Malcolm Gladwell and Journalistic Agenda

I was surprised, a few years ago, to see Malcolm Gladwell being celebrated by a couple of acquaintances of mine online: after all, I’ve always thought of him as an author of, er, low-quality pop-theory books of the sort that could be boiled down into a paragraph or two, with scanty evidence and a lot of flattering platitudes directed at the reader:

  • The Tipping Point: Social change occurs in a mysterious way involving critical mass: it is society that decides (collectively) how society ought to change, and once consensus reaches a critical mass, the change occurs.
  • Blink: He focuses on the importance and power of mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information, mostly valorizing snap decisions made without prolonged deliberation, relying on the suspposedly “adapted unconscious.”
  • Outliers: Specific factors that contribute to high levels of success, especially 10,000 hours of practice.
  • David and Goliath: Disadvantages are, like, sometimes advantages, and stuff.

Looked at from just a little distance, Gladwell is, as Tom Junod put it, “the Horatio Alger of late-period capitalism” and it should not surprise us how popular he is. After all, he’s so flattering to his readers, as Junod explains:

The Gladwell Feint is Malcolm Gladwell’s 100-mph heater — we know it’s coming, and there’s still nothing we can do about it. In all of his books and in all of his stories, there is a moment when he questions the obvious…obviously. He tells us we have it wrong…and we know we have it right. He surprises us … and his surprise fulfills our expectations. He makes us anxious that we don’t know something…only to assure us that we’ve known it all along. He flatters us by seeming to challenge us, and then makes the terms of the challenge so simple that we can’t help but feel smart when we get it “right.”

I remember hearing it once put this way:

Ooh, I have a theory. Oh, wow, look: one piece of evidence! See, my theory is RIGHT!

And that is, roughly, the logical process Gladwell uses, once you strip away the dramatics of the Gladwell Feint. It’s not intellectual, reasoned discussion. There’s no room for complexity, or nuance, or the kind of contradictions we find in the real world, in real philosophy or, even, serious grown-up discussions about anything. This is the kind of stuff that one’s worst undergrad students do when they’re going through the motions of making an argument, and can’t be bothered with, you know, contradictory evidence… and precisely the kind of thing most people will find comforting: the answers are, after all, so easy, so simple, so straightforward, but just counter-intuitive enough to make one feel smart for buying into them.

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Except, take one more step further back, and look at those themes again, and a chilling agenda emerges, one that I didn’t really recognize until after a look at some of the background research that’s been done on his career. Suddenly, it becomes rather unnerving when he argues that teenagers smoke because smoking is seen as cool, and not because (his clients in) Big Tobacco have aggressively pursued teen smokers. Suddenly, it becomes distressing that Gladwell wrongheadedly argues that bigger classes are better for students than small ones. (Which, trust me, as a very experienced educator: they’re not. The only students I knew who regarded big classes as an advantage were looking for cover to hide behind while napping during lectures.)

The reader’s digest summary? Gladwell is a former young Reaganite right-winger trained at a hotbed of journalistic ethics abuse who has conducted his career now in the pocket of Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and the other usual kleptocratic groups. He has allowed his right-wing advocacy to corrupt his writing and his journalism in a very unapologetic way.

No, really: there’s tons of supporting evidence here. (Much of it based on more raw information here.)

But now look again at the themes of his books:

  • The Tipping Point: It’s strategic to emphasize how social change is organic, when you’re drawing attention from the inorganic forces that drive social change: advertising, propaganda, ideology, and the public-relations massaging and manipulation of public opinion… naturalizing the very unnatural business that Gladwell is in.
  • Blink: Of course Gladwell wants to valorize unthinking, snap decisions: they depend on our unconscious minds, which have been pretty expertly mined and harnessed for the good of the elite interests for which Gladwell constantly shills. (Which is why his cautionary example, “Stereotypes,” is so cheap and distracting: the real danger is the power of advertising to lull us into believing that we’re making decisions independently, or intuitively, which are not at all independent or intuitive.)
  • Outliers: Here, Gladwell emphasizes the “intangible” factors that determine success, like, say, which month a hockey player is born, to deliver a message that success outcomes in life are significantly affected by random details in one’s life, even though, of course, his “10,000 Hour” rule still makes success the province of individual hard work. This boils down to obfuscating the major effect that class, privilege, and wealth play in the life outcomes of people: for his clientele, the explanations that hinge on random wow-gee details, or on a just-so story of how mastery develops, are much more congenial and comfortable. (Because, of course, it means that failures can either be written off as bad fortune, or as a personal failing… and not, you know, things like social inequity, injustice, class oppression, and so on.)
  • David and Goliath: Valorizing disadvantage is a page taken straight from the 19th Century Robber Baron Playbook: the rags-to-riches story, Horatio Alger-esque as it is, is indeed the core of false-consciousness: goshdarn it, if people only recognized that their disadvantaged position in society is a blessing… yeah, this is just too obvious to need further explanation.

What we see is, basically, the propaganda for exactly the kind of worldview that would be favored by a right-wing kleptocratic status quo stakeholder. The role Gladwell plays, quite straightforwardly, is as peddler of false-consciousness.

While pieces like this (surely fake) rejection letter for  David and Goliath are fun and illustrative, it seems to me the more on-point message is Gladwell’s marriage to big business and right-wing agendas, his commitment to disinformation and flattering bullshit, and his lack of journalistic credibility…

But also, of course, the more alarming fact that as a thinker, Malcolm Gladwell is utterly chock full of what the kids these dayds call “Fail.” As Etienne Toussaint suggests, one should be willing to go deep, embrace complexity, and eschew lazy shortcuts when one is thinking about problems: all lessons he learned from Gladwell’s negative example.

So when I described Gladwell as reminiscent of a lazy undergrad, I was being too generous. Gladwell’s work reads like that of the kid who doesn’t want to be in school, and who therefore approaches every single question the same way: by writing a one-sentence answer, then hoisting his hand up and saying, “Finished!” and asking whether he can leave now. (Presumably because he has a high-paying speaking engagement shilling for Wall Street, or Big Pharma, or Big Tobacco, or whoever else is funding his malfeasance.)

It’s as if it were a race to see who can think the most shallowly, lazily, and simplistically. And yet Gladwell has been celebrated. This, perhaps, should alarm us: it seems, one suspects, to represent the nadir of ideas in American life.

Again: his background speaks for itself. Damningly.

2 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell and Journalistic Agenda

    1. Thanks, David… Yeah, what little I’ve read of his work has always left me feeling, “Surely the world is not so simple and one-note-samba as this?” But it was quite something to see his, er, background sketched out in all its ignominy.

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