Malcolm Gladwell: ‘Once you put words into the world you lose control over them’

Malcolm Gladwell. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR AND INTELLECTUAL MALCOLM GLADWELL TALKS TO PATRICK FREYNE ABOUT STRIKING A BALANCE BETWEEN PERFECT AND POPULAR, THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAYING WITH IDEAS, AND WHY HUMAN BEINGS ARE SO VERY BAD AT SPOTTING LIARS

When Malcolm Gladwell walks into the lobby of the Clarence hotel, in Dublin, he’s instantly recognisable. His signature Afro hairstyle has been trimmed back over the years, but he is holding a thick old book of the sort you might expect Malcolm Gladwell to carry. It’s about a Jesuit who wrote an encyclical denouncing anti-Semitism in the 1930s, but which was then ignored by the pope. “If they had denounced anti-Semitism in 1937 who knows what would have happened?” he says.

Gladwell is probably the best-known living popular intellectual. He’s a New Yorker magazine writer and the author of five bestselling books in which he recasts common assumptions with counterintuitive ideas.

I wanted to go into advertising. I still think of it as a fascinating profession. The idea of telling a story in 30 seconds is extraordinary

His latest book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, examines why people are so easily misled and lied to. He’s also about to record the fifth series of the Revisionist History podcast. It’s a relatively new medium for him and one he clearly loves.

“I started doing the podcasts on a whim, because a friend of mine who was running a company that made podcasts said, ‘Do you want to make one?’ It’s very different [from writing books]. It’s far more intimate and emotional, and it’s far easier to be mischievous and funny. It brings out a whole different side of my personality. I feel like my writing is often very serious, and I’m not very serious, so it brings out the playful side. Some of those podcasts are almost self-parodies. [And] with podcasts there’s no critical infrastructure around them yet, so you can do whatever you want. What prohibits people from having too much fun in traditional media forms is fear of critics.”

He has never had a career plan, he says. “I started in journalism accidentally. I wanted to get a job in advertising in Canada, and I couldn’t get one. I was at a loss as to what to do, and a friend showed me an ad in the back of a magazine [the American Spectator] for assistant editor, and I applied for the job... I wanted to go into advertising. I still think of it as a fascinating profession. The idea of telling a story in 30 seconds is extraordinary. Part of the reason I so enjoy doing the ads for Revisionist History is that it’s my frustrated adman coming out.”

Malcolm Gladwell. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Malcolm Gladwell. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

I read somewhere that as a young teenager he wrote a pamphlet influenced by the conservative US pundit William F Buckley. Did that right-wing contrarianism come from the fact that he lived in liberal Canada? “Yeah, very much so, and also Buckley was a tremendously attractive figure. He was incredibly funny, patrician, iconoclastic, and if you’re from middle-class rural Canada that’s incredibly glamorous. I was briefly a kind of Reaganite. I wouldn’t say I had politics. I had a stance. Canada was so uniformly socialist-left at the time that if you wanted to rebel you had to go to the obvious extreme.”

Is that when his instinct for counterintuitive positions first took hold? He laughs. “I never had any interest in being part of the majority. I was quite happy to be the odd man out.”

What did he learn from being a reporter? “Everything,” he says. “I learned how to write quickly. I learned how to write clearly. I learned how to report. I learned objectivity. I listened... Reporting teaches you that much of what people believe is wrong. That’s why you have to call multiple sources. And it teaches you that there are an infinite amount of stories out there.”

Where would he place his politics now? “I’m probably to the centre right of the New Yorker. It’s a very liberal organisation. In America I’m probably centre left. I find political arguments really boring. So if I can subvert them I’m very happy. I like the intellectual challenge of making an argument that appeals to both sides.

“I was in a neighbourhood in Houston called River Oaks, a fancy neighbourhood, and I was sitting at a coffee shop and a woman drives up in her fancy Range Rover, looks at me and says, ‘Are you Malcolm Gladwell? I disagree with everything you say and I’ve listened to every one of your podcasts.’ That’s the highest praise I can get. I desperately want someone like her to listen.”

I think I’m a little bit of a fuzzy target. I have more than my share of critics, but I think it’s harder to pigeonhole me, because I’m a little bit here and there, as opposed to being very clearly slotted into a category

Is the fact he’s a Canadian largely writing about the United States an advantage? “Very much so,” he says. “And in America being biracial allows you an incredible amount of freedom. I think I’m a little bit of a fuzzy target. I have more than my share of critics, but I think it’s harder to pigeonhole me, because I’m a little bit here and there, as opposed to being very clearly slotted into a category. I’m not interested in those categories. I don’t think people belong to the categories they think they belong to. I’m always struck by how many different ways we can define ourselves. Political ideology is one of 10 different descriptors we could use. I don’t understand why it’s privileged.”

