Long ago I worked with someone who was all fluff, all pretense. Certainly he was a bright sort of guy, a bit nerdy but cute, intense in that faux way of always looking busy, of huffing and puffing and looking at his wrist as if to remind us all that he had important places to be, things to do. He was given a position not so much because he deserved it but because his weaknesses were easily overlooked in favor of that shining image he gave. He fit the part.
I thought of him as I was reading Roxane Gay’s piece in Salon about Jonah Lehrer, the writer raised onto a pedestal so very high that he teetered and fell off, breaking his career in two.
“Coverage of Lehrer’s work has always been this eager and breathless and adoring. He has fallen from grace but he was lifted to that place from whence he fell by a great many hands, including his own.”
But the ever wise Gay takes the discussion to another level when she begins, “The question that intrigues me is how this happened at all, how Lehrer was elevated to a position of such prominence. Are we that enamored by bright young things that they can act with impunity?
She dismisses him as yet another golden boy, a great white hope, deeming his remarkable rise (and inevitable redemption) an issue of gender and race. There is clearly tremendous favoritism for those that fit that mold, but what resonated most with me about this sad tale is the issue of impunity. The part about the “great many hands.”
When my son was in kindergarten he had a friend who came over to play one day. While we were never a household of too many toys, the ones we did have made a big impression on this kid, and he said maybe a thousand times “I wish I had one of those,” or “That one is my favorite.”
When we dropped him off at his grandma’s house his enthusiasm made more sense, for clearly the family did not have much money. When he got out of the car and the toys rained down to the sidewalk from his pockets, little figurines and toy cars, marbles and balls, we felt a bit of shock but mostly great sadness. We gathered up the toys, maybe even gave him one or two and never said a word to grandma or to his mother about what had happened.
How often do we find it cute to see how the little darlings slip around the rules, stretch the truth, express their drive and competitiveness with little manipulations of their parents, their teachers. These little lies become bigger and bigger as their bones lengthen and their savvy swells. We reward those who charm us, who find ways to navigate the system, even if their methods are slightly unethical.
With children in high school and college, with a professor spouse, I hear stories of cheating which confirm that it is an epidemic. The methods are facilitated by technology, making it so pervasive in the schools, in universities, that it almost seems that the “zero tolerance” rule has had an opposite effect than the one intended. The pressure is on students to succeed, yes, but it is equally on teachers to look the other way, to warn rather than escalate the issue to the point where the school is forced to take drastic action.
A slap on the wrist. But slaps on the wrist only make us feel a self-satisfying pride that we’ve gotten away with something. And if we’ve gotten away with something, especially if we’ve been caught and forgiven, it is a bit of a carte blanche to go even further the next time.
I would bet that Jonah Lehrer massaged the rules more than once, and probably many times. But he was forgiven, no doubt, because he was so bright, so clever, so talented. There is great sadness and bitter truth in Roxane Gay’s final words:
There are those who will say Monday was the day of Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace, but he is a product of a system that encouraged and enabled his behavior. This is about sowing and reaping. That same system will help Lehrer find redemption. At some point in the future, not too long from now, there will be a book deal. Jonah Lehrer will flagellate himself publicly to our satisfaction, explaining the how and why of his deceptions and fabrications. His phone will start ringing again because he’ll still be an intelligent young man who fits the genius narrative so well. Slowly but surely, Lehrer is going to start climbing back toward grace and he’ll reach it because he’s part of a system that is too big to fail, that very much wants men like him to get back to grace.
I often wonder where that boy who pocketed the toys is now. No favors are done when we look the other way.