love me with this part of me, and trust their ability to love and forgive me, just as God does — often its the desire not to hurt others that rightly prevents people from oversharing the depths of their brokenness. I hope that this love and forgiveness would be offered in my marriage (I’m not seeking to test the limits), but ultimately, I know and have a promise from the one who intimately and completely knows my “inner man” that the disgusting stuff has been seen, but the record, the account, is as good as destroyed because Jesus took on the cost of my disgust, the shame, the public humiliation, and the punishment, for himself. He wore it. He owned it. He took it.

That’s good news for me, and perhaps it might be good news for the hundreds of thousands of Ashley Madison account holders in Australia, or the millions around the world, facing an uncertain future at home this week. Your account can be wiped. You can start again. Trying to hide behind ‘privacy’ and secrecy is something that should decrease over time as you follow Jesus, both because shameful behaviours should decrease, because hiding is a path to hypocrisy, and because you simply realise that Jesus bringing us into the light we no longer need darkness to feel loved and secure. That pattern of our humanity is broken because guilt, shame, and their cause — our disgusting behaviour — are taken away.

King David was an adulterer — not just in the ‘inner man’ sense — he committed adultery and like an Ashley Madison customer tried to get away with the ‘perfect’ secret ‘leave no trace of lipstick’ act. He tried to cover up his actions (and used murder to do it).

Disgusting.

And God exposed his heart, and his ‘hidden’ actions. David, more than anyone in the Bible, knows the ins and outs of the experience a bunch of blokes around the world are going through as the nightmare of having their ‘disgusting’ hearts exposed. A prophet is pretty much the equivalent of an Old Testament wikileaks, or a group of hacktivists, and David’s sin was brought out into public and recorded in the books that went on to become the Bible. A book that has been read for thousands of years. EXPOSED. You don’t get much more exposed than this. And yet, David found forgiveness and love and mercy in God, a taste of what was to come through the Cross. He wrote:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us. — Psalm 103:8-12

I’m praying some of the Ashley Madison customers thrown into the emotional abyss by this exposé find comfort in this picture of forgiveness, and find this sort of forgiveness in God through Jesus, and expressed by his people, the Church.

The invitation you’re extended, by Jesus, is to step out of darkness and secrecy, and to come into the light. You have nothing to fear when it comes to being exposed if you’re absolutely prepared to be exposed, and to point to Jesus, the one who is not disgusting, and was free from guilt and shame, as the basis of your security.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-20

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What Lance Armstrong, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, and Jesus, teach us about redemption…

Public figures fall hardest. Possibly because they fail more spectacularly, or at least in front of more people. Possibly because tall poppy syndrome means we’re waiting for the fall to happen, and ready to throw stones when it does… It’s always disappointing when someone you’ve pinned some sort of hopes on, or affiliated with your dreams, does wrong – but it’s oh so inevitable. Call it the selfish gene, call it original sin, call it human nature – we’re all wired to do the wrong thing, especially when we think we can get away with it, or the benefits outweigh the risks, and celebrities get more opportunities to do the wrong thing.

Armstrong Wordle
Image Credit: Wordle.net – a tag cloud featuring every article I link to in this post, minus “Lance” and “Armstrong”

Sometimes doing the wrong thing is even written off as the cost of success. Our sporting contests have penalties built in, and for people playing at a high level, half the battle is making snap decisions about whether or not fouling your opponent is a better decision than letting them past. Degrees of misbehaviour carry greater penalties. Diving in football is an example of people trying to game the system in the other direction. It too gets punished. It’s part of the economics of sport. So much that a Formula One team was able to tax deduct its 40 million euro fine for spying on an opposing team.

Enter Lance Armstrong. Sport’s current whipping boy. His story represents the human, and now economic, cost of cheating, and the price of a win at all cost pursuit of sporting success. He’s been abandoned by sponsors. Abandoned by his sport. Abandoned by some fans. He’s lost his titles. He’s lost the respect of most cycling fans. It looks likely he’ll lose his prize money, endorsement money, and interest. Part of the problem with Armstrong is that he’s, by the power of his self-proclaimed narrative, set himself up as a symbol of hope. And worse a role model. A position most athletes shouldn’t occupy. This means he’s falling from a greater height than most.


