Bad people are not always at the mercy of their environmentsby Kate Womersley / October 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
Malcolm Gladwell’s new book is about how we misinterpret other people. They are not always honest and easy to read, he informs us. Many of us do not need much convincing of this. Gladwell, however, insists that we do. Human beings, he argues, are too trusting and opt for the least harmful interpretation of others’ actions. Without this, we’d never leave the house or get in a taxi. The problem, according to Gladwell, is that many individuals have demeanours “mismatched” with their feelings. They don’t blush with guilt or scowl with anger. They refuse to be “transparent.”
Talking to Strangers corrals a series of cases variable in their persuasiveness of his central argument about how we make hasty assumptions about others. Chapters focus on why Neville Chamberlain misread Hitler’s expansionist intentions, the initial wrongful conviction of Amanda Knox, long-standing abuse by Dr Larry Nassar of female American gymnasts, and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
The most unconvincing chapters are about Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who sexually assaulted a young woman after a frat party, and Brian Encinia, a police officer who arrested Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who later killed herself in custody. “I think we can do better,” says Gladwell, than to conclude these were predominantly cases of violent sexism or racism. He’d rather apportion most of the blame to the “myopic” effects of alcohol and overzealous police training. Citing the defendants’ court testimonies, Gladwell asks us to see Turner and Encinia as men “at the mercy of their environment.”
Gladwell wants a “more thoughtful” society in which strangers are approached “with restraint and humility.” But the absence of critical energy directed to the prejudices dividing the US and the world leaves the book feeling hollow.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane, £20)