The Agony and Ecstasy of Wise Criticism

I feel like I have to comment on Mike Daisey, but that doesn’t mean I want to.

As a dramatic writer with a journalistic bent who often focuses on human rights, this couldn’t be a more on-the-nose issue for me. But I hate the idea of writing about it, because every part of this story makes me so, so sad.

Here’s what happened: Mike Daisey – a monologuist – wrote a show called The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. He called it a nonfiction piece, and presented as fact a funny but gut-wrenching account of his trip to China to research Apple’s supply chain (I give my initial response to the show here). Agony took off nationwide and landed a New York production at The Public Theater. In January, his monologue appeared on NPR’s journalistic This American Life and became wildly popular as a call to arms against labor abuses in China.

Only thing is, it turns out portions of his story large and small never actually happened.

This American Life retracted their entire segment of Daisey’s monologue after discovering facts had been distorted and created from scratch. They explained that retraction in a painful episode on Saturday, via an interview with Daisey full of awkward silences and host Ira Glass’ pent-up anger.

Daisey has apologized for presenting the piece as journalism on This American Life; but he has not apologized for demanding it be called “non-fiction” within the context of theater, and for insisting time and again that the work is based on truth:

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.

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.

In article after article, theater professionals, journalists, and human rights activists have blasted Daisey’s deception and poor judgement. As the people who promoted Daisey’s show, fostered the conversation, and bought oodles of tickets, theater folks feel particularly betrayed.

This week has taught me a lot about criticism. I saw way too much unjust criticism of Kony 2012 in which people made very personal attacks on the filmmakers – and not surprisingly one of them took it very hard. After Nick Kristof advertised my criticism of his post on Kony 2012, it led me to other criticisms of him on the web that are simply presumptuous and cruel. And now that Mike Daisey’s career has taken a very public blow, it seems outrage is the response of choice.

One of the reasons I continue to blog about human rights, even though I often write in an entirely different genre, is because I love to call people – myself foremost – out of apathy and into action that is practical. That can’t happen without compassion. If we can’t learn to love and forgive people who let us down, even while trying to make wise and practical choices (like, in this case, how to deal with the rest of Daisey’s scheduled run), we won’t become the kind of people who can make a difference in any supply chain or in any theater.

Indeed it is frustrating that Daisey dodges from giving an apology to everyone who arguably deserves one. But just like our premarital counselor taught us, it’s your decision how you want to react. No one makes you angry – you choose to be angry. And too much of that choice can eat you alive.

I would like to offer as a replacement for our anger a beautiful ideal: truth.

To me, the most compelling moment in This American Life‘s retraction came at the end, when New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg offered actual facts about the situation in Chinese factories. For a brief moment Mr. Glass let go of his obvious rage about the Daisey fiasco and listened to a very intelligent account about something that is true, and thus – unlike raw bitterness – potentially useful.

Because while there’s such a thing as righteous indignation, there’s also such a thing as wasted energy. The former has a time and a place; the latter doesn’t.

It’s great to think critically and to feel a sense of personal responsibility about the media we absorb every day. We should not give in to falsehoods “for theater’s sake” or learn to separate our minds from our hearts as we explore the world through journalists’ eyes.

But critical doesn’t have to mean vindictive; and when it does, we should consider our own reactions carefully. They could be a sign of an unwise, unhealthy, and often ineffective choice of anger over a better option: truth spoken with compassion.

One Response to “The Agony and Ecstasy of Wise Criticism”
  1. Richard Sewell says:

    Could not have said it any better, beautifully composed response, Thanks Joanna!

    – RS

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