Michael K. Shaub, January 22nd, 2013
I have hesitated to write about this past week’s revelations about Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong until I had some time to process them, and until I gave the Te’o story a little more time to play out. What these two stories have revealed is remarkable in a lot of ways. But the two words I keep returning to are gullibility and sincerity.
Of course, Manti Te’o demonstrated incredible gullibility in emotionally embracing a woman he had never met and who, as it turned out, never existed. But he is by no means the first to do this, and it was being done long before there was an internet. The combination of wishful thinking, distance, and a longing for a meaningful relationship has resulted in heartache throughout the generations. In Manti Te’o’s case, however, it was not just the cruel people who apparently pulled this trick on him who were liars. Someone has either lied or misreported the facts and circumstances of the case—perhaps one of the authors of the multiple stories, perhaps Te’o or his father. The details about meeting his “girlfriend” at a Stanford game and about her travelling to Hawaii on multiple occasions are irreconcilable with the other details that have come to light. So this is not just gullibility at work here.
But there is every indication that Te’o is sincere. Everything revealed in the back story points to a genuine young man who cares about others and is largely selfless. Of course, many think that he covered up details to minimize embarrassment, and some have said he was ensnared in the Heisman hype. But this does not seem to be someone whose life is primarily oriented toward self-aggrandizing behavior.
On the other hand, if insincerity was an art form, Lance Armstrong would be Van Gogh, only with two ears. I found it painful to watch his conversation with Oprah Winfrey; it reminded me a lot of the interviews I have watched with a litany of business executives who have “come clean” far too late to make any difference, except perhaps for their own conscience’s sake. Listening to Lance Armstrong is enough to make you instinctively reach for your wallet. He is the epitome of a calculator, using others for his own gain until there is no gain to be made. He may have made a bad calculation this time because he went from a rich person no one trusted, to a rich person no one trusted who is about to be sued for all past and future earnings. I generally don’t believe in wage garnishment but, in Lance’s case, I will make an exception.
On the other hand, I am probably wrong about what will happen to him. Lance Armstrong is a master calculator, and he has almost always had those calculations work out according to plan. I would not underestimate his ability to generate cash flows from book and movie rights that are more than adequate to cover any additional liabilities arising from his “transparency.” He was able to keep the ruse going sufficiently to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles, even though many were suspicious of his doping from the very beginning. And he systematically sued his enemies, into oblivion if necessary. If you are dealing with someone ruthless and insincere, my advice is to watch your back.
But there will always be those who are gullible, because a life of trust is preferable to a life of constant suspicion. And, in our culture, we love liars. We love them because we want to think the best about people, but we also love them because they flatter us, and because we prefer fantasy to reality. We want to believe the unbelievable. And we bow down and worship these people who fulfill this unreality we seek. We avoid the hard questions that would point to who these people really are.
Actually, in some ways, gullibility goes hand-in-hand with sincerity. The same qualities that made Manti Te’o susceptible to an internet love affair cause us to embrace those who somehow fill the crevices of disappointment in our lives. The public was as gullible about the Te’o story as it was about the magical accomplishments of a cycling cancer survivor.
How do we keep from doing this over and over again?
Be sincere, but don’t be gullible. And remember that the real heroes, the ones who can actually make your life better, are sitting at your dinner table, and in the living room, and behind you in the classroom. They are working tirelessly in obscure pulpits and elementary school classrooms and fire stations. They will never talk to Oprah, because she would not be interested, and they would have nothing to say to her. The protection for these sincere people is that they are content, and they do not need the Lance Armstrongs of the world to make their lives worthwhile, and thus they are not gullible.
These people are my heroes.