It seems like something we just didn’t need: “Three Cups of Deceit,” Jon Krakauer’s investigative report of a few years ago accusing Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” of malfeasance. Another model of doing good in the world got knocked off his pedestal, and another arrow appeared in the quiver of our national cynics.
Prior to the exposé, those who had heard of Mortenson probably thought of him as a dedicated philanthropist who has spent his life building schools for Afghani girls. Byliner.com, the publisher of Krakauer’s report, calls it “A tragic tale of good intentions gone very wrong.”
We’ve become pretty much inured to stories of big-time bankers, corporate CEOs, and the Bernie Madoffs of the world turning their backs on ethical and moral values to reach their goals, usually something connected to personal financial gain. It is easy for most of us to view them as bad guys. With Krakauer’s investigation we are forced to concede that people in the not-for-profit, do-good world can apparently also stretch the truth to reach their ends.
But consider this: perhaps the lesson in Mortenson’s fall from grace is not “you can’t trust anyone.” Rather think of it as an argument for viewing the world with much more complexity. It is mentally easier to have good guys and bad guys and more satisfying to have them easily recognizable. That is why the great American mythic narrative, the “cowboy” story, traditionally dressed the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black hats. No complexity; no confusion about whom to root for.
I talk to many college students who say things like “I could never work in corporate America. I want to do something good for the world.” Indeed there are good guys and bad guys, but the Krakauer-Mortenson affair should remind us that we can find both in all areas of life and that pretty much everyone is a mixture of good and bad. Painting a whole group with the same judgment is, well, simply prejudice.
In his book, Greg Mortenson explains that in Afghanistan it is when you share a third cup of tea with someone that you become family. Drinking a third cup of complexity might well remind us that we are all part of the human family, warts and all.