From the deceptions of New York Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff to the wrongful murder conviction of American student Amanda Knox in Italy, Malcolm Gladwell posits that some of the most polarizing controversies of our time boil down to a misunderstanding between strangers.
In his new book, “Talking to Strangers,” Gladwell cites these highly charged headlines as examples of what he believes to be the defining problem of the modern age: We’re more connected than ever before with people we know less about, multiplying the potential for encounters to go awry.
It’s an issue the proudly Canadian, New York-based journalist has personal familiarity with, having run into a few misunderstandings with strangers himself.
“With my own writing, I’m always struck by (how) the task of responding to critics is more often than not, not refuting the critic, but correcting the critic,” Gladwell, 56, said by phone from Hudson, N.Y., this summer.
“It’s saying (to them), ‘You know, I don’t actually think we disagree. I think you just misunderstood what I was saying.’ Or, it’s me correcting myself, saying, ‘Actually, I agree with you, but I did a bad job of explaining what I meant.’”
Gladwell’s knack for making abstruse ideas accessible to a mass audience has earned him a reputation as an intellectual forefather of the modern pop-science genre, and in some circles, made him the target of criticism surrounding its divisive appeal.
Fans laud the author for demystifying academic theories to reveal their everyday implications in hit titles such as “Outliers” and “The Tipping Point.” Gladwell’s detractors, however, say his impressionistic blend of scholarship and anecdotes reduces complex concepts to suit his sweeping theses.
Controversial Toronto author and professor Jordan Peterson has faced similar scrutiny for “12 Rules for Life,” his bestselling self-help book meets intellectual manifesto.
Gladwell devoted an instalment of the “Revisionist History” podcast to espousing his own “12 rules.” (In a Gladwellian twist, he settles on one rule rather than a dozen.)
He introduces the episode by drawing parallels between him and Peterson: “There’s a Canadian like me, my age almost exactly, who teaches my favourite subject, psychology, at my alma mater, the University of Toronto.”
In an interview, Gladwell dismissed these similarities as “superficial,” suggesting he and Peterson occupy very different roles — Peterson is a “thinker” who puts forward new ideas, while Gladwell is the journalist who tries to explain them.
“I think he’s a lot smarter than I am, and I’m not being falsely modest,” Gladwell said. “He’s completely brilliant. I don’t agree with him on everything, but … I know that some people are quite hostile towards him, and I am not.”
The New Yorker writer demurred when asked to elaborate on his points of disagreement with Peterson, explaining that to do so would require a forum of its own.
Gladwell interviewed Peterson before the professor’s rise to notoriety for his last book, 2013’s “David and Goliath.”
In the six years since, Gladwell said his approach to storytelling has shifted, in part influenced by his pivot to audio as the co-founder of podcasting company Pushkin Industries.
“Podcasting is more intimate and more emotional, and this book is quite an emotional book.”
Gladwell said the impetus to write “Talking to Strangers” traces back to the 2015 case of Sandra Bland, a black motorist who died in a Texas jail after a confrontation with a white state trooper during a traffic stop.
A video of Bland’s arrest became a flashpoint in the debate about racial bias in policing. But Gladwell was struck by another aspect of the encounter: How could an exchange between two strangers devolve to such a tragic end?
To answer this question, Gladwell surveys cases of child sex abuse, torture and suicide to diagnose fallacies people fall prey to in their attempts to understand strangers.
The first he dubs the “default to truth” theory, which proposes our inclination to believe others are being honest leaves us vulnerable to deception. Conversely, some people are hyper-vigilant to the potential of deceit, prompting them to see threats where none exist.
The second issue Gladwell identifies is that we’re prone to making assumptions based on misleading behavioural cues. Last, he says, we underestimate the importance of context in interpreting people’s actions.
Gladwell said these factors contribute to an aggressive form of policing that conditions cops to be suspicious of everyone, everywhere. In his view, this set the stage for the events that unfolded when Trooper Brian Encinia pulled over Bland for failing to signal a lane change.
The challenges of interacting with strangers have particular resonance in a multicultural nation like Canada, said Gladwell, who was raised in Elmira, Ont., about 15 kilometres north of Waterloo.
Diversity can profoundly enrich a country’s social fabric, he said, but it also comes with a “responsibility” to work through cultural differences.
“It requires more effort. That effort is worth expending; there are huge benefits to it. But you can’t dodge that,” Gladwell said.
While there’s no panacea to the difficulties of understanding strangers, Gladwell sees his proposals as a reflection of his Canadian temperament.
“What could be more Canadian than ending a book with the argument that people need to be more cautious and humble?”
Gladwell is set to make book tour appearances in Kitchener, Ont., Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver next week for “Talking to Strangers,” which hit shelves earlier this month.
Adina Bresge ~ The Canadian Press