The recent confession of cycling icon Lance Armstrong to a life built on lies, deception, and seven doping-enabled Tour de France victories is notable both for its format and the public's response.
First, Mr. Armstrong's sins were confessed to Oprah, who next to the Kennedys is pretty much the closest thing to royalty that America can find to fill the 237-year-old void it still seems to feel when it comes to monarchy. But there's more: Oprah is now a quasi-religious cultural construct, having assumed the roles of She To Whom One's Sins Are Confessed and She From Whom Forgiveness and Absolution are Sought. Indeed, Calgary is all abuzz because it will be the city in which Oprah (who, like Pele, no longer has need of a surname) first publicly appears follow her meeting with The Great Cheater.
People will hang on every word, wondering what she thinks. Did she find him sincere? Should we forgive him? If so, when and after what form of penance? It is as if all the eyes in the Coliseum have turned towards the Empress, wondering if the thumb will turn up or will it turn down?
More, these public floggings of overly ambitious athletes have become increasingly alarming for the sorts of discussions there are producing. Here, for instance, is the latest question I heard posed regarding the Armstrong file: Is it really cheating if everyone else is doing it?
The answer is simple if you live in a world of objective truth: Yes, it is. If it is against the rules, it is cheating. We may wish, theologically or legally, to collectively debate the rules and their interpretation but once they are rules they are rules. But if you live in the increasingly popular world of hyper-individualistic moral relativism, a world in which "no one has the right to judge me or be the boss of me," where your self-esteem is the prime purpose of life? Then the answer is, like everything else in that world, maybe. Because, it's, ya know, like, all the other guys in the locker room are taking something, so it's not like I'm doing anything wrong, I'm just asking for a level playing field. Once you allow what is acceptable to be defined solely by what is common practice, pretty much anything becomes possible.
Interestingly, this extends to the rest of us who compete in life beyond the celebrity light that shines upon the likes of Lance Armstrong. We compete for love, friends, prestige, power, influence, the primacy of our ideas, and money both in our personal and professional lives. The halls of corporate offices are, those who have worked within them can attest, a virtual battlefield. How do we conduct ourselves in these competitions? Are there rules? Do we follow them or do we cheat? And, if everyone else is doing it and the rules are only defined by the lowest common denominator, is it cheating?
Is Lance Armstrong any more a cheater (set the lies aside for a moment) than Cristiano Ronaldo is when the Real Madrid star takes a flop to earn a penalty kick like all the other strikers do and wins a famous sporting victory?
Is the employee who finally caves to peer pressure and mails it in because "everyone else is doing it" any less of a cheater? Or the job promotion candidate who casually undermines a rival with eyebrows and muttered questions about supposed personal life choices or imaginary drinking habits?
How we answer these questions, assuming we retain the ability to ask them, will shape the world in which we live. Ideas matter.