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On Cheating And How Not To
Sunday, October 24 @ 10:30 am - 11:30 am
Rev Furrer. on resisting the temptation to cut corners, fake results, or fudge data. And what one gains in the process.
how to attend
• To virtually attend, please Zoom in using room number 989 3107 9078, passcode: chalice.
• To phone into the service, call 669-900-6833, Meeting ID: 989 3107 9078.
For those joining, please mute as soon as you enter the room, so everyone can hear. Please note, the services will be recorded, but at this time, there are no plans to share the recording.
On Cheating And How Not To
Today I shall be preaching on cheating…and how not to. Now by cheating I mean cheating in general, not infidelity—which is cheating of a specific kind. What I’m trying to say applies to every kind of deliberate dishonesty, marital faithlessness included. I’ll be asking three questions:
• What is cheating?
• Why do we cheat? And
• How can it be stopped?
I began focusing on this subject 20+ years ago as a middle school parent trying to help my child grow into a good kid with her emotional and psychic integrity in tact. We were living in those days half way between Boston and Worchester, Massachusetts. One summer articles began appearing in The Boston Globe—they were picked up by the wire services so perhaps some of you saw them—involving allegations that the Dean of Boston University’s School of Communications, Joachim Maitre, had plagiarized lengthy portions of his commencement address. Less well publicized than in 2016 when Melania Trump’s GOP Convention speech plagiarized from Michelle Obama, but commensurate in every way.
Joachim Maitre was a genuine intellectual with an unusual academic past. The son of a WWII German SS officer, he’d been trained as a fighter pilot in East Germany. In the early ‘50s he defected to the West, studied at the Universities of Bonn and Innsbruck before earning a Ph.D. from McGill in Montreal. His field of expertise was military journalism. Along the way, he became an ally and protégé of BU’s hard-nosed and irascible President John Silber. And he’d become involved in just enough reporting from Third World hot spots (or was it pro-Western, pro-military propaganda? Particularly in Afghanistan…?) such that many believed he also worked for the C.I.A.
In any case, Joachim Maitre was an outspoken conservative. His commencement address—on the breakdown of ethical standards and its destructive effects on American culture—was typical of his work: decrying moral relativism and pleading for a return to the rock-ribbed values of yesteryear.
The speech was well received. Videocassette copies were selling briskly at the BU Campus Bookstore. Summer vacation began and soon Dean Maitre was off to Southeast Asia conducting a feasibility study there for a major business and media group when, slowly at first and then with increasing speed, allegations surfaced declaring that Maitre had cheated. That fifteen whole paragraphs of his text had been lifted—nearly verbatim—from an article written by Santa Monica cultural critic Michael Medved and published in Imprinis, an obscure scholarly review. Unfortunately for the Dean, The Reader’s Digest had picked up the piece, with readership in the millions. And the next thing you know, Joachim is flying back from Kuala Lumpur with egg on his face.
In the end, he admitted what he’d done: ignored the very standards he so imperiously—and hypocritically—extolled. Such irony! In a gesture of gracious generosity to a longstanding ally, President Silber, while relieving Maitre of his Deanship, let him keep his tenured position on the faculty—where he remained through his retirement in 2013 and his death last year.
Perhaps it’s because as a minister I’m involved in writing papers—and bound to similar ethical guidelines concerning plagiarism—that this incident so caught my attention. Maybe it’s the well-deserved comeuppance we vicariously feel whenever a rigid moralist is hoist by their own petard. Whatever; I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole affair. Was such cheating typical? Or rare? How much cheating is going on? As Maitre was a scholar, I started there.
• In recent years large-scale cheating has been uncovered at some of the nation’s most competitive schools, including Stuyvesant High School in NYC, The Air Force Academy, and Harvard.
• Studies of student attitudes and behavior show that a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity somewhat, with high achievers just as likely to cheat as others. There is evidence that the problem has grown worse over recent decades.
• Internet access makes cheating easier, helping students quickly connect with answers and find articles from which they can plagiarize. This confirms generations of research showing that a major factor in unethical behavior is simply how easy or hard it is to get away with it.
• If a student is too busy to copy or plagiarize in the typical way, no problem; term papers can be easily purchased whole cloth. In fact, the selling of such papers has become a minor industry in itself: the more scientific the subject the higher the purchase price. Ethics papers, ironically, remain fairly cheap.
