Saturday, March 17, 2012

PRAGMATIC: Truth, Lies, and Monologue Tapes

(I steered clear of the obvious The Agony And The Ecstacy of Mike Daisey...)

A highly popular episode of This American Life in which monologuist Mike Daisey tells of the abuses at factories that make Apple products in China contained "significant fabrications," [This American Life] said today. 
"We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio," Ira Glass, the show's executive producer and host said in a blog post today. "Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards."
Daisey's response:
I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out. 
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
That is quite missing the point. There's a pretty good stole-the-words-from-my-mouth article about why what Mike Daisey did was misleading and wrong:
Mike has a two-line disclaimer in the Playbill for The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in all caps: 
Changing names to protect the innocent is not the same as fabricating meetings with fictional FoxConn workers poisoned by the chemical n-hexane, used for cleaning iPhones. 
It's true that Mike Daisey is "not a journalist." However, the expectation of "telling the truth" isn't something we put on journalist -- it's an expectation that we put on each other as people and as citizens. There are contexts in which fiction -- even while integrated with truth -- is powerful, but mislabeling it creates the issues. Especially where "the truth" is what's up for debate -- after all, here's a quick quote from the denoument of Agony and the Ecstacy:
I would keep my head down. And I would tell my story.
And tonight—we know the truth.
Except that, apparently, we don't. Because the truth was mixed in with performance.

Now, the additional problem of not knowing what's true and what's not is that anyone who wants to bury the truth can simply dismiss the elements of the story that are true, and the truth behind the embellishment, because of how Mike Daisey handled the truth.

It wasn't a lie. It wasn't the truth. It was, well, this:
A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
That's from Harry Frankfurt's excellent slim volume, On Bullshit. (He had to write a second book, On Truth, to explain why bullshit is a bad thing -- worse than lying, in his opinion). Bullshit (statements which are made without regard to the truth) and the related idea of Truthiness (statements which are made because they feel true).

I would extend that definition to include a separate definition for Fiction: statements which both the speaker and the listener know are not true, but on some level coexist with true.

The role of truth that Daisey seems to be espousing with his statement that he's not a journalist, but rather an artist, is the idea that artists are not responsible to the truth. 

It reminds me of something that comes up around Jon Stewart, as seen here:
BILL MOYERS: You've said many times, "I don't want to be a journalist, I'm not a journalist." 
JON STEWART: And we're not. 
BILL MOYERS: But you're acting like one. You've assumed that role. The young people that work with me now, think they get better journalism from you than they do from the Sunday morning talk shows.