Doubting the Impossible: Mike Daisey, the Pragmatists, and Networked Ways of Knowing

Mike Daisey lied to us – but how much you think he lied depends on how you think about ‘truth’.

Some background: in his one-man show ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’ and a highly popular This American Life episode, Daisey tells several stories about how Apple manufactures products in China.  He presents stories—powerful in their details and emotional resonance—not just as examples but exemplars.  That is, they aren’t meant to be seen as isolated incidents with limited scope.  In his show and on This American Life, he presents them as rich and rigorous accounts that are typical of wide-spread practices and systemic problems for Apple and other Western manufacturers.  The problem is, as This American Life painstakingly detailed in its hour-long retraction this weekend, much of Daisey’s story wasn’t true.

He fabricated sources, exaggerated the number of people he talked to, invented conversations with his translator, presented his own age-estimates as well-sourced truths.  He seems to have intentionally used This American Life and its genre of communication—long-form journalism that works to verify its sources and claims—to underpin a different kind of communication: theatrical storytelling meant to evoke emotional connections to states of the world the storyteller believes to be true.

Reactions [e.g., 1, 2, 3] to Daisey’s fabrications have been varied.  Some say he’s simply from a different tradition and is being judged unfairly.  He’s a storyteller who personally believed something to be true, took too much license in his retellings, and erred in lying to This American Life.  Essentially, he’s a storyteller who strayed too far from his craft and mislabeled his work.  He’s a less skilled, modern day version of Upton Sinclair who didn’t carefully enough distinguish his love of his subject from his responsibilities when doing genre-bending work.  He’s still saying something that’s essentially true (backed up by NYT reports) and we shouldn’t let his personal failings distract us from the larger goal of labour reform.  In one respect he failed because he lied; but in another sense he succeeded because his lies resonated enough to draw attention to a situation we feel to be true.

Others say that labour reform must be a fact-based endeavour that aims to affect policy.  Thus, storytellers who work in this space (performers and journalists alike) cannot ever play fast and loose with the truth or walk fine lines between genres.  Reform will come only from rigorously researched facts that can cause companies to change their behaviour.  It matters a great deal that Daisey strayed from the theatre and into the press: the theatre is where emotions might resonate, but the press is where facts can convince.  Daisey’s failings make it easier for manufacturers to earn a pass on labour compliance because he’s shown that advocates let their love of storytelling overtake their interest in reform.

There’s a lot here to untangle, but what I want to focus on is this knotty question of “truth”.  This is a huge simplification, but pragmatist philosophers (people like John Dewey, Charles Peirce, William James) essentially believed that truth—social truths, not stuff like 2+2=4—cannot live in the head of any one individual or system of knowledge.  Essentially, the very idea of truth (what people understand to be a fact) is tightly linked to epistemology (how people come to know).  Truth is what we find it impossible not to believe.  It’s what our minds, hearts, friends, families, classes, races, ethics, ideologies, histories, and imagined futures demand that must believe, if we are to be functioning people in society.  Truth is what makes us act, makes us do things in the world to achieve change.  Truth isn’t a mirror of reality, it’s what we can’t doubt.

The pragmatists help us see three levels of truth in the whole Daisey debacle.  The first—a mundane kind of level—is about the details of Daisey’s narrative.  Did he talk to 3 people or 10 people?  Did he talk with someone who had used n-hexane or not?  Was the girl he talked to 12- or 13-years old?  These details matter for sure.  The second type is focused on what different genres have to say about truth.  Is a theatre story that makes us feel something “true” because the emotions are real, regardless of their origin?  Is a journalistic story “true” because we trust news organizations to follow fact-checking conventions that we might not understand first-hand, but that tradition, professional scrutiny and investigative reporting outcomes have convinced us are the gold standard of fact-based public storytelling?  Do we trust Daisey more or less to influence our beliefs if we know which genres and traditions he’s using?

The third type of truth, though, is where pragmatists are the most helpful and where internet-based learning is trickiest: what do we want to do because of the story?  What is it about the mix of emotion, evidence, argument, and narrative compels us to action – to believe something or do something?  What  do we want to be true?  What do our social worlds make it hard for us to doubt?  What makes us act because of—or in spite of—the story?  Would we let ourselves believe that Daisey is telling us about a problem that does or doesn’t exist?

This whole incident is definitely about journalism, storytelling, labour practices, and fact-checking.  But it’s also about how belief, trust, and doubt intersect to make us make things true for ourselves.  On the internet there are countless sources, genres, stories, traditions, networks, and appeals to authority.  The case of Mike Daisey, Apple, and This American Life isn’t about the internet per se; but it does serve as an examplar for thinking about contemporary truth-making.

The Daisey incident can help us understand why we believe and why we act.  (It means, for example, being able to distinguish between the three kinds of truth-making described above the next time an incident like this happens.)  Such beliefs and actions are at the heart of internet-based ways of knowing and the accompanying shifts away from traditional sources of power and truth-making.  Being a good pragmatist means always being open to questioning not only what you believe but how you believe.  It not only means knowing how to work across multiple epistemologies (when to use journalism and when to rely on theatre, when to tell stories and when to use statistics, when to use an example as an exemplar) but understanding the impact that different ways of knowing can have on your openness to believing later what you might doubt now.

(The pragmatist philosophers probably didn’t anticipate being so relevant today, but they’d surely have been open to considering the possibility.)

Putting aside for a moment questions of labour reform, Daisey’s lies, journalistic traditions, and genres of storytelling: what is it that’s impossible for you to doubt in this story?  Where does this impossibility come from?  What needs to change for you to doubt a little more – and thus be a different kind of certain?

6 thoughts on “Doubting the Impossible: Mike Daisey, the Pragmatists, and Networked Ways of Knowing

  1. zota

    The problem with using Mike Daisey as an example here is that he didn’t just lie about details or specific incidents. He actually lied about his core argument.

    His central argument is that as some random guy who had just stepped off a plane, he was *immediately* able to find and verify labor violations with his own eyes. No prior contact, no local knowledge, didn’t know the language. Just walked up to the factor and bam — blatant violations. His argument was if it was so easy for him, Apple MUST know and is consciously choosing to ignore it. If he fudged the numbers, fuzzed his experience it would be one thing. But he actually lied about his most basic core argument — Apple’s knowing complicity.

    Mike Daisey is less an example of pragmatism and epistemology that it is of shooting yourself in the foot and damaging that which you claimed to care about.

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  3. Thanks, Mike. Very interesting!

    You say: “Essentially, the very idea of truth (what people understand to be a fact) is tightly linked to epistemology (how people come to know). Truth is what we find it impossible not to believe.” I think this article by Chris Dede develops this idea in an interesting way, from the perspective of educators:

    Dede’s article was suggested by my colleague Sarit Barzilai:

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  5. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » The Passion of Mike Daisey: Journalism, Storytelling and the Ethics of Attention

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