I’ve been thinking about writer/performer Mike Daisey’s public demise over the story about Apple that aired on This American Life, and I am really torn over it.
On the one hand, I’m as angry as anybody else about the fact that Mike Daisey lied. I feel manipulated and betrayed. He swears that most of what he said actually did happen, just not the way he laid it out, but I don’t believe him about any of it. It makes me wonder what kind of agenda Daisey has that he felt he needed to go all the way to China to make people hate Apple as much as he apparently does. According to his interpreter, there were two things in Mike Daisey’s monologue that she could confirm: that he showed up, a fat white American guy, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and that he told her that he planned to lie to a lot of people.
I’m angry that when Ira Glass confronted him with facts and the testimony of his own interpreter, Mike Daisey wouldn’t come out and say the words “I lied.” He prevaricated, saying that he stood by his representation of things as true in a theatrical way. Which is like saying that Tom Cruise is tall in a theatrical way. No matter how many times Ira Glass or anyone else said to him “But that just didn’t happen,” he would not say the words “I lied.”
But there’s what he did say. While Ira Glass grilled him, at several points Mike Daisey had a hard time talking. His voice came out in a hoarse whisper, choked with emotion, and at one point he said that he wished that the producers of This American Life had killed the show. While I can’t say positively that he cried, it was obvious that he was overcome with emotion.
This is where my anger at Mike Daisey evaporates, to be replaced by pity and a kind of tenderness. Yes, he lied. Absolutely, no question. But who among us hasn’t been caught in a lie?
To me, there are two kinds of lies – the little social lies that we tell in order to not hurt someone’s feelings, like saying “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat at all” because you don’t want your friend to feel awkward and self-conscious all day, or pretending not to notice that the old lady in front of you is suffering from catastrophic intestinal distress. Those kinds of lies allow everyone a little dignity, although everyone involved in the transaction knows that lying is involved.
The other kind of lie is where the teller counts on the hearer’s belief that the tale is true to manipulate. “I didn’t eat those cookies.” “This isn’t what it looks like.” “I meant to pay it back.” Where social lies have the cooperation of teller and hearer, there is no contract in a manipulative lie, and if the hearer discovers the lie, they can call the teller out.
But being called out is painful. Having your lie, and the reasons behind your lie, exposed shows your weakness. Mike Daisey is an attention-seeking guy who can’t let the truth stand on its own because he can’t depend on his own skill as a writer to manipulate people’s emotions, so he had to lie. He was paraded on talk shows, profiled in magazines, and the longer he let the lie stand, the more adoration he received. As long as everyone believed his story, they all adored him.
But now the public has turned. Mike Daisey has been vilified as a liar and everything he’s done is being called into question. Nobody loves him anymore, just like nobody loved James Frey when they found out his Oprah-selected memoir was fiction, nobody loved Jayson Blair when they found out that all his New York Times stories had been made up.
I found it painful to hear Daisey squirm and gasp – it was like watching a pinned insect wriggle and die. It was gruesome and shameful and made me feel like a bad person for witnessing his humiliation. I feel that his humiliation, his fear, his weakness and need mark him as human, and make me feel pity for him. As surely as I condemn what he did, I do pity him.
P.S. There is one thing I want to make clear: What Mike Daisey did was lie. He knew that the things he said were untrue, but he represented them as true. What Ira Glass and NPR did was make a mistake. They didn’t do a complete enough job of fact checking, and because many parts of his story checked out, they allowed themselves to believe all of it.
A mistake is unintentional. A lie is not. If you can’t tell the difference, you’re an idiot, which is something else altogether.