Truth and spectacle

Margaret Somerville
Published as "Ethics and the search for perfection"
The Montreal Gazette, August 24, 2008, A15
Reproduced with Permission

So, the footage of the "footprint" fireworks was digitally inserted in the TV coverage of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. And Lin Miaoke, the adorable nine-year-old "singer," was miming the Ode to the Motherland, as seven-year-old Yang Peiyi's voice floated over the 90,000-person crowd and was transmitted across the world.

Peiyi wasn't pretty enough; Miaoke's voice wasn't pure enough. So what's wrong with a combination that results in the best of both worlds? Why has this story made front-page headlines in western democracies and elicited so many strong negative reactions? Have we overreacted?

I believe the answer is no, and that our immediate reaction was based on a strong moral intuition that something was wrong. So far, however, we haven't fully identified what that is. To do so, we need to explore the ethical and values issues implicated in this incident. They include deception, integrity, authenticity, trust and the search for perfection.

But, first, a word of warning: There is almost certainly a cultural miscommunication or even clash in this situation. My guess is that it never occurred to the Chinese how their approach would be seen by people from other cultures.

Western democracies are intensely individualistic cultures. Indeed, the highly individualistic western approach is manifestly obvious in the media stories reporting this incident, whether in the New York Times or a local TV news report. The entire focus is on Peiyi and how cruel it was to tell her she wasn't pretty enough and how hurt she must have felt at being excluded -- which, I hasten to add, the journalists are right to recognize as a wrong. In stark contrast, Chinese culture is an intensely collectivist one -- if two girls are more "perfect" than each alone, and that benefits the collectivity, the Motherland, go for it.

That difference means we need to cut the Chinese some slack in regard to this incident, not just to be fair to them, but also in our own long-term interests of trying to cross the divides between us, and certainly not to make them wider.

Deception is the central issue involved and deception is always ethically suspect. But does this deception really matter? Leaving aside the hurt to Yang Peiyi from being dumped at the last minute and her voice still being used (it's hard to imagine that the issue of consent to such use was even considered), seeing the opening ceremony as grand theatre would give the organizers permission to use techniques that allow the world audience to suspend its disbelief. So why were we so shocked?

Unlike the situation that prevails in relation to the theatre, we the audience did not agree to be deceived. The ethical problem is intentionally presenting as real something that is not real. That is to breach trust, and it is this breach that is at the heart of our concern.

The opening ceremony incidents might also have shocked us to a degree beyond what seems reasonable at first glance, because of their context: The deception contravened the very spirit of the Olympic Games -- the inspiration generated by the gathering of the "youth of the world," the noble aspirations, the no-cheating-with-drugs, "spirit of sport" ethos and its espoused values. It came across as cheating, as a breach of trust. Breaches of trust are often experienced as a betrayal; this was a betrayal of the Olympic spirit.

The word integrity frequently arises in discussions of trust. In 2005, integrity was the most frequently searched word in Webster's On-Line Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines integrity, in a moral sense, to include: Soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity. This definition could be used as an advertisement for the spirit that is meant to inform the Olympics, cynical as we might sometimes be about the authenticity of such a statement in relation to a mega event with enormous commercial spin-offs.

Integrity is at the core of ethics and ethical conduct, and an essential condition precedent to implementing all of our most important personal and communal values. And integrity is the beating heart of democracy, justice, and respect for human rights. These are the values and principles on which, in western democracies, we build organizations, institutions, and the state itself. Without integrity, these values and principles cannot be implemented and they, and the institutions built on them, die.

The fact that much of the world is worried about justice, respect for human rights, and ethical conduct in China, and hopes one day to see democracy in that country, might also help to explain why there has been such a powerful negative reaction to what is, on its face, a minor deception in the opening ceremony.

Acting with integrity is also linked to maintaining social trust, a central component of what is being called "social capital" -- the accumulated common good that we need to maintain a healthy society of the kind that most of us would want to live in. A culture of social trust is difficult to establish, fragile, and easy to destroy. The espoused goal of the Olympics is to build worldwide social trust and certainly not to damage it, as the opening ceremonies incident might have done.

In general, we trust what we can perceive directly with our senses -- what we can see or hear or touch. But virtual reality means things that are not real can seem real to our senses and that has resulted in an overall loss of trust in society as a whole. If that loss is to be halted, it's especially important that the media can be trusted not to deceive their audiences. Both the miming incident and the "footprints" one need to be examined from this perspective -- although again, like the former, at first glance, the latter seems a minor liberty to take.

I've often mused on why seeing the original of a famous painting is not only different from, but much more exciting than seeing an exact copy. Or we can think about how antiques lose their value if they are refinished -- when the effects of the many human hands that have touched the antique have been erased, we consider that the antique is no longer authentic, no longer unique, no longer the "real thing"; its priceless intangible essence is gone. In fact, although in one sense we might regard refinished antiques as more perfect, less blemished, we value them less because in our touching them to alter them, they can no longer touch our imagination with the same profundity. Seeking the "perfect" little composite girl means the same is now true of the Beijing Opening Ceremony.

Then there is the question of authenticity: What is required for the Olympic Games to be authentic in their very essence, without which that essence is lost? One important element is that athletes must compete only on the basis of their own natural talent, unenhanced by prohibited means such as drugs. But the Games, as a whole, must also be authentic.

The opening ceremony faced the Chinese authorities with a choice between authenticity and perfection, as they saw it. Their choices were a) to go with authenticity at the expense of the perfect; b) to choose the "perfect" but to be transparent about it up front and disclose this choice; or c) to do what they did. Ethically, it was the wrong choice. Often, the search for perfection is just that.

Margaret Somerville is director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, and author of The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.

"Truth and spectacle", The Ottawa Citizen
August 19, 2008, A11. © The Ottawa Citizen 2008