This American Lie: Mike Daisey and the Danger of Truthiness

We need more people to care about human rights, but we can’t take shortcuts.

A partial list of Apple products I’ve owned: the original iPod, an iMac, a 13” MacBook Pro, a 20” Cinema Display, an iPod 2, a Video iPod, a couple iPod Shuffles, a Mighty Mouse, a wireless Mighty Mouse, a Bluetooth Keyboard, a 15” Macbook Pro, a Mac Mini, an iPhone, an iPhone 3g, an 11” MacBook Air, an iPad 3g, a Magic Trackpad, an Apple TV, Final Cut Pro and lots of other software, and of course plenty of iTunes songs and apps. Yes, I’ve waited in lines. And yes, I’d known for a while that Apple’s labor practices weren’t exactly saintly. But nothing could diminish my fervor for the next shiny new toy dreamed up in Cupertino.
Yet, after reading the New York Times investigative reports on the Foxconn factories where most, if not all, of these things were produced, I was deeply unsettled. Then I listened to the This American Life podcast, which had come out a couple weeks earlier—featuring Mike Daisey’s harrowing firsthand account of his trip to Foxconn’s facilities—and I had made up my mind: It was time to stop buying Apple. No matter how much I lusted after the latest iteration of the Macbook Air, I wasn’t going to buy any more products that mangled people’s hands for life and burned flesh off their bodies.
Of course, now we know that much of Daisey’s story was fabricated. Most egregiously, according to a statement from This American Life, Daisey claimed “to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple's audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn't located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited."
When I heard the news, I felt I'd been had. I thought back to the last time I experienced this feeling: after watching the 60 Minutes takedown of Greg Mortensen. A few years ago, I read Three Cups of Tea, Mortensen’s account of his efforts to build schools in remote mountain regions of Pakistan. While I found the book itself saccharine and self-aggrandizing, I came away convinced that Mortensen's work work was critical, and that his cause was deserving of my 50 dollars.
I don’t donate to a lot of charities or participate in many boycotts. But in both of these instances I was driven to act by stories that felt impossible to dismiss, compartmentalize or forget.
And then I found out they were lies.
I have some sympathy for Daisey and Mortensen. It’s hard enough to get folks to care deeply about anything beyond their immediate family and social circles. It is exceedingly difficult to get most of us to care about anything that’s happening “over there” in faraway places where people look different from us and speak different languages. One of the few proven methods for piercing this barrier of disinterest is the personal narrative. When someone who’s from our neck of the woods serves as our guide, we connect to “them” through him. And yet, any old terrifying or uplifting account won’t do; it’s only when these guides return with spectacularly life-affirming or devastatingly horrific stories that we’re shaken out of our complacency.
Presuming that both Daisey and Mortensen care deeply about their causes—and we have no reason to believe they don’t—the fact that they’d want to emotionally enhance their stories with an exaggeration here, a fabrication there, is understandable. But it’s not excusable, and neither is Jason Russell’s deliberate omission of inconvenient facts from the Kony 2012 video.
The basic message of all three of these stories is not in dispute. Apple’s overseas labor practices are deplorable. America and Pakistan would both be better off if we were to build more schools there and drop fewer bombs from drones. Joseph Kony is a ruthless murderer. These things should move us. But truthiness in defense of emotional impact is no virtue. It creates a profound backlash that deepens our collective apathy: just look at the I-told-you-so glee with which Twitterers (including myself) are beating down Daisey and Russell. Perhaps this is our way of rechanneling the guilt and hopelessness we feel over the very issues they’re exposing.
Nothing is more depoliticizing than being lied to, and a close second is being condescended to. An exaggeration, oversimplification, or lie is not a persuasion tool; it’s a form of coercion. It’s a way of treating adults like children—of taking away our power to make up our minds independently. When people feel forced, they don’t want to comply; they want to rebel.
We need more people to care about sweatshops and girls’ education and human rights, and we need to tell more riveting stories that bring these urgent issues to light. But we can’t take shortcuts. We have to do the hard, draining, time-consuming work of revealing the extraordinary with facts. We need more books like Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers—a deeply researched portrait of the people living in one of Mumbai’s worst slums—which has been widely praised as novel-like. Or radio segments like the hundreds of factually sound but surprising and often deeply affecting episodes This American Life has produced.

Of course, fiction can inspire action too: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle altered the course of American history. But labels matter. If Daisey had advertised his live monologue as a semi-fictional account, would the same number of people have purchased tickets and been so moved?

When we’re stirred by something that turns out not to be true, it feels a little like unrequited love—we want it to be so, but it refuses to be so. And each time our hopes are dashed, we’re less likely to risk falling in love again.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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