Yesterday, I used a microwave to heat up some vegetables. I did it the day before that, too. I drove a car with a broken windshield wiper while wearing sunglasses—multiple times. On the way to work, I sped up at a yellow light and didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. I scanned a document to my email address and then did it again after forgetting to fill something out. I threw out paper and printed out more that I didn’t really need. I sent a mass email. I watched a soccer game on an unsanctioned Internet stream and a TV show on Hulu Plus using an account that was not mine. I woke up to an alarm clock, played a podcast on my speakerphone through a third-party app, and booked a flight under my name using my parents’ credit card. Oh, and I’m drinking coffee right now.
These are details of my basic, boring life, but they’re also all examples of times I’ve cheated within the past 48 hours. Am I a terrible person? (Don’t answer that.) The point is: Everyone poops—and everyone cheats.
What’s dominated the news for the past two weeks? The government shutdown. And what expedited the end of the government shutdown? The need to raise the debt ceiling, which, in other words, is the United States of America cheating the rest of the world. We arbitrarily raised an arbitrary threshold because we couldn’t pay our debt. Therefore, we are a nation of cheaters.
What if we all just reconciled with the fact that cheating, in a capitalist society made up of human beings, is something that’s bound to happen?
It seems like we’re at a unique point (or maybe we’ve always been at this point) in American history where opinions on a lot of things are changing—drugs, inequality, open access to information, relationships, etc.—but laws and customs still lag behind, leaving things in flux. Every baseball player who uses performance-enhancing drugs is a cheater. But if you work in an office and you take some kind of pill so you don’t have to use up your sick days, you’re a hard-worker. We complain about “corrupt politicians,” and then we listen to music for free using a service that makes almost no money for the artists. And banks. Oh, banks. What major American bank hasn’t been penalized for cheating consumers over the past five years? Yet, they continue to churn out major profits and sit at the center of the economy.
In fact, so long as we don’t think we’re hurting anyone else, according to new research in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, cheating actually makes us feel pretty good. “We were a little appalled,” said one of the researchers when asked about the results. But really? Is it that surprising that there are some emotional benefits to skipping a step here or bending the rules a little bit there? The worry, if cheating provides said benefits, is that it’ll continue to proliferate. One suggestion, from another study, is that the cheaters be made aware of the consequences of their actions; might this act as a sort of shaming device that blunts any misplaced positive feelings and discourages cheaters from cheating again? But what about this: What if we all just reconciled with the fact that cheating, in a capitalist society made up of human beings, is something that’s bound to happen?
That’s not to say that cheating is a good thing—it’s often a really terrible thing—but it’s also not to say that it’s always a bad thing. It’s often just a thing, a thing with vague moral distinctions. And that’s what we’re hoping to get at with Cheating Week: How we cheat, why we cheat, when we cheat, what we cheat, and, well, what we talk about when we talk about cheating.
Over the rest of this week we’ll be posting multiple stories per day on everything from the etymology of the word itself to the human scourge that is the snooze button. We’ll have someone admit to taking the SAT for other students in exchange for money, while another writer will talk about the time he tried to score free nicotine patches for a friend who was trying to quit smoking. There will be cheating on diets and, yes, cheating on wives and husbands. It’ll be obvious who’s cheating in some stories, and less so in others. Some people will cheat themselves; others will get cheated by unjust conditions; and there might actually be a couple of people suffering from both. Whatever the stories you read over the next week seem to be about, they’ll all be united by some notion of that eight-letter word. And while there’s no Unifying Theory of the American Cheat to be found—we only have a week, after all—there are a bunch of fun, interesting, and, most importantly, relatable stories to be told.
Cheating: it’s everywhere and nowhere. We all do it. Show me someone who hasn’t cheated, and you won’t be showing me God. Never forget: He turned water into wine.