I felt a slight sense of bitterness and resentment after reading the transcript of the “Retraction podcast”. It was tempting to label Mike Daisey as a good-for-nothing scoundrel. I feel that although he is certainly guilty of deceiving the public, he might have been attempting to do good, for both U.S. consumers and Chinese workers.
Cathy, the translator, and other organizations that watch over workers’ rights in China have revealed a number of discrepancies in Daisey’s story. These reveals change both the gravity and the scale of the Chinese worker’s situation. Long shifts, spartan conditions and cost cutting that undermines safety certainly exists. It is more unpleasant as a laborer in China than it is to work a similar job in the United States, where higher labor standards are employed.
Yet, many of the tools that Mike Daisey employed in his work directly try to paint a picture where Chinese workers are not just assigned to long, uncomfortable shifts. They describe a dystopia where people are treated as criminals guarded by armed security. A dystopia where as long as there is a 0.025% increase in drying speed, a neurotoxin will be used instead of alcohol to speed up production, and the government and corporation responsible will turn a blind eye.
Again, the situation is certainly not fully positive for the Chinese workers, even with some of Daisey’s affirmations debunked. But working 60 hours a week (not unlike an intern on Wall Street for example) can be attributed to overzealous managers who verge on the edge of ethical behavior. It cannot be attributed to a conspiracy of government and corporations that will do absolutely anything to minimize costs.
Still, I believe Mike Daisey had the noble intention of trying to motivate societal change to improve worker conditions. And art, what Daisey was claiming his monologue is, can inspire and move us. Exaggeration, as long as it creates an interesting tale, is perfectly acceptable in art. Art however, is different than journalism. A work of art should not be treated as journalism though, and I support Ira Glass’ reaction. Mike Daisey has at least lied through omission by not being frank about his exaggerations. And marketing art as fact is very dangerous when the feelings provoked can trigger knee-jerk reactions.
Treating the situation of the Chinese workers holistically, rationally and bringing gradual improvements to align labor standards internationally will allow U.S. consumers to have “guilt-free products” and Chinese workers to improve their lives.