In his series of excellent Revisionist History podcasts about civil rights in the southern states of the US, he is very clear that, as a biracial Canadian, the story of African-Americans is not his story. Why was it so important to point that out?

“I’m half West Indian, and the West Indian/African-American distinction is quite considerable,” he says. “Very different historical legacies, very different cultural backgrounds. One is an immigrant group. One is there as long as anyone. So I think it’s quite wrong for me to identify with African-Americans. Maybe not wrong, but it’s cheating a little bit. All those episodes were done as if I was just discovering this stuff for the first time. Like I’m a Martian coming down and hearing about the Brown decision for the first time,” he says, referring to the ruling of the United States supreme court, in Brown v Board of Education, in 1954, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. “The Martian’s question is the question I always want to be asking.”

By coming into a political argument with ideas from social science or psychology, is he trying to disrupt straightforwardly ideological narratives? “Yeah. It’s why the Jesuit series [of podcasts] was so important, because casuistry [a system of thought favoured by the Jesuits] is a way of getting beyond artificial categories. It’s saying, push them all to the side and let’s start with the facts.”

If we learn to read emotions from emotionally transparent television programmes such as Friends, we end up suspecting people of lies purely because they do not act like people do on television

Talking to Strangers is based on the theories of Tim Levine, a US academic. What’s the gist of Levine’s argument? “He’s trying to explain this long puzzle, which is why human beings are so bad at detecting liars. And his explanation is that evolution selected us to believe people, to default to truth, unless we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary... The advantage from an evolutionary perspective is [that] lies are relatively infrequent, and by being trusting you’re capable of creating all manner of human bonds. You can co-operate, you can start companies, you can do all kinds of things, if you trust. None of those are possible if you are paranoid and suspicious.”

Chapters deal with the US fraudster Bernie Madoff; the Cuban double agent Anna Montes; the way Hitler misled the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain; and the sexually abusive football coach Jerry Sandusky. These are all liars who are disturbingly obvious liars in retrospect. In the book, Gladwell explains why their lies weren’t so obvious at the time. Then he goes further. A chapter explores the way we learn to read emotions from emotionally transparent television programmes such as Friends, and consequently end up suspecting people of lies purely because they do not act like people do on television, or the way we believe, inaccurately, that we act ourselves.

Friends: emotionally transparent
Friends: emotionally transparent

“The fundamental problem, which is so obvious, is that you can never see your own face. You can see other people’s faces, but you can’t see into their heart. You can see into your heart, but you can’t see your own face.”

Most of this is fascinating. Gladwell puts every story into the context of personal interactions gone awry due either to our trusting instincts or our attempts to overcorrect in the opposite direction. But the book becomes more controversial in a chapter on the 2015 campus rape case, in which a Stanford University student athlete, Brock Turner, was found sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. The theory is also strained in the tragic story that opens and closes the book, the story of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who killed herself in jail after an unnecessarily violent arrest for a minor traffic infraction.

In both instances, while interpersonal misunderstandings might be factors, it’s hard not to feel that bigger frameworks of misogyny and racist policing are more significant.

“I acknowledge the centrality of race in the Bland story,” Gladwell says. “But I think that single-mindedly referring to [these situations] as racial conflicts has made it impossible for us to do anything about them. So race has become a way of shrugging and saying, ‘What are you going to do? The guy’s a racist.’ And I’m struck as much as anything by how these incidents keep happening in America and nothing ever changes. And it doesn’t change because we’ve adopted this highly personalised racial explanation. I totally think that encounter is about race. I just think that talking about it in that way is not productive.”

A woman at a memorial rally for Sandra Bland in 2015. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty
A woman at a memorial rally for Sandra Bland in 2015. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty

In the book Gladwell breaks down the interaction between the police officer and Bland (which was filmed on a dashcam) and credibly casts it as the interaction of a man trained to view everyone with suspicion and an understandably emotional woman. But isn’t it also the story of a historically racist institution meeting a relatively disempowered black person?

“I totally agree,” he says.

I say I don’t feel that analysis is strongly present in the chapter. “I can only say that, on the question of policing, my conclusions are enormously practical. Do I think that any time soon the United States can alter its legacy of racial oppression? No. It’s not happening. What can you do? Well, you can change police practice and training, to minimise incidents. You can do a lot with that, and that’s doable, and that can cut across ideological lines.”

So, if I understand him, in order to make his arguments about police procedure in a way people of all political persuasions can agree with, he prefers not to focus on the issue of race, an avoidance that risks making liberals like myself uncomfortable. “Because if I did, everyone who is not a liberal would stop reading there.”