Credit: ABC

His brazen cheating – conducted by an incredibly complex operation, and carried out with horrifically narcissistic and vindictive attacks on anybody who dared speak out – was one thing, and arguably, according to this Grantland piece, relatively easy to cop, given that most people don’t really care about cycling:

Lance Armstrong became one of the two or three most transcendent American sports stars of his generation despite the fact that hardly anyone in America cares at all about his particular sport. The ratio of passionate Lance Armstrong fans to people who have ever actually watched Lance Armstrong race except for maybe a few minutes during this one Tour de France is just crazily out of whack.

Grantland points out that Armstrong’s charity work, and the cancer-triumphing narrative, were what made him a hero:

“…it was his story that made him a superstar: his comeback from near-fatal cancer, the hope he offered other cancer patients, his charitable work through the Livestrong Foundation, the yellow bracelets, the sense of larger purpose. Cycling wasn’t the cause here so much as the arbitrary venue in which the cause could prove itself noteworthy…

…That’s what’s so tragic about what turned out to be Armstrong’s charlatanism. He had to cheat to win. But he had to win primarily to validate the narrative, not because the consumers of the narrative liked watching him do it. One of the reasons he could be so inspiring, in other words, was that for all practical purposes he barely existed at all.”

It seems unlikely that this narrative and charity work will save his image, though someone appears to be advising him that it might (and some utilitarians seem to suggest the ends of fighting cancer justify any means). Armstrong appears willing to ride out the storm – pointing to his good deeds. But it’s not likely to work. Interestingly, you could make the case that an interview Armstrong gave seven years ago was paving the way for a guilty verdict and his current plea to leave his charity out of the muck. In doublespeak, the interview given by a guy who is, more than likely, guilty, is a pre-emptive damage-controlling non-disclosure.

He said his sponsors and charity would disappear if he was caught.

“All of them. And the faith of all the cancer survivors around the world … And don’t think for a second I don’t understand that. It’s not about money for me. Everything. It’s also about the faith that people have put in me over the years. So all of that would be erased.”

And his sponsors have. The impact on his charity is yet to be determined. Some people, the people he has helped over the years, are still in his corner.

But I also can’t stop noticing that many of the people still defending him — not denying that he cheated, just knowingly rooting for him anyway — are cancer survivors or the family members of cancer patients. Robert Lipsyte wrote about this for The New Republic, how the thought of Armstrong helped get him through chemotherapy. And once you start thinking along those lines, that he meant that much to people, that it’s not a trivial thing to be a hero of feeling, this becomes one of those problems you can’t think your way outside.

This has been true in my observations of discussions of Armstrong amongst my friends and contacts on social media.

Grantland has an interesting reminder for those of us who follow Jesus… it should change how we think about stories like this.

Or maybe not; but it’s always hard to remember that there were victims in cases like this, and what you do remember — hypocrisy and rule-breaking — doesn’t always look so bad a few years down the line. How you feel about that probably depends on what you think heroism means in America, and whether you picture Halloween or Jesus when you hear that the dead are rising from their graves.

This is profoundly true – knowing that all people do the wrong thing, and that this is part of being human – and the foundation of our need for redemption through Jesus – means it’s pretty hard to throw stones at Lance, because, there but for the grace of God, and the cycling ability, go we.

But if there’s one thing we seem to like more than a public scandal, it’s a public story of redemption. People are already making interesting links between the narrative arcs of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods (and here), and Lance Armstrong and Mike Tyson, especially because Tyson is in the news because he’s coming to Australia on a charity tour.

Mike Tyson has had a complete rebrand – he doesn’t eat meat, or ears, any more. He’s apologised for stuff (but apparently still denies he committed the crime he was jailed for). He appears in movies. And now he’s raising money for indigenous communities in Australia – which some people, as they do in Armstrong’s case, suggest covers over a multitude of sins. I don’t think charity work as PR penance works. Unless it’s built on an acknowledgment of wrongdoing after the fact. And even then. You can’t rely on the charitable stuff you were doing while you were cheating to excuse your cheating. That Armstrong could only have the profile he has, and the charitable impact he has, because of the drugs he took, doesn’t really justify the taking of drugs, or the empire of deception built up around it. Tyson “redeemed” his brand, in the eyes of many, through an apology.

