Joseph Kony, Mike Daisey and the Fabrication of “Truth”
A couple of weeks ago, I (like many of you) watched Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video. Within a minute of viewing the video, I posted it on Facebook and shared it with several other friends. Based on my own newsfeed, I know I’m not alone in that. Yet as I read some of the disagreements to the video, I realized that I had been drawn in not by any reasoned, logical argument but by the film’s emotional tenor. In no time, my spirit of activism diminished to simple disillusionment.
Last week, the popular radio show “This American Life” found itself in a similar situation to Invisible Children. They aired an episode in January entitled “Mr. Daisey in the Apple Factory” that described conditions in the Chinese electronics factories that make the overwhelming majority of Apple products. Monologist Mike Daisey, who narrated the story (excerpted from his stage monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which was itself ostensibly adapted from Daisey’s experience observing these factories), claimed that it was 100 percent factual. The program retracted the episode last Thursday, the first time it has ever done so. On the follow-up episode detailing the retraction, host Ira Glass (sounding downright depressed) states that he and his producers realized that while Daisey did not lie about the practices, he lied about his own experience observing them.
Elsewhere in the episode, Daisey tells Glass that he regrets performing the monologue on the show “as journalism,” stating: “[I]t’s not journalism. It’s theater.” Daisey purports that though including small lies and untruths, he gets at an important human element in his story that pushes his audiences to do something about the problems facing Chinese workers.
I feel conflicted when I begin to consider Daisey’s intentions admirable: He’s been a real agent of change in the way we view Apple’s business practices but, despite his reliance on facts, it’s still impossible to ignore the fact that his presentation of them is duplicitous. Two major tenets of his monologues are that they are more than typical theatrical monologues—Daisey considers himself a “storyteller”—and that they contain a number of personal details. When he integrates the personal with the wholly invented (in this case being invented scenes that did not actually occur during his visit to China), he inculcates his audience into believing that something not entirely true is, actually, the truth. Like the Kony campaign, it initially gets an important message across: that these practices are bad so we should get rid of them. But, regardless of their intent, both instances obscure the real truth in such a way that takes away from these projects’ stated goals.
Whether defining a project as art or activism, it’s important for its creators to consider how audiences will view and understand that project. Good intentions, in a scenario like those detailed in this column, are great but meaningless if they are packaged with an element of fabrication or a lack of clarity. Based on the success of the Kony video in terms of YouTube hits alone, I feel like the viral advocacy method might be here to stay. And so, it is the responsibility of those advocates to provide audiences with clear, factual evidence; if there are elements of fiction, I don’t see why these artists cannot acknowledge it with a disclaimer or another similar note—the fictitious has its own important place in depicting the truth. More importantly, as viewers and potential sharers of these future campaigns, it is on us to engage with them and assess their honesty and possibility for deception. If we don’t, we put ourselves at risk to be duped. And that gets us nowhere.