• Cheating has become easier and more tolerated largely because both schools and parents have failed to give students messages regarding what’s allowed and what’s not—and then following through with consequences for misbehavior.
More and more teachers, it turns out, are cheating too. Fact fudging in scientific research, long a forbidden subject in academia, is now recognized as a real problem. In a 2012 article in the journal Nature, research scientists found that findings in 90 per cent of the important cancer papers published in top medical journals could not be replicated, even with the help of original scientists. Elsewhere, scientists reviewed 67 projects, covering four years of the pharmaceutical giant Bayer’s work in oncology, cardiovascular disease, and women’s health and found results from internal experiments matched up with the published findings in only fourteen projects (<21%), and were highly inconsistent in forty-three (64%). “People take for granted what they see published,” John Ioannidis, an expert on data reproducibility at Stanford University School of Medicine, wrote in a 2011 article in Nature. “But this and other studies are raising deep questions about whether we can really believe the literature, or whether we have to go back and do everything on our own.” Some of the un-reproducible results are probably due to sloppy research, but much of it appears to be the result of deliberate cheating.
Having learned the ropes in college, young graduates enter the workplace. But first—in order to land a job—they’ll need a résumé: up to 30% of which, states The Wall Street Journal, are rife with bogus information. Résumé fudging is common among would-be corporate lawyers, according to recent studies quoted in The National Law Journal.
Within business, dealing in trade secrets and industrial espionage is common practice: While living in the Bay Area four years ago, Tesla Motors in nearby Freemont filed a breach of contract lawsuit against three former employees associated with their self-driving technology for “stealing hundreds of gigabytes” of confidential Tesla information. Across the business world embezzlement, fraud, and corruption are growing problems with abuses reaching their pinnacle in commodities and securities markets. Late last year Ireland convicted and sent to jail three former executives at the defunct Anglo Irish Bank for concealing the loss of billions of euros, contributing to Ireland’s 2008 economic collapse. And who can forget Bernard Madoff, the founder of a prestige Wall Street investment firm and former NASDAQ Chairman who admitted in open court that the wealth management arm of his business was an elaborate Ponzi scheme. Also well publicized were the insider trading scandals of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky and the elaborate garbage can banging signaling fastball which they parlayed into a World Championship, albeit a tarnished one.
With their well-tailored clothing and impressive connections such people somehow seem too respectable to be criminals. And yet:
“Ah, that deceit should steal
such gentle shapes,” wrote Shakespeare,
“and with a virtuous visor
hide deep vice.”
Shakespeare knew, too. That quotation was from Richard III. I remember studying it as a schoolboy, along with a half dozen other histories and Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. I remember, too, the dark intrigue and sordid pursuits of so many of Shakespeare’s ruling characters as having puzzled me. As had the equally nefarious behavior of so many Biblical kings and potentates. People in power don’t really lie and deceive like that, I thought…. Do they? Ah, but…I was just a schoolboy.
In the Reagan Administration alone (so highly extolled by modern-day GOP myth makers) over 100 top-level appointees were investigated for graft and corruption. The HUD scandal, the Bank of Credit & Commerce International, the Savings and Load mess: bailed out—by you and me—at a cost, thanks to sweetheart deals negotiated by the Resolution Trust Corporation (who were charged with straightening out the mess), of 1.4 trillion dollars.
Not to suggest that it’s only Republicans who cheat. I always considered Whitewater small potatoes, but at the very least then-Governor Clinton and his wife did mighty well by virtue of some sweetheart deals none of us will ever be invited to cash in on. It’s appropriate, I suppose, when considering the idea of “cheating” to mention Bill Clinton’s infidelity while in office. The urge to act out sexually—or any other way—increases with opportunity, which in turn corresponds to one’s power and money—as the mess at Fox News revealed for the umpteenth time! But back to politics: there has been plenty of malfeasance on both sides of the aisle.
And then there’s cheating in sports. Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven consecutive times from 1999-2005; in 2012 he was banned from sanctioned Olympic sports for life as a result of long-term doping offenses. Tom Brady and the whole “deflategate” controversy didn’t surprise Carol or me: the Patriots and their coach are notorious rules benders. And now people are talking about voting to enshrine Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and a half dozen other steroid injecting partners-in-crime into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Horrors!
