Liar, liar, pants on fire

What do some stu­dents, politi­cians and ath­letes have in com­mon? They’re all liars

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Lynne Agress Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Pro­gram of Johns Hop­kins, is pres­i­dent of BWB-Busi­ness Writ­ing At Its Best Inc. and au­thor of “The Fem­i­nine Irony” and “Work­ing With Words in Busi­ness and Le­gal Writ­ing.” Her email is lyn­neagress@ao

Nearly 40 years ago, Sis­sela Bok, wife of for­mer Har­vard Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Derek Bok, wrote “Ly­ing: Moral Choice in Pri­vate and Pub­lic Life.” The book, with its de­tailed analy­ses of causes and con­se­quences, was much ac­claimed when it first ap­peared in 1978 and is still widely used in class­rooms to­day.

Un­for­tu­nately, per­haps in many of th­ese same class­rooms, cheat­ing among stu­dents is ram­pant. In a shock­ing ar­ti­cle pub­lished in 2010 in The Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, Ed Dante (the au­thor’s lit­er­ary pseu­do­nym) de­scribed in de­tail how he has made a lu­cra­tive liv­ing by writ­ing term pa­pers, pro­pos­als, even the­ses, for un­der­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate stu­dents, many of whom, he said, were barely lit­er­ate. “As far as I know,” said Mr. Dante, “not one of my cus­tomers has ever been caught.”

Mr. Dante’s “cus­tomers” in­cluded nurses, MBA stu­dents, even sem­i­nar­i­ans. But the ma­jor­ity, as­serted Mr. Dante, come from three de­mo­graph­ics: “English-as-sec­ond­lan­guage stu­dents, hope­lessly de­fi­cient stu­dents and lazy rich kids.” It would seem that a com­bi­na­tion of the lat­ter two cat­e­gories could be com­bustible. Not sur­pris­ingly, Mr. Dante’s ar­ti­cle be­came the most read and com­mented on piece in the Chron­i­cle’s his­tory.

Ac­cord­ing to a New York Times sur­vey, 61 per­cent of un­der­grad­u­ates ad­mit to some form of cheat­ing on as­sign­ments and ex­ams. The per­cent­age of ac­tual cheaters is likely higher if you in­clude those who weren’t will­ing to con­fess, even anony­mously. While this group prob­a­bly wouldn’t steal a wal­let, they talk them­selves into steal­ing the workof oth­ers and pass­ing it off as their own, driven by the pres­sure to do well in school com­bined with a lack of will, abil­ity or dis­ci­pline to com­plete cer­tain tasks.

But stu­dents aren’t the only ones who lie to get by. In surely one of the strangest and most con­tentious pres­i­den­tial con­tests in his­tory, Hil­lary Clin­ton ver­sus Don­ald Trump, ly­ing has taken on huge pro­por­tions. Ac­cord­ing to Poli­ti­Fact’s midyear elec­tion re­port, 78 per­cent of Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign state­ments that the group factchecked were mostly false or com­pletely false. The fig­ure was 26 per­cent for Hil­lary Clin­ton — clearly bet­ter, but still wor­ri­some.

In­deed, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pub­lic fig­ures who have lied is ex­tra­or­di­nary: Eliot Spitzer’s lies about pa­tron­iz­ing pros­ti­tutes led him to re­sign the New York gov­er­nor­ship, but earned him a ca­ble talk show. And for­mer Bal­ti­more Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Ed Nor­ris was sen­tenced to jail for ly­ing, cheat­ing and steal­ing, but was re­warded with his own ra­dio talk show when he emerged.

Then there’s Ryan Lochte’s per­for­mance at the re­cent Rio Olympics; the gold medal swimmer, with three of his team­mates, fab­ri­cated a story about be­ing robbed at gun­point when it turned out he and his pals, all in­tox­i­cated, were never robbed, but in­stead had trashed a gas sta­tion — a rather em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tion for the United States. Con­tin­u­ing in the sports arena: Foot­ball and base­ball play­ers have lied to Congress about their steroid use, but per­haps the big­gest sports lie to gain me­dia at­ten­tion in re­cent years was Lance Arm­strong’s. A can­cer- sur­vivor who won the Su­per Bowl of cy­cling — the Tour de France — seven times, he was con­sid­ered a hero. Un­til, that is, he was forced to ad­mit that he used per­for­manceen­hanc­ing drugs nu­mer­ous times.

In a Bal­ti­more Sun col­umn about the Lance Arm­strong case, the late ra­dio host and com­men­ta­tor Ron Smith claimed that he “would like to see the gov­ern­ment bring the same ded­i­ca­tion to hunt­ing down the Wall Street crim­i­nals who brought down the econ­omy as it does to pur­su­ing ath­letes who cheated.”

It makes me won­der why the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion, sup­pos­edly Wall Street’s watch dog, never acted on re­peated re­ports they re­ceived about the shenani­gans of Bernie Madoff and those who en­abled him to per­pet­u­ate a bil­lion­dol­lar fraud by ly­ing. To be sure, no one was re­warded in that case. Mr. Madoff went to jail, and his fam­ily was de­stroyed by his son’s sui­cide; many in­no­cent peo­ple lost their re­tire­ment sav­ings, and in­sti­tu­tions, their in­vest­ments.

When I was a lit­tle girl, my mother taught me the fol­low­ing line from a Wal­ter Scott poem: “Oh, what a tan­gled web we weave, when first weprac­tice to de­ceive.” It’s a good warn­ing for stu­dents, politi­cians (es­pe­cially pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates), ath­letes, Wall Street — in­deed for ev­ery­one. For in the end, ly­ing rarely helps any­one.


U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte, sec­ond from right, and team­mates,ap­pear in this video still from a Brazil gas sta­tion dur­ing the 2016 Sum­mer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A Brazil po­lice of­fi­cial said the swim­mers dam­aged prop­erty at the gas sta­tion.

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