Recently, five-time world chess champion Magnus Carlsen resigned a match with 19-year-old Hans Niemann and accused his opponent of cheating. His allegations have since been substantiated. In professional poker, a relative newcomer was accused of cheating in a game in which she won over $260,000. The CRLG, the world’s largest competitive Irish dancing organization, just launched a widespread investigation of cheating, which included offering sexual favors for presiding judges. And in a video gone viral, over 8 lbs. of lead weights were removed from the bellies of Ohio walleyes caught in a professional fishing tournament.
The string of cheating scandals points to a reality of the human condition after the Fall, a reality that spans time and place and cultures and even sports, ranging from the popular to the less than popular. At the Olympic Games of 388 B.C., the 98th Olympic games, a boxer named Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three opponents to throw the match. In response, the Greeks raised statues of Zeus along the route to the competition, with lightning bolts raised to punish those who would bribe or cheat their way to victory. The irony, of course, is that Zeus, “the Oath Giver” was a notorious oath breaker, cheating again and again on his wife Hera. And lest we pick on professional fishing, we should remember NFL’s “Deflategate” and the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
What is odd about our time and place is the outrage over lead weights in dead fish and yet our simultaneous shrugs over affairs, open marriages, and no-fault divorce. A recent YouGov poll found that roughly a quarter of Americans were interested in an open relationship. According to Gallup polling, though the divorce rate has actually dipped in recent years, the social acceptability of divorce is at an all-time high. And while rates of marital infidelity are difficult to track, research from the Institute for Family Studies suggests that some 13% of married women and 20% of married men have had an affair. Outside of marriage, 46% of those in committed relationships admitted to having affairs, according to a survey from Health Testing Centers.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to excuse these actions as something other than cheating: self-care, living our truth, following our hearts, and being true to ourselves. One New York Times op-ed claimed that “Divorce Can Be an Act of Radical Self-Love.” According to the author, “I divorced my husband not because I didn’t love him. I divorced him because I loved myself more.”
Bifurcating morality is a dead end, for individuals and entire societies. It’s foolish to think that breaking one of our words won’t lead to others or that, somehow, our society will be ruled by honor and kindness when we routinely choose (and celebrate) the opposite.
Despite all of our modern experiments on the family, it remains an institution that, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.” Morality, and its absence, is contagious, especially from one generation to the next. After all, families are the place we first learn to trust and to be trustworthy. If not there, then where?
As British poet William Cowper asked, “When was public virtue to be found, where private was not?” Summarizing a detailed study on social norms, BBC journalist William Park came to the same conclusion:
The greater the proportion of your friends who you believe have cheated in their relationships, the more likely you are to have cheated in the past, and the more likely you are to say that you would be willing to cheat again in the future.
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis highlighted the foolishness of societies that deny the existence of moral truth yet expect moral citizens: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
This phenomenon applies to sports as much as to marriage, to international economics as much as to personal finance, to lawmaking as much as to law keeping, to policing as much as to criminal activity. Technology may help us better detect cheating, but it won’t produce humans who won’t try. If we think otherwise, it’s because our worldview is cheating us.
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