What’s wrong with this picture? The Communications Dean plagiarizes his commencement address. The President of NASDAQ busted for running an elaborate Ponzi scheme. Acknowledged cheats lobbying for admission to the Hall of Fame. And most frightening of all—though thoroughly in keeping with the “cheating’s perfectly OK as long as you win” mentality that’s becoming more and more pervasive in our culture—most frightening of all: serious allegations have been raised about collusion between President Trump’s campaign staff and officials from Russia, a hostile foreign power: which amounts to treason. Not to mention his continued lying about the 2020 election, which he continues to try to subvert.
• What is cheating?
• Why do people do it?
• And what can make them stop?
What is cheating? Collier’s New Century Dictionary defines cheat as “to defraud or swindle; also to deceive or beguile with intent to elude detection.”
To help answer my second and third questions I consulted three experts.
First: Jeb Magruder. At thirty-five a Special Assistant to the President; at 39 in jail for his involvement in the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up. Magruder had always intrigued me as a kind of double, or doppelganger. We went to similar colleges and I was amazed to discover he was good friends with a hero of mine, William Sloan Coffin. Coffin, as Dean of the College Chapel at Yale in the ‘60s and later Senior Minister of NYC’s Riverside Church, was a powerful spokesman for anti-war and peace movements. Magruder had actually baby-sat for Coffin’s children! When Jeb Magruder was released from prison he went to seminary and became a minister (another connection)—a moderately liberal Presbyterian with a long, successful pastorate in Columbus.
I borrowed Magruder’s two-part autobiography from the public library and read it with my questions in mind? Why do people cheat? What can get them to stop?
In Magruder’s case, it was initially devotion to individuals as opposed to process that got him embroiled in Watergate. He believed in Nixon—strongly. And he was devoted to John Mitchell. He loved these men and was all too willing to please them however he could. That was the beginning: caring more about certain individuals than a certain process—in this case the democratic process. This confirms the findings of Colorado psychologist Kevin Murphy. In his book, Honesty in the Workplace, Murphy found that there are essentially two types of people who cheat at the office. The first group includes those with minimal commitment. They perpetrate acts that are against the organization, from calling in sick to get a day off all the way to embezzlement. The second group includes the overly committed types: employees who, for instance, defend unsafe products, approve fraudulent tests or cover-up inspection reports. These kinds of cheating acts are done by people—people like the diesel engineers at Volkswagen who rigged their engines to beat smog detectors and like the incentive-driven bank managers at Wells Fargo telling subordinates to sign up clients for costly accounts never requested—basically, by people who think they’re altruistically helping the organization they work for.
For Magruder, whether it was misplaced loyalty or half-baked idealism that initially started him cheating, once the cover-up began his motivation changed. Now peer pressure became a factor…and an increasingly powerful one in keeping the cheating ongoing. He was now part of a conspiracy. Clearing his own conscience was complicated by the fact that, if he tried to come clean, he’d also automatically implicate everybody with whom he worked: his team. Day by day, he got deeper and deeper into the whole mess: burning documents, lying under oath. At this point fear of exposure fueled a willingness to lie and cover-up even more. Once you’ve gotten in so far, you’re stuck. Coming clean gets harder and harder to do. In the immortal words of Sir Walter Scott, “O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
And yet…in his autobiography Jeb Magruder writes of Watergate in a positive light (for him) as it forced him to recognize the moral dimensions and consequences of the choices he made every day of his life. Which led him away from the world of power and deceit and into ministry. Why do people cheat? What will stop them? For Jeb Magruder the answer to the first question was
• Devotion to heroes
• Peer pressure
• And fear.
His answer to the second question (How’d he stop?) was a return to religion. Not fundamentalism either, but (in Magruder’s case) liberal Protestantism, as exemplified by William Sloan Coffin and others including virtually all Unitarians, a faith that demands of us an acute awareness of the ethical dimensions to every here-and-now choice we make.
