Or: The Truth is Usually Somewhere in the Middle
Oh, HEY. It’s been awhile. I’m moving and painting my new house (I somehow ended up with a purple kitchen; I swear the paint sample said mauve) and trying to educate the youth of America again and write a word or two in between. All fantastically fun life challenges to have.
Definitely more fun than being a drunk American swimmer in Rio or a Rio police chief trying to frantically fix his city’s reputation.
Watching that fiasco unfold has been a bit like watching your favorite Game of Thrones episode. You know this whole thing ends badly…you’re just never quite sure who it ends badly for until the blood hits the wall.
Well, the blood seems to have hit the wall. Lochte lost something like a million dollars in sponsorships, and Rio has now ended what appeared to me to be a largely successful Olympics. And if it wasn’t successful, I missed that memo—I must have been watching gymnastics at the time. (SIMONE. I LOVE YOU, SIMONE.)
But even as all in his sponsors, including Speedo, abandoned Lochte (cue inappropriate joke about how we all wish Lochte would drop his Speedos as fast as they dropped him), USA Today was publishing an article suggesting that the Rio police may have exaggerated their side of this story just as much as Lochte did. Suddenly everyone’s all “Bathroom? What vandalized bathroom?” and Brazilian judges are musing aloud that holding someone at gunpoint while asking them to hand over money does constitute robbery.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting for a second that Lochte is innocent in this whole deal. At the very least he was a drunken frat boy (which is just way less cool when you’re 32) behaving belligerently and then using his hangover to scrub up his actions at the expense of an entire city. Not exactly role model behavior to pass on to the next generation of would-be Olympians, and definitely not behavior that supports strong international relations.
Still, this whole event has been a reminder for me of a phrase I once heard somewhere and have since repeated so often I no longer even remember where the heck it came from: When two people both remember an event differently, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.
We human beings like truth. We like to believe that there is always one provable, reliable, factually-based truth that is undeniable and must be remembered the same way by all who witnessed it. And from a baseline standpoint, that type of truth does exist here. We have video of some of what happened that night. Things both sides said have proven to be true and false.
But overarching narratives are written and rewritten by human bias and memory, not video cameras. The truth becomes how it’s remembered. How it’s told. Who narrates it. What language they use and when they use it.
So in this case we have two opposing sides who experienced the same event from different perspectives and who both have a vested interest in spinning a narrative in their direction. And—surprise surprise—neither narrative is exactly right. The real truth doesn’t seem to sit on either Lochte’s side or Rio’s—it seems to sit somewhere in the middle.
Yet there is no denying that Lochte is the one who has been declared the liar in this story, and he’s the one whose blood has been splattered all over the wall of 2016 Olympics history. Maybe that’s completely fair. Maybe getting drunk in your Olympic host country and neglecting to mention that part when you accuse people of robbery should end in the complete destruction of your career. Maybe that’s the price you pay for partying too hard and not thinking before you speak on national television.
Or, maybe—and I understand this will be an unpopular opinion—maybe holding people at gunpoint over a ripped sign isn’t the best way to handle conflict, and maybe the Rio police cutting sections of video they show to the public and finding broken doors where there appear to be none is as strangely suspicious as USA Today seems to think it is. Maybe the truth isn’t always perfectly cut and dried, and maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to write off either entire cities or entire careers when incidents like this unfold through an international media frenzy.
Michael Phelps was arrested for driving drunk twice and still has sponsors and fans. As in, he could have killed someone twice and people still stuck around for him. But every sponsor and swim fan seems to have abandoned and vilified Lochte over this— the pitchforks on Twitter have been so sharp that I actually had to look away a few times. And yet the truth in this case looks a lot less clear than that truth which was once backed up by Phelps’s breathalyzer tests.
The whole episode suggests one thing: Americans hate liars, but we do love slapping that label down, even when the truth is confusing at best. So the next time we find ourselves staring down two opposite sides of a story like this, we might do well to stop looking for “the honest party” and “the liar” and just hunt down the place where the two stories meet up. The truth is probably in there somewhere—right in the middle. That strategy won’t be great for sensational media headlines or Speedo’s publicity, and it probably won’t give us the hero or the villain we’re all searching for. But it would probably be a heck of a lot healthier for every party involved. Especially those of us in the audience.