Getting blackout drunk if you’re a man drastically increases your chances of committing a criminal act, and if you’re a woman it increases your chance of being the victim of a sexual predator. It’s probably not a good idea

When it comes to Gladwell’s analysis of the Turner case, alcohol becomes central to his argument. “In the case of Brock Turner, alcohol is just never mentioned, at least in America, in discussions,” he says. “There was a really good book written about campus sexual assault two years ago in America, and it doesn’t mention alcohol. So in one instance [the Sandra Bland story] a factor is overly present [race] and blurs our attempts to complexity. In the other case the factor is absent, which is why I’m bringing it up.”

But, in fact, Turner’s defence focused very much on alcohol as a factor. Does Gladwell not worry that he’s making both victim and victimiser seem culpable with this narrative?

“I wrote the Brock Turner chapter very carefully,” he says. “I had a whole panel of women in their early 20s who read it and commented on it, because I didn’t want to cross over into victim blaming... On one level it’s a very common-sense chapter. It says, look, getting blackout drunk if you’re a man drastically increases your chances of committing a criminal act, and if you’re a woman it increases your chance of being the victim of a sexual predator. Under the circumstances, it’s probably not a good idea to get blackout drunk at fraternity parties.”

Brock Turner leaves jail in 2016. Photograph: Dan Honda/Mercury News via Getty
Brock Turner leaves jail in 2016. Photograph: Dan Honda/Mercury News via Getty

That could be read as victim blaming. “It shouldn’t be,” he says, before stressing that Turner completely deserves his conviction. “I’m trying to prevent future incidents. One thing I think is unacknowledged in some progressive interpretations of these events [is that] they seem to be wholly concerned with adjudicating the case at hand and apportioning blame, and relatively unconcerned with preventing the problem from happening again.”

What’s the general message he would like people to get from his new book? “To forgive themselves and others if they’re deceived,” he says. “I definitely don’t want us to use the occasions of being deceived as an excuse to turn ourselves into paranoid people. The lesson of the Sandra Bland story is that we let fear of crime and fear of the other and fear of black people in America allow us to turn police from normal default-to-truthers into paranoid crazy people.”

Does he feel a tension between presenting all the complex facts and telling a compelling story? “A little bit,” he says. “You’re inevitably going to have to shave the story down a bit and hopefully not lose too much nuance. Academics by definition are not going to tell you a clean, compelling story. They’re going to caveat and hedge, and that’s because they’re dealing in a world of people who are well steeped in the literature, and they need to tread carefully. But I think if your audience is starting from scratch you have a different set of responsibilities.

“So, do I think there is a tension? Absolutely. At the margin I think you, as a writer, in the constant struggle between writing something that’s perfect and something that’s popular, you should slightly shade towards the popular, something that’s capable of reaching the widest possible audience.”

Every author has an implicit contract with his or her readers, and my contract is that we’re going to go on an adventure and we’re going to examine all kinds of interesting things and if necessary we’re going to backtrack

I ask how he feels about things he got wrong in the past, such as the discredited “broken window theory”, an idea he helped popularise in The Tipping Point, his book about cultural change. This theory suggested that the vigorous policing of minor crimes led to falling crime rates in New York, but it’s now believed that they led, in fact, to draconian policing policies felt disproportionately by young black men.

“Everyone got that wrong,” he says. “We didn’t understand what was going on in the late 1990s with crime. That was the best theory we had. So I think I was naive, and criminology was naive a little bit. Now we know more. It’s important to understand that between ’93 and ’96, crime just literally falls through the floor and everyone was just baffled.”

Given his work often involves overturning existing dogmas, how does he feel when his own writing is taken as dogma by some readers? “There’s nothing you can do about that,” he says. “Sometimes people wrench something out of context, like the point about the relative age affect in Outliers [his book examining the mechanisms of success]. The whole point of that was to expose the plight of underprivileged kids who may have a difficult home life and then, on top of that, they’re the youngest in a class.

“But this has led to upper-middle-class parents holding their kids back. Good Lord. That’s crazy. Why would you do that? It just puts an even bigger gap [between rich and poor], because it’s harder for underprivileged parents to hold their kids back. It costs money. Whenever it comes up I try to say, ‘That’s not the point.’ The thing is, once you put words into the world you lose control over them.”

In the ideal scenario, he says, he sees his relationship with his readers and listeners as an ongoing one. “Every author has an implicit contract with his or her readers, and my contract is that we’re going to go on an adventure and we’re going to examine all kinds of interesting things and if necessary we’re going to backtrack and admit that we went down a blind alley... My big thing is that playing with ideas, first and foremost, ought to be joyful.”

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell, is published by Allen Lane