On January 18, I wrote “An Eighth Grader’s Letter to Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook.” I had taught a week-long humane education course, and on the first day I had the students listen to “Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory,” a This American Life broadcast of monologuist Mike Daisey about his visit to the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China, where he interviewed employees making Apple products.
What Daisey shared about the appalling conditions for workers was shocking, and I had the students write letters to Apple’s CEO to express their thoughts and concerns. They were thrilled when, a month later, they received a letter back from Tim Cook. They had not only done good writing and thinking through their well-crafted letters, but they learned the power of their voice. They’d become engaged changemakers in a single week, and they seemed quite empowered and committed to making a difference.
Then this past weekend, I, along with millions of other people, learned that Mike Daisey had fabricated details in his story about his visit to China. This American Life devoted their most recent show to a retraction. I immediately contacted the teacher of the 8th graders to whom I’d offered that class in January. I knew I had to talk to them. But before I heard back from the teacher I received an email from Abbey, the girl whose letter I had published in Care2.
She had seen a Wall Street Journal headline about Mike Daisey’s fabrication and was shocked. She had remembered that I told the class not to believe me, and had generalized this statement as I’d hoped they all would so that she retained a commitment to critical thinking; but it was clear that she wondered who to believe. I feared that she – and others – would begin to become cynical and apathetic, a deadly combination that has the capacity to profoundly disempower us.
So I wrote Abbey this:
Like you, I believed Mike Daisey. I trusted This American Life; I trusted their fact checking, and I had no reason to think Mike Daisey would lie. Trust and skepticism hang in a delicate balance. While we must be vigilant about finding out the truth, the reality is that we cannot find out everything ourselves. None of us could find out all the “facts” about an iPhone (from mining, to production and assembly, to disposal), and there are myriad things to investigate, and so we must trust others. Reputable reporting is essential to knowing the truth, and I’m impressed with how chagrined Ira Glass, from This American Life, is and how committed to righting the wrong of his show’s misrepresentations. That is a good sign for trustworthiness. Basically, we all have to make decisions, using our best discernment, about who is trustworthy.
The worst response that I could imagine is cynicism and apathy that can invade like a virus so that we believe that nothing is true, and no one is trustworthy. That is my biggest concern in this sorry situation. How many other people – like you – wrote letters, gathered petitions, and tried to make a difference? It would be awful if those who cared thought it wasn’t worth caring because people lie.
Your letters still mattered so much! Apple has not held these Chinese companies to the standards of American companies. Apple still keeps the margin of profit for these companies so small there is little room for substantive improvements. Apple is the premier producer of tablets and smart phones, and the pressure on Apple, not just from Mike Daisey, but from those who’ve responded to the reports from reputable journalists, is significant and effective. What you have done through your letter to Tim Cook and your commitment to keep learning and doing is more important than ever.
I hope Mike Daisey’s lie will be a warning to us to always be ferocious in our commitment to truth-telling, because when we are not, we harm our own best efforts and we add to the stewpot of cynicism and apathy that threaten to prevent us from living lives of real purpose, meaning, and goodness.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of Yutaka Tsutano via Creative Commons.