This week, retired baseball player Mark McGwire finally confessed to steroid use, and it got me thinking about the relationship between social stigmas and lying.
Although I normally have no interest in or awareness of anything baseball-related, I feel a personal connection to this story, because I happened to be there in the same room with McGwire during the 2005 congressional hearing on steroids in baseball. If you follow baseball, you’ll probably remember it—the House Government Reform committee called in McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero, Curt Schilling, and Jose Canseco and grilled them for hours about their steroid use in front of the TV cameras. I was working on Rep. Waxman’s staff in a junior-level position at the time, mainly doing editing and proofreading. Whenever there was a really important hearing like that, it was considered one of the perks of the job for the junior staffers to be able to come in through the back door of the hearing room, sit on the steps to the dais, and watch the proceedings. So I came out and watched the baseball hearing for a while.
I remember feeling really, really sorry for McGwire. I couldn’t help thinking those must have been some of the most stressful moments of his life. Imagine being called out on something you’re not proud of, something that puts your whole career and all your accomplishments in doubt, that’s illegal on top of it and that you could go to jail for admitting you did—in front of your family, your friends, and the entire world. Imagine congressmen saying to you, “Oh, and by the way, the parents whose kids killed themselves because the kids were imitating you and using steroids are sitting right behind you.” I kept thinking he was about to burst into tears. It was like seeing someone having their fingernails torn out in front of you.
The stigma attached to steroid use almost necessitated that he lie (if only by omission). Of course, he could have just admitted it and faced the consequences, but his lawyers had advised him against it, and as he says in the interview,
Here I was in a situation where I had two scenarios: Possible prosecution or possible grand-jury testimonies. Well you know what happens when there’s a possible prosecution? You bring in your whole family, you bring in your whole friends, ex-teammates, coaches, anybody around you. How the heck am I going to bring those people in for some stupid act that I did? So you know what I did? We agreed to not talk about the past. And it was not enjoyable to do that, Bob. Let me tell you right now, sitting up there and listening to the Hooten family behind me and the other families behind me that lost their loved ones, and every time I kept on saying, ‘I’m not talking about the past,’ I hear these moans. It was killing me. It was absolutely killing my heart. But I had to do what I had to do to protect myself, to protect my family and to protect my friends. Anybody who was in my shoes that had those scenarios set out in front of them would have done the same exact thing.
Which pretty much confirms my impressions of what he must have felt that day. So he had a choice between hurting people by lying or hurting people by telling the truth. The kind of moral dilemma no one ever wants to have to face.
An online comment someone made on an essay I wrote got me thinking further about stigmas and lies. My essay was a humor piece on dating, and there was a part where I made fun of people who love being single, implying they’re like the pod people in that film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The commenter wrote he was concerned by the way I was stigmatizing the happily single people. He drew a comparison between needing sleep and needing to be in a relationship:
Most people, in order to be well-adjusted and happy, need an amount of nightly sleep that’s around 8 hours, give or take. But there’s the rare person who only needs around 5 hours of sleep. With those lucky few, it’s natural to ask “Are you SURE you’re okay on so little sleep, or are you forced to due to circumstances, and maybe there’s some denial on your part?”
If they were to say “Do I SEEM like I’m in denial?” and indeed they appeared as well-adjusted and happy as any person, you could respond in one of two ways:
a) Tell them “Wow – so you just need 5 hours sleep and you’re good? That’s not like most of us. Good for you!”
b) Say “What planet are YOU from? Go back to pretending you didn’t grow out of a pod.”
You see, the latter response assumes a person is worthy of ridicule by virtue of their being in the minority. And that’s the tone you seem to have adopted towards those who are happily-single. This derision towards voluntary singles, besides not being a valid basis on which to judge someone, can be harmful in that many singles feel pressured to enter into a relationship that’s not right for them, simply to avoid being stigmatized.
I thought this was a good point, and in my response I agreed with him. But the comment brought back some traumatic memories from my single years. A big part of what I hated about being single and dating was that you never could tell who was a “pod person” in the sense that they didn’t feel the need for a relationship. They didn’t look that different from the sorts of guys I wanted to be dating (the relationship-minded ones), although if you looked closely enough there were warning signs.
Social stigmas played a role in the concealment. As the pod-person straight guy, you couldn’t admit what you were without sending the non-pod women running off screaming. (And it seemed there were not as many pod women as pod guys.) But as the non-pod, relationship-minded girl, you couldn’t be too straightforward about your intentions either for fear of being stigmatized as marriage-obsessed. So it generally took a while to figure out who was what, leaving plenty of leeway to get your heart squashed in the meantime.
Trying to put myself in the pod guy’s shoes and understand where he was coming from, I could see he had a moral dilemma, if not quite as poignant as Mark McGwire’s. As I wrote in my response:
If you’re, say, a straight guy who doesn’t want an exclusive relationship with any one woman, and you’re honest and upfront about this, you might not get a lot of takers. So your choices are (a) be honest and sexually unsuccessful or (b) be dishonest and end up hurting people’s feelings. Neither of which is really appealing, or at least it wouldn’t appeal to me.
But maybe if there weren’t so much stigma attached to the genuine desire for non-exclusivity, the person wouldn’t have that sucky dilemma. I don’t know.
So I was wondering—how much are social stigmas to blame for hurtful deceptions between people? Whether it’s baseball or dating or what have you—would people be more honest if you didn’t have the stigmas? When are the stigmas rational? Would it be better to rid ourselves of them if it fostered more honesty?
Or does the stigma come from the deception itself? I don’t think I would have minded the existence of the pod guys so much if they had been easier to avoid. And at least part of what has made steroid use in sports so shameful is the idea that athletes use them while pretending not to, presenting themselves as if their achievements were wholly the result of their hard work and natural gifts. So we can turn the earlier question around: Would fostering more honesty help us get rid of the stigmas? I don’t know. Jews in the Third Reich wore yellow stars to identify themselves, and this didn’t exactly help against being stigmatized.
Fun facts: The original plural of “stigma” is not “stigmas,” but “stigmata.” The word comes from classical Greek, where it means “the mark of a pointed instrument, a tattoo-mark, brand,” according to Liddell & Scott. And if you didn’t already know, stigmata is also used to refer to the wounds of Jesus on the cross—St. Francis of Assisi is said to have received them on his own hands and feet after having a vision. Which is interesting, given the sorts of wounding moral dilemmas social stigmas can give rise to.