Bullshit and Journalism

This weekend’s revelation that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple and Foxconn was partly fabricated has led some bloggers and journalists to return to the question of how we should interpret the relationship between something called “facts” and something Daisey is calling “higher truth.” This distinction seems spurious to me, though we often hear it described in reference to art and fiction.

I can certainly see how fiction helps to illuminate fact. At least when they are marked out as created-rather-than-discovered, works of fiction can create vivid and meaningful depictions of the world which would otherwise recede into the massiveness of numbers and complexity. As much as I love fiction, however, I’ve never been quite clear why this fictionalized vividness is preferable to the real experiences of real folks, which are also vivid (literally lived), concrete (literally occurrent), and meaningful (literally full of significance for those who underwent them).

At its best, the fictionalization of an event makes it more palatable by fitting it into a pre-arranged narrative structure: a science-fiction fan prefers the rhythms and conventions of a certain kind of story, so she might be better able to understand the horrors of colonialism through the lens of a film like Avatar than she could through an ethnographic account of the post-colonial misery of the Peyizan Yo of Haiti. The great white savior-gone-native in that film stands as an important fictionalized falsehood that must then be overcome, but we must start from somewhere and fiction is frequently an easier beginning.

But would anyone really want to say that the fiction is truer or preferable to the ethnography? I haven’t encountered that argument, at least, outside of hyperbolic Rortyanism. Instead, we occasionally get arguments like Martha Nussbaum’s “‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination.” Because of her specific views on the role of the concrete and particular in informing and grounding our general ethical views, Nussbaum argues that:

“we will need to turn to texts no less elaborate, no less linguistically fine-tuned, concrete, and intensely focused, no less metaphorically resourceful, than this novel [Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.]”

But even for Nussbaum, who differs a bit from the dogmatic particularists like Jonathan Dancy, it is possible to “take fine-tuned perception to a dangerous rootless extreme” such that we “delight in the complexity of particulars for its own sake, without sufficiently feeling the pull of a moral obligation to any.” Such imagining “too freely strays, embroiders, embellishes.”

For Nussbaum, then, we turn to fictional texts as a pedagogical exercise to cultivate the kind of moral imagination that attends to and improvises with the concrete: “an ability to miss less, while being responsible to more.” But this pedagogical exercise actually constrains the fictional text:

“We must at the same time remember that artists, as James sees it, are not free simply to create anything they like.”

The fictional text must at least aspire to the complexity of the human phenomena it intends to map. Yet one thing that jumps out of Daisey’s show is how heavy-handed and simplistic it is:

“You will carry it to your homes, and when you sit down in front of your laptops, when you open them up, you will see the blood welling up between the keys.”

This is not the cultivation of a bewildering modern tragedy, where harsh working conditions and negligent dangers are the perhaps-too-high price developing countries pay for their development. It is bullshit, a technical term best analyzed by Harry Frankfurt:

 ‎”One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinateand knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.”

Deliberate fabrication in order to tell a “better story” doesn’t ever really reveal a greater truth, because it undermines the truth-seeking sensibility. From the perspective of truth seeking, bullshitters who don’t care much about truth seem particularly pernicious: the cost of false vividness is the loss of the trust and credulity that make story-telling meaningful. Of course, some readers may not care much about the truth, either. From some other perspective than truth-seeking, like an aesthetic of care, bullshitting is not necessarily a big deal…. except: what happens when that unconcern with truth leads to a threat to the values of that particular perspective?

One group who care about the truth of these reports are the Chinese who read a report on the iEconomy by the New York Times that included many of the same allegations, better fact-checked than Daisey’s theater piece. Here’s some of what they had to say:

There are two stories about Apple: one is about its brilliant business performance, and the other is about the blood and sweat behind Apple miracles. I strongly recommend that all Apple fans read this. Corporations should bear social responsibilities, and customers should also understand and be responsible to the society. — 花甲小猪

Apple is definitely a vampire factory. But if you boycott Apple, what would those workers eat without demand (for Apple products)? By then they would even lose their job! And now the U.S. is planning to move a chunk of manufacturing back to its soil, as manufacturing costs in China are soaring. What would these surplus workers be facing? The profit margin for the entire Chinese manufacturing sector is thin, nobody enjoys high salary and good benefits; yet their work intensity is strong and working conditions are poor. This is common, not only for the manufacturers of Apple! Think first how to change the miserable status quo of a giant manufacturing country! —Quasi-Economist

There are many others, collected by the New York Times. Their responses were not all finely aware or richly responsible, and possibly some of them were working for China’s infamous “Fifty Cent Party,” (a state corps of internet propagandists) but certainly less was lost on them than seems to have been lost on us.

Finally, it seems worth noting that the facts, such as we have them, mostly come from Apple’s own Supplier Responsibility Reports. Watch that space. Daisey’s story and the resultant outrage may well have forced Apple to join the Fair Labor Association and reveal the identities of its suppliers.

Just because his story wasn’t true doesn’t mean it didn’t make a difference: this is largely the reason that police officers lie, right?

Second Opinions