Ronson met Mike Daisey at a restaurant in Brooklyn. Daisey was telling Ronson that no one wanted a true apology from him, because a true apology was a kind of “communion”—a group effort to come together. What people truly wanted, Daisey believed, was his destruction.
Here, Mike Daisey touches on something profound about public shamings: they’re not necessarily about righting wrongs, restoring justice, or building stronger communities. Instead, they are often about punitive cruelty and consolidation of power. Indeed, online mobs often react with disappointment or increased vitriol when the person being shamed tries to express genuine remorse.
Daisey’s transgression was similar to Jonah Lehrer’s: he had been caught lying about a trip to Shenzen, China, during which he met factory workers who made Apple products. But some of those meetings, it was revealed, never actually happened. A flamboyant member of the New York theater scene, Daisey performed a theatrical monologue about his experiences to great acclaim—but when he appeared on NPR’s This American Life to face claims of exaggeration, his story fell apart. Initially, after the radio appearance, Daisey wanted to kill himself, but instead, he turned his voice against the angry online mob that had come after him, and he defended himself until his critics deemed their own vitriol “useless.”
By drawing a connection between Mike Daisey’s shaming and Jonah Lehrer’s, Ronson is showing how the internet seeks to punish people who are seen as misusing their privilege—or who mislead the those who consume the content they create. The public perceived both Daisey and Lehrer as having a responsibility to tell the truth, even if Daisey’s medium was theater (an art form in which invention is often fundamental). Perceiving Lehrer and Daisey to have mishandled that responsibility, the public revolted. But Daisey handled things differently than Lehrer—he went on the offensive, as Mosley had, and defended his perspective.
At their meeting, Daisey began opening up to Ronson about a devastation from his youth. When he was 21 and living in northern Maine, he found out that his girlfriend was pregnant. But Daisey was unprepared for fatherhood, and he fell apart. Each night, he went swimming in a nearby lake—he’d swim far out into the middle and attempt to drown himself. But each night, he swam back to shore. Eventually, he left Maine and went to Seattle, where he became a celebrated theatrical monologist.
This passage shows that Daisey had already known what it felt like to be depressed, ashamed, and isolated. This suggests that he was better equipped to respond to his public shaming because he’d already been, on some level, at rock bottom. The internet’s vitriol couldn’t wound him so deeply because he’d already experienced real devastation in his life.
In 2010, Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs—the story of his trip to China and the beleaguered, exploited Apple factory workers he’d met there—was a runaway success. But a lot of the painful imagery of maimed workers poisoned forever by screen cleaners and other toxic chemicals he shared was false. It was only when Daisey appeared on NPR and Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life, began fact-checking his story that the seams began to show.
Unlike Lehrer, who embellished Bob Dylan quotations for aesthetic purposes (or altered them to support his own ideas), Daisey embellished his experiences in China to expose some very real abuses that were taking place. But Daisey had still misused his privilege and his platform, and he’d still deceived audiences by claiming to have had experiences he never actually had. Trust was still breached, and Daisey was still punished in spite of his good intentions.
The Shanghai correspondent for another radio show began doing some digging on Daisey’s story—many of his details didn’t line up. He tracked down Daisey’s translator, who revealed that Daisey had only visited three Apple plants in China, not ten, and that he’d never met many of the sickened workers he claimed to have met and learned from. In March of 2012, Ira Glass brought Daisey back into the studio and confronted him on-air about the fabrications in his monologue. Glass admitted to feeling both terrible for and betrayed by Daisey—and Daisey apologized.
Daisey did visit some of the factories that he claimed he had—but experts couldn’t ignore the fact that he’d greatly embellished his experiences in order to make his one-man show more compelling and advance his own popularity. But when Daisey was confronted with the facts, he owned up to them immediately—and he apologized genuinely and with vulnerability rather than making excuses for himself.
Daisey admitted to Ronson during his meeting that, following his public shaming, he’d turned again to thoughts of suicide—but his wife made sure that he wasn’t alone. When Daisey decided to go on NPR once again, he did so knowing that if he tried to bury the truth, he’d lose control of the narrative—and, perhaps, his original intent of shining a light on worker abuses in China would be obscured completely. Ronson was shocked that Daisey had created a narrative in which he “valiantly” destroyed himself for the greater good. But Daisey explained that sometimes, to survive, one has to write their own story and react to the narrative that’s been forced on them in a way that “disrespect[s]” that narrative.
Here, Ronson shows that Daisey took a novel approach to speaking up about being shamed. Rather than defend himself or try to minimize his actions, he simply reminded people of his original intentions, which were good. He decided not to make the entire shaming process about his own humiliation, but rather about the stories of the people he'd originally felt moved to share. In a sense, this is another example of how people—including internet mobs—often do bad things while telling themselves it’s for a good reason, so this shows that Daisey and his tormentors have something in common. Apparently it’s pretty easy to convince oneself that you’re doing something good, while it’s much harder to objectively evaluate the morality of your actions.
For people like Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco, though, there was no alternative narrative to fall back on. Their flaws were essentially public domain, up on the internet for all to see. While in New York to interview Daisey, Ronson met with Sacco once again. Sacco had traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a time to do some volunteer work—but after just a month, she returned to New York, where things were still mostly the same for her. Sacco admitted that she was still suffering, even though the worst of her shaming was over.
This passage highlights the differences between three of the major shamings Ronson has looked at so far. Justine Sacco attempted to do some damage control by volunteering her time in Ethiopia, hoping to show the world that she was sorry for the unintended effects of her joke tweet. But both she and Lehrer struggled to craft compelling narratives about their shamings—instead, they’d let the public determine the narrative for them.
That week, the European Court of Justice passed the Right to Be Forgotten ruling. It stated that if an article about an individual had become “irrelevant or no longer relevant,” then Google was bound to de-index it from its European sites if petitioned to do so. Many thousands of people applied, and Google honored every request. When Ronson asked Sacco how she felt about the ruling, she admitted to having conflicted feelings—she felt like it gave her hope, but that applying to be forgotten would be a “disaster,” potentially stirring up the online mob all over again. At the same time, Sacco longed for the day when her Google search results would change.
By introducing the Right to Be Forgotten ruling, Ronson begins to explore the idea that there is hope for those who have been publicly shamed. Even if people can’t spin the narratives of their shamings or reject shame entirely, there might still be a way for victims of unnecessary, overblown, or heavily gendered public shamings to redeem their own stories and disrupt the shaming cycle. However, it’s important that Justine Sacco, a paradigmatic shaming victim, doesn’t find this compelling, as she seems to believe that even her desire to be forgotten might be enough to stir up another mob, who would presumably see her desire to be forgotten as a lack of contrition or a misuse of privilege.