Malcolm Gladwell Misses the Mark Time and Time Again

“This has been a book on a conundrum,” Gladwell writes in the final chapter of “Talking to Strangers.” Not exactly the word I would pick to describe stories of suicide, torture, police abuse, rape, and child-rape Gladwell uses to fluff-out a three-hundred plus page book. “Conundrum” seems like an appropriate response to buying one too many gallons of milk. “Aw, shucks.”

It’s this juxtaposition that highlights one of the more glaring irregularities in Gladwell’s new book: recontextualizing horrible atrocities, by dismissing their socio-political implications, to explain and discuss the social equivalent of spilled milk.

As is evident by the title, this book is about talking to strangers, specifically “what we should know about the people we don’t know.” Gladwell doesn’t hide much behind that title. He weaves a handful of cognitive distortions into a thesis on why it’s so hard to accurately read strangers. In his review of Gladwell’s book, in The Atlantic, Andrew Ferguson pounces on this science of the obvious:

“Gladwell’s many critics often accuse him of oversimplification. Just as often, though, he acts as a great mystifier, imposing complexity on the everyday stuff of life, elevating minor wrinkles into profound conundrums. This, not coincidentally, is the method of pop social science, on whose rickety findings Gladwell has built his reputation as a public intellectual. In its most decadent and easily marketed form, social science specializes in taking axioms known to every 19th-century schoolteacher and duding them up as heuristics or effects or biases.”

Ferguson does an excellent job of picking apart Gladwell’s overused public speaking prose (tell them what you’re gonna tell them, then tell them, then repeat it back to them). Gladwell’s mystification of the simple has been ripped to shreds by countless critics. Yet, it’s not necessary the simplification or the mystification that worries me. The entire self-help, guru, inspirational speaker circuit is built on it. What worries me is the ideological cause Gladwell subtly marches in beat to throughout the book.

If I outlined a handful of stories of rape, child abuse, and police abuse, ending it on the conclusion that if only we “loved each other more” these horrible things wouldn’t have happened, you would probably roll your eyes at me. Is love really what is needed? Is it really that simple? This is the general feeling I got reading Gladwell’s book.

The opening chapter takes us to the encounter between a Texas police officer and an African-American woman. The case is Sandra Bland. After an escalated encounter with the police officer, Bland is arrested. Three days later, she commits suicide in her jail cell.

The case begins, follows, and ends the book. It signals several things. First of all, it communicates the vitalness of what Gladwell has to say. This book could save lives, and end these unnecessary altercations. Secondly, it is used by Gladwell to detach himself, and consequently the whole book, from politics.

Gladwell glosses over the politics of the Bland’s case. Black Lives Matter and conservatives present opposing reasons and fixes to the issue, both of which are misguided in his opinion. In a show of moral self-righteousness and purposeful ignorance, Gladwell declares that he doesn’t want to “move on to other things.” Everyone is dancing around the issue, distracted, or forgetful. But not Gladwell! He’s here to tell us what needs to be done. It screams white liberal savior complex. To say BLM activists and the community at large have forgotten Bland and other victims of police abuse is a downright lie.

This should come as no surprise to those clued up to Gladwell’s overdone game. It’s a game that Gladwell and his peers have been playing for a while. Make every issue and societal problem a personal, internal one. The fix is akin to a to-do list. Free your mind, find joy, live your best life, etc. Forget movements, policies, politics, ideologies, or inequality. Just meditate, and buy the damn book. Always buy the damn book.

This nefarious individualization of atrocities covers up each and every one of Gladwell’s badly strung together examples. What exactly does Montezuma and Cortes, Sylthia Plath’s suicide, Brock Turner, CIA interrogators (i.e. torturers), Cuban spies, the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, Larry Nasser, and law enforcement tactics have in common?

Very little. So little in fact, that I began to amuse myself by imagining how Gladwell ended up picking such a wide-range of examples. Did he take these from past Revisionist History podcast episodes? From his TED talks? Since I have no intention of listening or watching either, I guess I’ll never find out. Maybe he just picked a date and Googled “important history on this date.”

You could say the major thread throughout the book was a lack of communication. That’s definitely the thread Gladwell aimed for (an erratic and poor aim at that!). Yet the unspoken thread throughout the book took the cake: an utter lack of political context.

By political, I don’t mean elections and congressional hearings. I mean the power-relationships that position us socially and align us mentally and socially to the dominant value-system. He strings along each story like a series of fascinating events. Apparently, the biggest issue he found between Montezuma and Cortes was the subpar status of their translators, not, however, the wanton destruction and nefarious motives of the conquistadors. Something tells me that a good translator would not have saved Montezuma’s empire from the Spanish. But Gladwell certainly tells it like it that.

Everything is just a big misunderstanding. That’s why the CIA couldn’t tell that the majority of their spies in Cuba were double agents, or that a Cuban spy was embedded high up in the DIA. That’s why numerous parents gave Larry Nasser the benefit of the doubt. That’s why Brock Turner raped Chanel Miller at a fraternity party. That’s why Amanda Knox was deemed guilty for the murder of her British roommate, in Italy, despite overwhelming evidence that the victim’s boyfriend did it. And that’s why the interrogation of a prominent al-Qaeda member made it so hard to believe what he admitted to.