Tiger Woods apologised, and now seems to be working pretty hard to win back public affections by doing what he does best, golf, it is hard to go past a compelling “redemption narrative.” Story after story about sports people who’ve behaved badly use this r-word. In many cases they focus on on-field performance, and express a desire for unparalleled talent to have the opportunity to shine once more – almost as if the tragedy is the furore, not the act. This isn’t really possible in Armstrong’s case – because his talent is forever tainted – which may even make his redemption impossible in some eyes.

But we want an apology.

Most of us are realistic about the human condition, and aware that celebrity doesn’t do away with humanity. So we’re prepared to cut people a fair bit of slack. If only they’d apologise. A bit of hard work atoning for your wrongdoing is nice, but apparently redemption requires contrition, not just sporting excellence.

And this idea is Biblical (from Psalm 51)… and one of those times where I think what works for one’s relationship with God, transfers to how one relates to the public (a reverse of plundering gold from the Egyptians if you will).

16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.”

This is part of one of the biggest redemption narratives of all time – David writes the Psalm after being confronted by the prophet Nathan about his adultery. Arguably only Paul undergoes a bigger character rebrand in the Bible. It might sound like a contrite heart is some sort of meritorious act that immediately produces a desired result – but there’s nothing worse, when salvaging a brand, than inauthentic contrition – like a non-apology apology.

Calvin’s commentary on Psalms gives a similar take on these verses… which I like.

“The man of broken spirit is one who has been emptied of all vain-glorious confidence, and brought to acknowledge that he is nothing. The contrite heart abjures the idea of merit, and has no dealings with God upon the principle of exchange.”

Genuine contrition isn’t produced to secure a result – because it can’t. It’s about admitting that you’re no longer in control of the result – it’s about asking for mercy. And this only really works if you genuinely realise you’ve done the wrong thing. It’s not a lever you pull to secure an outcome… as much as brand managers and spinners want to manipulate public goodwill with carefully architectured apologies.

The big debate surrounding Armstrong, at the moment, is not whether his good deeds off the track are enough to cover the sins on it, but whether he’ll man up and admit he did wrong, and make the apology people seem to feel entitled to. PR expert after PR expert is trotting out this same advice (this one includes “six apology basics”), though some people think the moment has passed. One cycling company is assuming the inevitability of Armstrong’s redemption, and has circumvented the process by offering him a job, which is, in itself, a PR exercise for that company. The media agrees.

“Only one way out of this mess, Lance Armstrong. America can love a fallen hero, but only if he admits the fall — and apologizes for lying about it. Do those two things, Lance Armstrong, and we’ll love you again.

At the moment? We’re disgusted.

It’s not the cheating, because lots of world-class athletes cheat. We’ve come to grips with that generality, and particularly with the notion that cycling is the dirtiest sport of them all. That’s what we think, and even if we’re wrong, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, people truly believe cycling is dirty — as in, everyone is dirty. You can’t get to the top of that sport without cheating. History has shown us that.”

If Armstrong wants to recover his brand, or salvage anything from this situation, rather than relying on his past good works, or even future good works, it seems, from the punditry, that he needs to be personally convicted that he’s done the wrong thing – he needs to admit it, and he needs to ask for mercy. The principle is the same whether your’re trying to salvage your multi-million dollar personal brand, or, more importantly, turning to God for true redemption. The best news for Christians is that the hard work atoning for our wrongdoings has been done for us, by Jesus.

With every drug saga in cycling come the enlightened souls who suggest drugs should just be legalised, and drug companies should become sponsors. Or people who write off the cheating as the cost of doing business. Or moral failings as a human touch that we’re not in a position to judge. And in a sense, both responses are legitimate intellectual responses to the human condition. There are plenty who want to insist that Armstrong’s charity work means he’s a good guy, no matter how deep down.

