Expectations of Deception

In From Beyoncé to horse meat to Lance Armstrong, we have to care about this contempt for the public, Gary Younge is upset about the level of deception which is present within everyday society. He feels this is dangerous, and we’re in danger of subsiding into a culture of fakery and deceit. He uses the examples of Beyonce’s lip-synching the US national anthem during the presidential inaguration, the discovery of horse DNA in budget beef burgers in the UK, and Lance Armstrong’s very public confession of taking performance enhancing drugs during his professional cycling career as examples of this tendency.

I have a slightly different take on things. I think it comes down to the tyranny of expectations.

Beyonce as a singer is expected by the public to be able to give a public performance which sounds a lot like her recorded one. She’s expected as a performer to be able to give live performances which don’t differ massively from her video clips. If she doesn’t provide those sorts of experiences, the public complains they weren’t given what they wanted, and she loses customers. So part of the problem is the expectations of a public which has been fed on studio recordings and video performances, where the best of what’s provided over multiple attempts is selected and cut together in order to create a product which is almost entirely artificial (in the sense there is a lot of artifice involved in its creation). When faced with a flawed, imperfect human attempting to replicate these sorts of things to the best of their ability, the public complains they’ve been sold a pup.

We see this a lot now in music – a popular musical performer is supposed to be able to sing their song to public-performance standards and perform a vigorous dance routine at the same time. But as anyone who has done these two activities will tell you, most humans only have enough breath for one of these at a time. Singing at a professional level requires excellent breath control; dancing at a professional level requires you have adequate breath available to perform a vigorous activity (and modern dancers are expected to perform a lot more stunts than dancers were expected to in previous years). The two activities really aren’t compatible. But our culture has grown, through the medium of movies, of video clips, of televised “live” performances, to expect they are – and as paying customers we feel we’re let down if we don’t see this.

So compromises are made. Singers are amplified, because it means they don’t have to use as much lung power to project what they’re singing to the back rows (and thus have a bit of breath saved for other activities). Pre-recorded performances are collected, for times when the singer is unable to perform to expectation (such as if they’re unwell) and singers practice lip-syncing to their own songs, in order to be able to deliver the flawless performance we all expect. Singers work out harder and more often, in order to build their capacity to perform both of these activities at the same time (and sometimes pay the price for doing so – for example, Tina Turner, Madonna, and many other female singers who attempted to meet this unrealistic performance expectation get sledged instead for not meeting the unrealistic beauty expectation of feminine softness and lack of visible muscularity).

The same thing can be pointed to in the case of the “beef’n’horse” burgers, and in the case of Lance Armstrong. In the case of the beefburgers, the expectation was of something which was offered for sale at a discount price point being able to be produced without shortcuts being taken. Well, maybe this was possible, once upon a time (although I doubt it). My suspicion is the discount price point and the break-even point for the manufacturers were never in the appropriate relationship (the discount price point was always below the break-even point for 100% beef burgers). Since the manufacturers didn’t want to go out of business, they started taking short cuts. The supermarkets put the pressure of their expectations (we expect you to be able to produce a product for us at $PRICE so we can offer it at $PRICE+5% and still sell it at a discount). The manufacturers put the pressure of their expectations on their suppliers (we expect you to be able to offer us a protein supplement at $PRICE, so we can use it to make burgers for $COST and still make a profit selling them to the supermarkets at $PRICE). Shortcuts are made all the way down the line.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, and every other sportsperson who uses performance-enhancing drugs, the expectation is sporting stars will win competitions, and also they will create or break records. But there’s a problem with the expectation of records being breakable – at some point, we’re going to reach the limits of what’s possible by humans (I suspect in some sports, we reached it long ago). At such a point, records are going to sit there, unbroken. The longer a record remains unbroken, the greater the kudos and social rewards for breaking it – and at some point, the tyranny of expectation is going to collide with temptation, and lead to people taking performance enhancing drugs in order to make an attempt at breaking those records. The prevalence of performance-enhancing drug use within a lot of sports points to an expectation of what professional sportspeople are like, and what they are capable of, which has long since escaped the realm of ordinary human possibility.

All around us, there are these super-human expectations, and we mere mortals wear ourselves out attempting to live up to them. Or when we can’t, we either resort to deception and trickery ourselves, or we beat ourselves up for not being able to meet these unrealistic expectations.

I’d also point out, we’re now coming to expect to be deceived, to be lied to, to having things exposed as products of artifice and trickery. It’s getting to the point where we don’t know how to recognise honesty when we see it, because we’re so stuck in the mindset where we’re looking for the flaw, the catch, the deception. This, I suspect, is where the real danger lies – in becoming so cynical, so jaded, so used to being deceived we don’t even question it any more, we just accept it and move on. We don’t bother with trying to censure people for deceiving us, because if we did, we’d be at it all day; we wouldn’t have time for anything else.