I asked two other people why we cheat and how to stop, and each, in their way, also zeroed in on religion. First: my daughter, Meredith, at the time about twelve years old. We were returning from her orthodontist when the conversation kind of naturally led into my query: “Is there a lot of cheating going on at your middle school?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she replied, with a natural certainty in her voice that rang pretty true.
“People cheat because there’s something they want, something that will make them happy or popular if they get it.”
“What’ll make ‘em quit?” She thought for a moment and then, by way of example, reminded me of a movie we’d seen together in which a father explains to his delinquent son that he loves the boy whether he’s good or bad. Unconditional love, I thought; that’s the key! “Let them know that they’re loved either way, said Meredith, “ and they won’t cheat any more. Also, help them set goals, she went on, and help them make it possible to reach the goals.” At which time, she nimbly segued the conversation into the wisdom—ethical or not—of my raising her allowance.
Some years later I asked a church member, one of the most dedicated social activists I’ve ever known, Alice Kidder. Ph.D. economics professor, former director of the local community service organization, active in refugee resettlement, peace, and anti-apartheid efforts, Alice was a person with an incredible capacity for good works. She agreed that people cheat as a short cut to something they want. And the cure? “Inner moral strength and whatever God-like orientation you have. There’s an inner gyroscope to leads us to know what’s right,” she went on, echoing our Opening Words by Immanuel Kant. “While that gyroscope may not be the same in everyone, it’s close enough.”
So three very different people—
• An ex-big-wig ex-felon become pastor,
• A twelve-year-old schoolgirl,
• A church and social activist—
All agree, cheating is dishonesty. With others, for sure, but most importantly, with oneself. This inner self-honesty is what we get in touch with when we approach the religious. And what the Last Judgment outlined in Matthew 25 is all about. That we’re held accountable. Not to the letter of the law as heard from the Book of Leviticus, but to the spirit of the law, ever revealed in our own hearts, as Milly read from the pages of Jeremiah, and Luke.
Franz Kafka wrote, “It’s only our concept of time that puts Judgment Day into the future. Actually, it’s a summary court in perpetual session.” And the judge? The still, small voice within each person’s heart of hearts.
An old Hassidic story captures this well. It’s about a father who gives a chicken to each of his two sons and tells each of them to go kill the animal where no one can see. The first brother goes behind the barn and rings the bird’s neck. But the other brother, after wandering around for an hour or more, comes back and explains, “Everywhere I go, I can see.”
• Luke’s Kingdom within,
• Alice Kidder’s moral gyroscope inside every heart,
• The still, small voice.
Call it what you will, it’s within, “…gracious and merciful, (as it says in Psalms) slow to anger and abounding in steadfast (i.e., unconditional) love.”
That spirit is not only inside us but it’s in our midst as well, as the ambiguous translation in Luke implies. For the truth, in the words of radical feminist and LGBTQ activist Barbara Demming, the truth is “we are all part of one another.” Exactly as St. Paul (more of a universalist than Baptists tend to admit) wrote in his letter to the church at Ephesus, read earlier by Milly.
Realize that and cheating falls away. Realize that we’re all part of one another and suddenly the motivation to cheat falls away. You start treating your brother and sister as yourself because, one realizes that at the deepest level, your brother and sister and and your neighbors are yourself.
Traditionally, Unitarian and Universalist theology has pretty much always held—bottom line—that we are loved unconditionally. That God is love, and it’s the primary program, the silent pulse at the heart of all things. Most liberal theology also holds that we are judged, too. And accountable to that judgment. But not by some Old Man projected into the sky. No! We are judged by our own hearts and consciences within—the part of you that “everywhere I go, I can see.” The still, small voice. Honesty is the key to accessing that inner voice—looking honestly at one’s self, conducting “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” as step 4 in the 12-step recovery programs puts it.
Honesty, especially with oneself, is the key to accessing that inner sensitivity—and strength: the Source, referred to by the apostle Luke as “the Kingdom.” A place here and now where—
• As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,
• As Immanuel Kant understood,
• As did Franz Kafka,
• And Alice Kidder,
• And even a twelve-year-old—
cheating has no value. For here we are all transparent before and within the Creative Spirit of the Universe, a Spirit simultaneously within us and in-our-midst. We are all commingled in that Spirit. We are all part of one another. At which point the urge to cheat falls away. Completely.
Blessings abide. Namaste. Amen.