Gladwell’s faux apolitical approach necessitates the dismissal of any unsavory bits. He has to uphold the supremacy of the studies and expert opinions that he trots out. Science is not morality, nor can it define morality. Whether Gladwell is aware of this or not is unknown, but he carries through on it nonetheless.

For example, Gladwell breezes through CIA interrogation methods like it’s a walk in the park. He brushes aside the debate over torture’s morality as irrelevant to the discussion. The interrogators are just doing their jobs: giving captives “the full treatment,” he says at one point. The morality of the issue sits on the sidelines while Gladwell describes various torture techniques and the “science” behind them. Who cares if it’s right or wrong. Just discuss how torture might not be the best way to get people to remember the information you’re forcing them to admit.

The supremacy of science over morality is also on full display in Gladwell’s account of the Brock Turner sexual assault case. Gladwell treats the whole case as a mistranslation caused by alcohol. If I were to simplify the chapter, it’d go something like this: since we’re already bad at reading strangers, this is compounded with excessive alcohol consumption. Turner and Miller were both heavily intoxicated and at a frat party where sexy dancing and hookups are the norm. Since alcohol reduces our ability to read other people and react accordingly, we should teach kids how to avoid excessive alcohol consumption.

My favorite part of this horrible chapter is when Gladwell quotes Miller’s statement to Turner in court, only to accuse her of getting it wrong:

“That last line should be ‘Show men how to respect women and how to drink less,’ because the two things are connected. Brock Turner was asked to do something of crucial importance that night – to make sense of a stranger’s desires and motivations. That is a hard task for all of us under the best of circumstances, because the assumption of transparency we rely on in those encounters is so flawed. Asking a drunk and immature nineteen-year-old to do that, in the hypersexualized chaos of a frat party, is an invitation to disaster.” (emphasis original)

I would hope it is obvious to the reader that A) not all rapists are drunk, B) not all drunk people are rapists, and C) Gladwell’s strict parent, connect-the-dots style explains very little. The one thing Gladwell got right – only to blow it all on a rabbit trail – is that environments do affect the nature of drinking. Yet, this only goes to damn Gladwell’s thesis. A fraternity party is rapey because the environment is not oriented toward consent, respect, or a healthy view of women.

Alcohol does not make people rape. The values and mindsets of those drinking, and the environment they subsequently create is. If women are viewed as conquests, and a man taking a woman is celebrated among his friends as an accomplishment, the results should not be expected to be anything less than abusive. No amount of studies stating the obvious effects of alcohol will stop rapists.

Gladwell discounts the power-relationships inherent in these situations by blaming it all on alcohol and “sexualization.” He also plays a subtle game of himpathy in diverting blame toward alcohol. Himpathy is a term that Kate Manne, author of “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” created to explain “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior… Discussion focuses excessively on the perpetrator’s perspective, on the potential pain driving him or on the loss of his bright future.”

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Gladwell’s rebuttal of Miller’s statement exhibits a snippet of his himpathy toward Brock Turner. He also focuses on Turner’s perspective of the encounter, insisting that these sexual assault stories will “forever be a mystery.” Gladwell mentions the two men who discovered Turner assaulting an unconscious Miller on the lawn in the beginning, but conveniently leaves them out of the picture later on. We know what happened, thanks to the two people who discovered and chased down the perpetrator.

This is ultimately where Gladwell’s analysis of Sandra Bland’s unjust harassment and arrest goes wrong. He fails to differentiate the power-relationships in play. Sandra and the cop were not on equal terms. The cop held all the chips. He escalated. He didn’t give a shit about who Bland was or why she might be irritated. He just saw her as a shifty suspect.

Gladwell’s analysis and buildup amount to very little in the end. “We need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth.” This comes across as a convenient capitulation to the “unknown” to hide the reality that we do know the truth (e.g. we do know what happened at that fraternity). “We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.” Doesn’t look like Gladwell knows either.

And my personal favorite: “…when you confront the stranger, you have to ask yourself where and when you’re confronting the stranger – because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger is.” What did I just say earlier about rapey environments?

This would’ve been a great intro into racism, bigotry, and power-relationships at play. Turner confronted Miller at a fraternity party where women were objectified and seen as conquests. Bland met that cop in the context of guilty until proven innocent aggressive policing, where African-American women bear the brunt of abuse. Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nasser utilized their institutional prestige and power to abuse those in their care, making sure to make friends who could use their institutional prestige to protect them. Amanda Knox was jailed for a murder she didn’t commit because she didn’t fit the sexist mold of how a woman should act in the face of a murder.

Gladwell misses the mark time and time again, all in the name of being apolitical. He fails to realize that being apolitical doesn’t mean your answers are better. Most of the time, it just means you’re whitewashing the problem.