So possibly a solution to this problem would be for us, the public, to revise our expectations. We shouldn’t expect popular music performers to be presenting a flawless performance all the time – and we shouldn’t sledge them for not being able to. We shouldn’t expect “100% beef burgers” to be available at a price point lower than 100% beef mince. We shouldn’t expect records to be set and broken in sporting events on a regular basis (and if there is a record-breaking sportsperson, we should expect them to be unusual). We should expect our politicians to be flawed and human, and as susceptible to temptation as the rest of us.

When we’re faced with more realistic expectations, there’s less temptation to deceive people in order to meet them. We don’t have the same impetus to lie, to cheat, to conceal the truth. Instead, we can be honest about having limitations, and about not being perfect. We can ask for more time. We can point out that yes, in adverse conditions, we’re not going to be able to put in our best performance. We can admit that yes, shortcuts are going to be taken. We can admit we’re not able to beat the record all the time, or win the competition every day. And you know what? It’s fine. Because we can expect people to forgive us our humanity, in return.

Categories: ethics & philosophy

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7 replies

  1. I’m sure deception has been going on as long as people have been exchanging goods and services – I’m thinking of chalk and sawdust as fillers in Victorian-era bread, quack medical cures, and early mail scams. That’s why we have food and pharmaceutical regulation now (for what it’s worth).

  2. These food issues aren’t new either. I remember as a kid there was a scandal about horsemeat in sausages, some said kangaroo meat was put in there as well. This was before kangaroo became an accepted meat source for majority of the non-Aboriginal population. I don’t recall anyone getting sick, just feeling ripped off.

  3. TAK, Mindy: yup, there’s that aspect of things as well – there are always going to be people trying to deceive others in order to make a quick buck. And yeah, this is why we have legislation and regulations to stop these sorts of things (and why the gLibertarian proclamations about the power of “the market” to deal with such behaviours are so much horsepucky[1]). But there’s also the realistic point that when you’re buying beef burgers, burgers which cost less than the equivalent weight of beef mince are not going to be 100% beef. Yes, ideally the adulteration should be with things like egg, breadcrumbs and such, maybe a few herbs and spices. However, more realistically it’s going to be whatever’s cheapest for the manufacturer.
    (And I say this as someone who has previously lived a lifestyle where hamburger patties are the most affordable form of meat product, and who has the sad expectation of being back there again in the near future. There’s a reason I cook hamburger patties ten minutes a side and never serve them rare).
    [1] Simple explanation for any gLibertarians[2] reading: the various laws and regulations about how things can be made, what’s a permitted additive and so on are all what happens when “the market” takes care of things. Government in this instance is the concerted will and action of “the market” making it clear people don’t want to be sold things like shonky “medicines” or unsafe food.
    [2] The g is silent and invisible in the normal spelling of the term.

  4. Thinking about how performers are expected to always turn out a perfect product, even in live performance, I’m reminded of Lucy in the comic strip “Peanuts”, when told “life has its ups and downs”, saying “I only want ups and ups!”
    There seems to be an unwillingness to accept that life isn’t perfect. In fact, in both life and in art, perfection is sterile.
    In life: Atul Gawande (the surgeon who writes essays about medicine) wrote an essay about the learning process in surgery. One of the issues is that everyone wants an experienced surgeon, not somebody who’s doing his/her first operation (or first central line (?)), but unless someone is willing to be treated by the inexperienced, there won’t be any experienced surgeons.
    In art: a large part of the fun of a live performance is the possibility that you will see/hear an artist do some awesome thing that zie has never done before (and may never do again.) But that’s only possible if the artist is allowed to do something different, and risk doing something crappy, or even disastrous. So perfection is the enemy of the awesome. (Besides, if you’ve got the right attitude, even the disasters are part of the fun.)
    On the other hand, there are plenty of areas of life where I can do without surprises. I _would_ like to know that the ground beef I buy doesn’t contain dead rats or salmonella. And those who are deathly allergic to, say, peanuts would just as soon be able to depend upon the french fries they buy not killing them.

  5. There was a lovely moment when we saw Regina Spektor at the Opera House where she lost her place in one of her songs and stumbled over what came next, she laughingly said “I’ve forgotten the words!”, the audience laughed with her and it made the performance seem more intimate. It was also a great thing for my budding performer Mr11 to see – yep, everyone stuffs up sometimes and that’s ok.

  6. I agree with you about Beyonce and Lance Armstrong but I disagree with you about food standards. The horsemeat example is more like paying for a ticket to see Beyonce sing or Lance Armstrong cycle and being shown a completely different person.
    There is an understanding that cheap meat products will contain non-standard kinds of meat but there are minimum standards that are supposed to be enforced to make sure it is safe to eat. I don’t have a problem with eating horsemeat but I have a deep concern that this was hidden by the burger manufacturers and what other things they have added without being detected.

  7. Re shortcuts without lowering standards – my partner and his colleague were once asked by their manager if they could do some programming faster (and therefore cheaper). Looked at each other, one said ‘can we do it faster?’ and the other said ‘nah, we can’t do it any shittier’. Ha, I always think of that when I see/hear about cost cutting – what’s being done shittier?

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