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Some years and several books ago, the New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell moved from being a talented writer to a cultural phenomenon. He has practically invented a genre of nonfiction writing: the finely turned counterintuitive narrative underpinned by social science studies. Or if not the inventor then someone so closely associated with the form that it could fall under the title of Gladwellian.
His latest book, Talking to Strangers, is a typically roundabout exploration of the assumptions and mistakes we make when dealing with people we don’t know. If that sounds like a rather vague area of study, that’s because in many respects it is – there are all manner of definitional and cultural issues through which Gladwell boldly navigates a rather convenient path. But in doing so he crafts a compelling story, stopping off at prewar appeasement, paedophilia, espionage, the TV show Friends, the Amanda Knox and Bernie Madoff cases, suicide and Sylvia Plath, torture and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, before coming to a somewhat pat conclusion.
The tale begins with Sandra Bland, the African American woman who in July 2015 was stopped by a traffic cop in a small Texas town. She was just about to begin a job at Prairie View A&M University, when a police car accelerated up behind her. Doing what almost all of us would have done, she moved aside to let the car pass. And just like most of us in that situation, she didn’t bother indicating. It was on that technicality that the cop, Brian Encinia, ordered her to pull over.
Agitated and annoyed by Encinia’s ploy, Bland lit a cigarette to calm herself down. Encinia demanded that she put it out. When she protested, he instructed her to get out of the car and, after some minor resistance on Bland’s part, she was arrested and put in jail. Three days later, while still being held, she killed herself.
As Gladwell notes, it was one of several high-profile incidents in which the aggressive behaviour of police officers led to shocking deaths of African Americans, thus inspiring the Black Lives Matter movement. But why, Gladwell asks, did things go so badly wrong on that Texas highway? What were the misunderstandings that led to such a needless conclusion, and where did they come from?
There is a short answer to that question, and it goes something like this: in a misapplication of a criminology study, American police forces were trained to use minor traffic violations to uncover major crimes. In doing so they pathologised a whole range of normal behaviour and almost certainly exacerbated pre-existing racial bias.
But while worthy of attention, that’s not the kind of answer that makes for a riveting book, at least not in the hands of Gladwell. So he takes us on a digressive journey in which we are encouraged to examine our own behaviour and thought processes. What would you do, for example, if you witnessed what you thought was inappropriate interaction in a shower between a school sports coach and one of his pupils?
Our best self says we’d report it immediately to a person in authority. Then what does that person in authority do? Were you certain that you saw what you thought you saw? Is the person in authority certain of your certainty? And what about his or her superior?
In reality most of us have a predisposition to doubt out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. That’s the reason that parents were able to sit in the same room as Larry Nassar, a doctor with the US women’s gymnastic team, and not believe their children when, afterwards, they complained of Nassar’s intrusive examinations. Nassar turned out to be a profile abuser. But he was inadvertently protected by parents because, by and large, we assume people – especially those in positions of power – are acting in accordance with our expectations.
It’s the same reason that Bernie Madoff got away with his massive Ponzi scheme for so long: no one could believe the truth. And when some people did sound alarm bells, the authorities chose to dismiss their concerns because they seemed too incredible. It turns out that a large majority of us are pretty bad at spotting liars. Even supposed specialists in the field are not very good at it. A study of New York criminal judges found that they scored about as well as random selection when deciding who should and should not be granted bail.
But what does all this have to do with Bland? Well, when we try to systemise doubt, argues Gladwell, we empower our worst instincts. There are sound evolutionary social reasons why we’re inclined more towards trust than suspicion. If it was suspicion that formed the basis of all interaction between strangers, we would never have learned to cooperate on such a vast and complex scale.
But Gladwell concludes that American police traffic divisions made indiscriminate suspicion (which nonetheless focused disproportionately on African Americans) their standard means of interacting with large swaths of the public and the result was the tragic misunderstanding that led to Bland’s jailing.
In other words, the price of liberty for innocents such as Bland might be allowing the occasional prolific paedophile and con artist to escape early detection. I’m not convinced the two separate set of circumstances enjoy the relationship Gladwell ascribes to them. But his book is seldom less than a fascinating study of gullibility and the social necessity of trusting strangers.
• Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
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