The Truth is Complicated

By Trevor Gilbert , written on March 23, 2012

From The News Desk

Mike Daisey didn't lie. Invisible Children has the wrong strategy. Apple makes the best products. San Francisco has the best burritos.

The above are all 100% right and 100% wrong.

The truth is complicated.


Do you know what I love? Sound bites. Sure, they're misleading, and yes, they are often entirely out of context. That doesn't matter to me though, because I love a good sound bite and I love the generalizations. Not sharing generalizations or reporting on generalizations, but just listening to them.

In a way, sound bites are comforting. The idea that we can sum up the entire essence of a politician in one phrase spoken 30 years ago is great. It's simple. Likewise, if we can figure out the solution to a decades long war with a simple strategy of publicizing the war, then let's go for it. Simple wins the day, the Silicon Valley way.

The thing is, that the truth isn't simple. In fact, while there are certain mathematical, scientific, and life principles that are true 99% of the time and can be summed up in sentences like "1 plus 1 equals 2," that simplicity and ease of explanation doesn't extend to most of the world.

Think about history. The idea that history is simple is ridiculous. "Who won the American Revolutionary War?" Well, I guess the Americans did. Actually, the British fared pretty well in the long run as well. Not to mention the French, which ended up becoming a democracy fairly quickly, as well as getting a load of cash for the Louisiana Purchase.

That's just one example, but consider how that extends throughout history. Imagine a history test, and with the big essay question at the end it asks, "What are the implications of Julius Caesar's assassination?" Well, I dunno. No one knows the answer to that question. Not a single person. We could all still be speaking Latin at this point, and have one empire ruling the world. The idea that you could simplify such a question into a distinct answer while retaining any shred of accuracy is ridiculous.

In fact, it's not just ridiculous, it's wrong.


In recent months, we've watched as a number of highly publicized programs and movements are shown as either dishonest or outright liars. For two recent examples, look at the Kony 2012 movement, and the recent ruckus over Mike Daisey and Foxconn.

Both movements -- and I'm using the word "movement" lightly here -- had good intentions, the deposition of a dictator and the spread of knowledge of manufacturing abuses. Both are good topics for the public at large to know about, and no one can blame anyone for bringing more publicity to the topics.

Of course, the problem people have had with these two issues is that they have lied, or misled the public. The impetus behind this was likely the necessity to simplify the message to gain popularity.

Is this wrong? Well, yes. But it's hard to get too angry about it...


Before we get any further, let's clarify what we’re addressing. We are addressing the fact that Invisible Children has knowingly misled people and ignored nuance in an effort to publicize an ongoing war.

Daisey, in a similar but not identical situation, misled the public about the facts of the matter. Yes, he lied to people. I'm not excusing that, and he should be held accountable.

That point being said, we should understand the motives behind the lies and deceptions. What caused people with noble intentions to decide to jump ship and cross the line into lies and deception?

The answer is the market did.


If we look at recent trends, we will notice that over time, arguments have been forced into smaller and smaller containers. First there were full-form blogs, then there was Facebook, then Twitter. Each one made it progressively more difficult for people to make a point with any amount of nuance. At the same time, people adjusted to arguments without nuance and began expecting the most basic facts to be the complete truth.

As this trend slowly implanted itself into the minds of people, we started to lose patience with arguments that have nuance, and are therefore longer. That's what caused Internetisms like tl;dr and #longread. It's also why people continue to make the point that they send longer articles to Instapaper, and then end up ignoring them.

With our newly-found impatience, spreading a message all of the sudden becomes much more difficult. Which is more attention grabbing nowadays, "Kony 2012," a phrase that means nothing but is catchy, or "Stop the LRA and slowly work to restore Uganda over the course of 10 years," a phrase that is accurate, but boring? The answer is clear, and it also provides an explanation for the simplification

The same argument can be made about Daisey. Yes, he misled people and lied. At the same time, in order to get out the message that he wanted to get out to a public that ignores facts and nuance, he had to generalize.


Of course, with both of these particular issues, there has been a backlash against the originators. Kony 2012 and Invisible Children have been attacked for simplifying to the extreme, and Mike Daisey has been attacked for lying and misleading people.

Why then, did they do this, when the backlash was imminent? Well, it would appear that they did what everyone else was doing. They thought they needed to simplify to spread the word, but that the public does want nuance for some issues. That's one theory, but it does hold water.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if these different issues continue to be over-simplified, or if they will end up showing their true complications at the sake of popularity. In the end, it is up to the public at large as to which trend will become the norm, and at this point, it's anyone guess.