This week in North Philly Notes, Erich Goode, author of Justifiable Conduct, applies his knowledge about how writers neutralize their wrongdoing to the case of Lance Armstrong.
Why were we so surprised?
The steadfast denials. The defiant stares. The self-righteous attitude. The attempts to destroy his opponents and accusers. The seven Tour de France triumphs—withdrawn. The awards, the accolades, the medals—tainted, erased, invalidated. Dust in the wind. The heroic survivor of a toxic, potentially fatal case of testicular cancer? Stigmatized by scandal. The altruistic booster of charitable foundations and causes—discredited; the organizations themselves undermined, their very existence in doubt. Now facing an eight-year ban from the sport, and possibly barred from competition forever. His legacy, a pile of rubble. A proud man humbled; his supporters and endorsers aghast; an army of fans baffled; a nation bamboozled.
It was much worse than we could possibly have imagined. The USADA report, which concluded that Lance Armstrong ran “the most sophisticated, professional, and successful doping program” the sport of cycling has ever seen, is now regarded definitive, incontrovertible. Lance Armstrong did not passively allow a trainer to administer drugs to himself; he ran a doping ring. A big one. A highly organized one. He gave others dope. He pressured them into taking dope.
It takes one’s breath away.
Lance Armstrong wanted to win. Desperately. So do all of us—some of us, admittedly, more than others. And Armstrong’s doping scheme was grander, badder, more spectacular than any act of knavery most of us could have come up with.
But what happens when we get caught breaking the rules? What do we have to say for ourselves? And what did Lance Armstrong have to say for himself?
We try to explain away our cheating. We self-exculpate. We offer strategies of redemption—“acceptable utterances” that account for what we did. We neutralize the stigma of our behavior. “Lots of others did the same.” “I didn’t run the show.” “The system is unfair.” “I’ve been through some rough times.” “I apologize for my sins.”
“Hollow” efforts at redemption? Yes, we call these strategies “rationalizations,” and true, they are rhetorical devices. But I sense a measure of heartfelt emotion oozing from these contrivances. Wrongdoers typically believe that the acts they exculpate are not as bad as their detractors claim. These are not simple lies to get away with wrongdoing; they represent efforts to ingratiate themselves with audiences. They reflect an all-too-human quest for forgiveness.
Autobiographical statements brim with recitations of absolution for one’s sins and transgressions. They represent the conclusion of morality tales—its illegitimate love-child, so to speak. They bring their audience into the narration and manage to lift a sickly pallor from the narrator’s person. Apologies, justifications, denials—all constitute clay for sculpting one’s self-portrait. St. Augustine’s abasement before God for stealing a few of his neighbor’s pears and for fathering an out-of-wedlock child, and Lance Armstrong’s declaration, “I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people,” are fraternal twins: Both of them address and seek absolution from an audience, and hence, both are rich with empathy. Their narrators use a conventional vocabulary to apologize for unconventional behavior; they acknowledge the common ground between speaker and audience, agree that the speaker has sinned, and recognize that said speaker has vowed to atone for past sins. They have entered into a kind of social contract that we can liken to a morality play, with the speaker playing both protagonist and antagonist. “I have sinned, but I have been sinned against, and I will sin no more.”
Armstrong has gotten our attention. Many of us hear his apologia—his version of an apologia—and hold damnation in abeyance. The hair shirt, the speaking engagements, the PR machine, the skillfully placed, orchestrated op-eds—they are likely to follow a well-worn path toward ultimate redemption. This is a human drama that sinners and audiences have played out multiple times throughout history. Accounts of wrongdoing subsequent to public revelation serve to reknit the damaged social fabric and reintegrate the sinner with the society at large. If Lance Armstrong has not perfectly played out his role as the ideal repentant sinner, neither is he the perfect monster we love to hate. He reminds us of our frailties and entreats us to readmit him to the flock. How can we say no?
All of us wait, with enormous anticipation, to hear and read Lance’s elaborated rhetorical shift from denial to apology; we can be sure it’ll be interesting and revealing. We can count on that full account in his inevitable, forthcoming memoir. I’ll be one of his first readers.
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