The complexity of this moral situation is heightened by his refusal to confess. It leaves the situation ambiguous. It’s interesting that contrition and repentance – not working hard to atone for what you did wrong (though that comes after) is so universally seen as the precondition for redemption – because in one sense, that’s the Christian gospel being mirrored in the world. Lance isn’t a role model. He isn’t the messiah (there’s even some question about the value his charity actually produces for fighting cancer – it seems more focused on style than substance (ie research into a cure)). He’s also a very naughty boy. But he’s human. Like us. He does wrong. Like me. He cheats like me – just on a bigger stage with a bigger scale. He lies, like me – it’s just that more people listen to him. He needs redemption like me – not just for his career, but for himself. But I’m thankful that someone paid for my wrongdoings – of which there are many, though they’re seen by a much smaller number of people. Lance and I are the same though – because everything we do is seen by God, and real redemption, for both of us, doesn’t come from apologising and being contrite – though that’s a start – real redemption comes from turning to the guy who didn’t stuff up, the real role model, the guy who did the atoning for what we did wrong.

Lance Armstrong doesn’t need a superficial PR rebrand driven by false contrition and a long road to redemption. He doesn’t need a long record of doing good stuff for other people. He needs Jesus. Like all of us.

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A new excuse for cheating at stupid games

There’s an adage amongst those who know my siblings and I, its almost axiomatic. When it comes to party games, and some board games (excluding Scrabble and Take Two which we generally take fairly seriously), we’re horrible cheaters.

I’ve never known why. I put it down to having a limited attention span and not believing most games are worth playing unless you win.

Turns out we’re just creative. So there. Stop oppressing us with your desire for boring conformity and let us think outside the box.

“The same enterprising mind that allows creative people to consider new possibilities, generate original ideas, and resolve conflicts innovatively may be what also helps them justify their own dishonest behavior, said the authors of the new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Ethical dilemmas often require people to weigh two opposing forces: the desire to maximize self-interest and the desire to maintain a positive view of oneself,” wrote business professors Francesca Gino, at Harvard, and Dan Ariely, at Duke University. “Recent research has suggested that individuals tend to resolve this tension through self-serving rationalizations: They behave dishonestly enough to profit from their unethical behavior but honestly enough to maintain a positive self-concept as honest human beings.”

Turns out I’m also “ethically flexible”… who knew.

How to not get caught cheating

It’s a sad indictment on the state of our cultural morality that most techblogs I subscribe to are using the Tiger Woods infidelity story as an opportunity to help their readers not get caught cheating*. Because, you know, it’s so much harder these days with all the avenues of monitoring people. What if a photo gets put on Facebook? What if you forget to delete incriminating messages.

Here’s how to not get caught cheating in one easy step.

Step 1. Don’t cheat.

It’s that simple. It also works for not getting caught doing all sorts of wrong things. “Do not commit adultery” is one of the Ten Commandments for a reason. It’s not a nice thing to do. You probably shouldn’t. If by chance you’ve googled “how to not get caught cheating” and arrived here – think twice. If you’ve googled it, and arrived here, and you’ve already cheated, go to step 2.

The best way to avoid the surrounding furore, in the event that you fail in achieving step 1 is to take step 2…

Step 2. If you do cheat, confess.

That way the media/everyone you know doesn’t have a field day at your expense. And they don’t feel like they have to dig through your dirty laundry. Full disclosure is the best PR policy.

*I won’t link to the articles – they’re dumb and I don’t want to help anybody in this pursuit – unless you’re cheating at cards… I’m ok with that… unless it’s for money…

Another Something…

Is it cheating/not in the spirit of things/unethical to flag your opponent’s blogger blogs as having inappropriate content? 

The joys of self hosting…

How to win at Jenga every time

Tired of your precariously positioned Jenga tower collapsing as you carefully slide a block out of place. Well – blast those fears away with this Jenga cannon found here and with a making of guide here. And possibly take out your competitor’s eye in the process – helping you win every time.

The Campbells, fairly or unfairly, have a reputation for cheating to win so this will be a popular stocking filler next Christmas.