I just finished a third book by Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers. I find him an entertaining writer who seems to carefully filter the data that helps him tell his stories. It does not make him unreadable but it does make his conclusions a bit questionable. This is true even when I agree with what he is saying. Let me give you an example from my latest read.
The very first paragraph in the first chapter starts off with the story of a young woman that he will keep coming back to as he builds his case.
“In July 2015, a young African American woman named Sandra Bland drove from her hometown of Chicago to a little town an hour west of Houston, Texas. She was interviewing for a job at Prairie View A&M University, the school she’d graduated from a few years before. She was tall and striking, with a personality to match. She belong to the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority in college and played in the marching band. She volunteered with a seniors group. She regularly posted short, inspirational videos on YouTube under the handle ‘Sandy Speaks,’ that often began, “Good morning, my beautiful Kings and Queens.’”He then proceeds to relate a tragic encounter with a policeman which ends up with her in jail and committing suicide three days later. As far as I can see he gives no false information but I want you to compare this from the end of the book,
“‘I am up today just praising God, thanking His name....’”, p. 1
“Who is Sandra Bland? She is also mismatched. She looks to Encinia’s eye like a criminal. But she’s not. She’s just upset. In the aftermath of her death, it was revealed that she had had ten previous encounters with police over the course of her adult life, including five traffic stops, which had left her with almost $8,000 in outstanding fines. She had tried to commit suicide the year before, after the loss of a baby. She had numerous cut marks running up and down on of her arms.” p. 330The tragedy remains but this paragraph gives you a completely different feel for the person he focuses on. Which young woman was sitting in that car? The attractive woman on her way to a new job and a new life or a beaten down failure running away from her past? Probably both, but the point I make is that you only got half the story at the beginning.
The cop? He was out of line, unprofessional and lost his control. He was fired for his efforts yet Gladwell points out that he was simply behaving in the way he had been trained. Another bit of unanswered dissonance is why she was in jail for three days. I doubt the cop had that kind of power. Her past probably caught up with her when they went to the computers and checked out her previous contacts with the law.
This pattern is common in his writing. You also pick up a lot of boilerplate liberal ideas such as sending social workers to deal with domestic violence.
It was an interesting book but read with your mind in gear.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Talking to Strangers. New York: Back Bay Books, 2019.
homo unius libri