Thursday, March 22, 2012

This is my Truth - Tell me your Narrative

Tell me your truth and I’ll tell you my narrative.  The idea of one person’s truth trumping another’s is surely passé – a little presumptuous.  But, the difficulties that ensue when objective standards of truth are abandoned, was brought home to me yet again as I listened to the radio this past Saturday evening.

I was listening to “This American Life” the popular National Public Radio show that retells strange but true stories that highlight the extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people – proving that fact is indeed often stranger than fiction.

Ira Glass, the host, began the show with an apology:

This American Life are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day. So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong, and what we now believe is the truth. (1)
In one of the most popular episodes ever of This American Life, contained a report by Mike Daisy, a writer and actor, on the practices of Apple suppliers.  Mr. Daisy has been performing a stage monologue supposedly based on his visit to various Chinese manufacturing plants that supply Apple.  The NPR show used excerpts from his monologue, taking them to be true factual accounts, which they later found out to be fabrications.

This American Life found the Chinese translator who had accompanied Mr. Daisy on his trips to the Chinese factories, and on most points her account contradicted Mr. Daisy’s.  Veteran journalists also found many of the details in Mr. Daisy’s account hard to believe.

You can listen to the show or read a transcript here.  But, what interests me most is Mr. Daisy’s responses when pressed by Ira Glass about the glaring inconsistencies in his story.  Here is a short extract from the transcript where Glass is taking Daisy to task for not disclosing that some elements of his stage monologue used by "This American Life" were not factual:
Ira Glass: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true elements in it.

Mike Daisey: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.

Ira Glass: I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian [a "This American Life" producer], who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.
Mike Daisey: I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater. And how people see it –

Ira Glass: I find this to be a really hedgy answer. I think it’s OK for somebody in your position to say it isn’t all literally true, know what I mean, feel like actually it seems like it’s honest labeling, and I feel like that’s what’s actually called for at this point, is just honest labeling. Like, you make a nice show, people are moved by it, I was moved by it and if it were labeled honestly, I think everybody would react differently to it.

Mike Daisey: I don’t think that label covers the totality of what it is.
Ira Glass: That label – fiction?

Mike Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.

Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’ (2)
What Mr. Daisy is articulating is the view that so long as he is pointing to a larger truth – that large electronics companies exploit workers in China – it doesn’t matter if the events he claims to have experienced, actually occurred.  This is the post-modern triumph of narrative over truth. (3) And, it’s easy to see that if everyone embraced the creation rather than the discovery of truth, that we would be in trouble.  How could anyone be believed?

We need a certain level of trust in order for society to function.  If no one could be believed daily life would be fraught with immense difficulties.  When we go to the store to buy what is labelled flour we do not expect to be given saw dust. When a potential business partner signs a contract, we expect him or her to feel bound to honor it or at least attempt to honor it. 

However, more troubling if there is no objective standard of truth - the meanings of words and concepts float in mid-air.  I can decide what truth is, I am not merely complying with an established set of meanings.  In the novel "1984" George Orwell portrayed a world where truth was not objective, a world where a totalitarian regime controlling the dissemination of language through media and eduction, turned the meanings of familiar concepts on their heads - "War is Peace".  

Mike Daisy, clearly believes he has molded truth in the service of right.  But if truth is treated as malleable to suit different ends, where will we end up?  Mike Daisy has embraced the conceptual system of truth employed in George Orwell’s "Ministry of Truth". (4)

(1) Transcript available here -

(2) Ibid.

(3) For more implication of the post-modern worldview click here.

(4)  Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin Books, 1990.  See here for how a relative theory of truth is fatal to international human rights law.

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