Malcolm Gladwell Doesn’t Care If You Agree With Him
In his new book ‘Talking to Strangers,’ the author courts criticism
On July 10, 2015, a state trooper named Brian Encinia pulled over a silver Hyundai Azera on a tree-lined street in the city of Prairie View, Texas. The driver, who had failed to signal before changing lanes, was a 28-year-old African American woman named Sandra Bland. Asserting that she was not under arrest, Bland refused to comply with several of Encinia’s orders. Their interaction quickly became contentious. Once Bland exited her vehicle, Encinia and another officer physically restrained her. She was arrested and charged with assault for kicking Encinia during this altercation. Three days later she was found hanged in police custody, an apparent suicide.
Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking to Strangers is not about how Bland died, but about why — how a lane change and a seemingly routine traffic stop turned into a tragedy. Critics of Gladwell’s work accuse him of boiling down complex social and scientific research into books of 21st-century fables for business-class Kindle-flippers; in Strangers, he’s confronting some of the more difficult questions raised by an increasingly off-the-rails world. But it’s still a Malcolm Gladwell book, fueled by counterintuition and the thrill of the hunt for surprising connections. Putting a pin in Prairie View, Gladwell takes us from Castro’s Cuba to Sylvia Plath’s kitchen, from Wall Street to the equally remote Trobriand Islands near Papua New Guinea, all in service of a somewhat quicksilver thesis — based largely on the communications researcher Timothy R. Levine’s “truth-default theory” — about the way our beliefs and misapprehensions shape and sometimes derail our interactions with strangers.
The internet-discourse truism known as Godwin’s law holds that any online debate has outlived its usefulness (and probably should end) the minute someone brings up Adolf Hitler; Gladwell gets to history’s greatest monster on page 30, in a chapter exploring how and why der Führer was able to bamboozle British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain regarding his expansionist ambitions when they met in Munich in 1938. Several villains of recent history pass through Gladwell’s narrative as well, including Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, and Brock Turner…