It is scary to see the power of rationalization. We humans can exert great effort to persuade ourself that wrong is right. With enough effort, we can persuasively argue that wrong is a positive good, the noble alternative.
It is unsettling to me when I see a client deeply believe that tax or accounting fraud is perfectly legitimate and I am the one who is in the wrong to suggest otherwise. Worrisome is a watching a friend who believes that hurtful or destructive or nasty or evil behavior is Godly. Even more upsetting is when I catch my brain in full rationalization mode.
No, I’m not about to give any examples from clients, friends, or my life.
Unfortunately, we have a sad public example of rationalization racing at full power (sad pun intended).
Some background on Lance Armstrong’s massive doping schemes
Many public sources report that Lance Armstrong has been found to use performance enhancing drugs for a very long time. He won seven consecutive Tour de France races.
According to Wikipedia, in 2012 he received a life-time world ban on all competitive events in all sports. His seven wins were revoked. He was found to have engaged in sophisticated doping schemes for many years.
In 2013, he admitted massive doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. He admitted using a long and specific list of banned substances and did so in each of the 7 Tour de France races.
Rationalization on display
Having set the background, let’s look at an article in The Guardian: Lance Armstrong: I would probably cheat again in similar circumstances. Thanks to Professor Mike Shaub (twitter @mikeshaub) for pointing out the article.
In an interview that will be shown later this week, Mr. Armstrong told BBC a number of things.
He said that back in 1995 everyone was doping. He was. His entire team was. The entire “peloton” was. (Had to look that up. Peloton is the main group of riders in a bike race.)
Essentially he is accusing everyone who raced in the 1990s of doping.
The article’s author says Mr. Armstrong did
… offer something that began to resemble an apology for his misdeeds …
I disagree. There is nothing that has the first hint of any vague correlation to an apology.
Instead he blames society and the racing sport for his doping.
He is sorry though.
He is sorry that he was forced into the place where he had to dope to be competitive. He is sorry that his only choices in life were to take banned drugs or go back home and get a job as a common laborer in a dreary factory.
Think I’m too harsh? Check out the quoted lines, as descried in the article:
“If I go back to 1995 … I think we’re all sorry. And do you know what we’re sorry for? We’re sorry that we were put in that place. None of us wanted to be in that place. …
“We’re sorry, we’re sorry that we were put in a place and we looked around as desperate kids and thought: ‘God, I’ve got to go back [home] … and maybe go back to school, or get a job, or work in a bike shop or work in a factory’.”
So, it is society’s fault. Not his. WE made him do it, you and me and everyone else.
From articles I’ve read (won’t bother to link, but the Wikipedia article above briefly mentions the issue), he engaged in, um, rather aggressive litigation against people who publicly claimed he did the things which he eventually admitted to Oprah.
Apparently it was someone other than Mr. Armstrong who engaged in that scorched earth litigation and publicity effort. In the article, he regrets that other person was so mean.
Think I’m too harsh? Check out the quote, as listed in the Guardian article:
… he would change the way he behaved to those who stood up to him, such as the whistleblower Emma O’Reilly, his fellow cyclist Filippo Simeoni and the writer David Walsh. “I would want to change the man that did those things, maybe not the decision, but the way he acted. The way he treated other people.”
That guy back then, whoever it was, should have behaved a little bit nicer according to Mr. Armstrong. If we could find that guy, perhaps we could get an apology from him.
All the way back to Adam in the garden
Rationalization has been around a long time. All the way back to the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
God directly gave Adam specific instructions not to eat from one specific tree. After Adam ate the forbidden fruit, God asked him what was going on (my casual paraphrase). In Genesis 3:12, Adam says
The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it (NIV).
This is an amazing twofer.
It isn’t Adam’s fault. It is the woman’s fault. Furthermore, God put the woman here and therefore it is God’s fault. Don’t blame Adam!
Humans (and especially us guys) have been rationalizing and blameshifting ever since. Seeing it in full operation today is scary.
The power of rationalization in action
Don’t blame me. It’s the fault of that woman over there. Oh, and God, it’s also your fault for putting her here.
It’s not my fault. I was forced to break the rules every day.
I’m not saying I’m sorry, but I do wish that man back then had done things differently.