The Stealthy Humanism of Stephen Colbert

It’s not often that a guest settles into a late-night comedy couch and starts talking about human rights.

CBS via MacWorld
Stephen Colbert had Tim Cook on his show last night. The two talked about Siri, but also, less predictably, about corporate responsibility and Martin Luther King, Jr. and human rights.
The first section of the interview was pretty much an infomercial for Apple’s latest product, the iPhone 6s. Colbert had a prototype on-hand—in the newest color, rose gold, natch—and gave a detailed, gee-whiz-inflected preview of the device. The “3-D touch!” The “live photos”! The fact that the 6s will be charged with the same lightning cable used by recent iPhone models! (This is fortunate, because if Apple introduces another kind of charger, Colbert told Cook, “I will stab you in the neck with a fondue fork.”)
The focus of the conversation, though, was not on the tech stuff, but on the human stuff. Colbert asked Cook about the spate of new movies coming out that are critical of Steve Jobs. “I haven’t seen them, but the Steve I knew was an amazing human being,” Cook replied, dismissing the films and noting that, “I think that a lot of people are trying to be opportunistic.” Then Colbert asked his guest about Cook’s fairly recent decision to come out as gay. “Was that an upgrade, or just a feature that had not been turned on before?” Colbert asked, as the studio audience collectively guffawed. But “the reason I ask,” he continued, “is: Is that experience of growing up in Alabama, as sort of a resonant outsider because of your sexuality—did that inform, in any way, your trying to help people who are in hardship around the world?”
This is, of course, very much not the first time Cook has been asked about his sexuality—either before or after he came out last year. But connecting Cook’s experience to that of “people who are in hardship around the world” was a newer way to frame the question. Perhaps even a Colbertian one.
And: “It did,” Cook replied. He mentioned that his desk at Apple is decorated with a photo of Robert Kennedy and another of Dr. King. He thinks he has a responsibility not just to Apple’s investors and users, he suggested, but to justice itself. In this case, “It became so clear to me that kids were getting bullied in school,” Cook said.

Kids were getting basically discriminated against, kids were even being disclaimed by their own parents. And that I needed to do something. And where I valued my privacy significantly, I felt that I was valuing it too far above what I could do for other people. And so I wanted to tell everyone my truth.

But Colbert had more questions about the “people who are in hardship” in the world. “Many people have criticized Apple in the past about your supply chain and about the way your products are manufactured around the world,” Colbert commented, leading into a question that didn’t explicitly name the Foxconn factory, but strongly implied it.
Cook replied that Apple brings “college classes to our manufacturing plants” to help educate the plants’ workers. He replied that the company tries to educate those workers, too, teaching them about—a vaguely Orwellian phrase—“the rights as we see them.” He argued that Apple had high standards for what those rights actually entail.
He summed it up:

Just like our products are meant to give tools to everyone to do better things, to empower them to do things they couldn’t do otherwise, we want to leave the world better than we found it. And for us that means focusing on education, focusing on the environment, focusing on human rights. And so we put a lot of ourselves into these things.

On the one hand, of course, this was the typical stuff of PR-approved talking points. It was the CEO of Apple—whose public appearances, whether they take place on the WWDC stage or in the Ed Sullivan Theater, have the power to move markets—performing in a way that served himself, and his investors, and his company. Nothing he said was entirely new or extremely revelatory. Nor was anything, really, that he was asked.
What was remarkable, though, was the journalistic bent of Colbert’s questions. And what was even more remarkable than that was the brief conversation’s focus on values. This talk about human rights. This talk about Cook as a role model. This talk about charity. This sense that Apple isn’t just a company or a manufacturer of technology products, but also a steward of something broader and deeper.
Which goes without saying, sure, in the sense that every technology—every business—has an internalized morality. Apple’s, because of its products’ popularity, is simply more visible than most. But we don’t hear a lot about that stuff on late-night, network television, for the most part. Late-night comedy usually treats its audiences—perhaps tired from long days at work, perhaps dozing on the couch, right before bed—to wacky stories designed to make their tellers look charming. It often serves up goofy skits designed to make their performers look relatable. It traffics, for the most part, in fluff. It pretty much relies on it.
Cook’s interview was, say what else you will about it, not fluff. It was funny, at points, but it was, more than anything else, serious. It had a distinct whiff of humanism in it—one that has been showing up in other Colbert interviews, as well. Which might indicate, just a little bit, what The Late Show is going to become as it settles into itself. Because when you hear a guest uttering the phrase “human rights”—multiple times!—on a late-night comedy show, that says as much about the show as it does about the guest.