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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

When Gladwellitis attacks

Malcolm Gladwell's latest, a review of a book about the different types of reasons people employ, is a perfect example of his bad side: he gets lust for the power of an idea, then sees it everywhere. Anecdotes are lined up, but while they are entertaining, the big theory does little to explain them better than our existing understanding does.

Gladwell quotes author Charles Tilly's thesis that there are four types of reasons we give--conventions, stories, codes (procedural formalities devoid of meaning), and technical explanations.

Fine. But does categorizing these reasons help us better to understand, for example, the aftermath of Dick Cheney's quailgate? Gladwell insists that it does (emph'd):

Consider the orgy of reason-giving that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney's quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington. Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. "Accidents happen," they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, "The image of him falling is something I'll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there's Harry falling. And it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life." Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney's critics, meanwhile, focussed on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney's accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney's shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn't nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.
But isn't "Careless at war, careless at home" as valid a convention as "Accidents happen?" And while Cheney's version of his story is indeed earnest and personalizing, couldn't other tellings of the story be damning of him? Last, it's unclear what the importance of the "codes" or "technical account" is, other than that, if you're trying to score points in a public scandal, or prevent them being scored, at some point you're going to mine the legal and procedural details for ammunition.

On some level, categorizing Tilly's reasons can give us context with which to process communication. But that's not enough for Gladwell, who must find insight, by hook or by crook. Here's a real-life application of Tilly's thesis, according to Gladwell--detecting if your spouse wants a divorce:

Reason-giving, Tilly says, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. The husband who uses a story to explain his unhappiness to his wife—“Ever since I got my new job, I feel like I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had time for us”—is attempting to salvage the relationship. But when he wants out of the marriage, he’ll say, “It’s not you—it’s me.” He switches to a convention.
Unless of course he doesn't, and is one of those people who uses stories to ease his guilt about separating, but who prefers conventions like "I'm fine" during the relationship.

But Gladwell, no matter how fixated on his own value as an interpreter (Blink! That's what my gut tells me, at least), always comes up with great anecdotes:

Two years ago, a young man named Anthony mugged a woman named Anne on a London street. Anthony was caught and convicted, and a few days before he was sentenced he sat down with Anne for a face-to-face meeting, as an exercise in what is known as "restorative justice." The meeting was videotaped by a criminal-justice research group, and to watch the video is to get an even deeper sense of the usefulness of Tilly's thinking.

"We're going to talk about what's happened," the policeman moderating the meeting begins. "Who's been affected, and how they've been affected, and see what we can do to make things better."
...
His story comes out painfully and haltingly. “It was a bit too much. All my friends I was asking to loan me a couple of pounds. They just couldn’t afford to give it to me. ... I don’t know what got into me. I just reached over and took your bag. And I’m really sorry for it. And if there is anything I can do to make up for it, I’m willing to do it. I know you probably don’t want me anywhere near you.”
...
Watching the conference is a strange experience, because it is utterly foreign to the criminal process of which it is ostensibly a part... They have a conversation, not a confrontation. They are telling stories, in Tilly's sense of that word: repairing their relationship by crafting a cause-and-effect account of what happened on the street.

I don't know if the value of talking to other people and apologizing can be ascribed to "the usefulness of Tilly's thinking", but it sure does seem healing.

And if we do have Tilly to thank, I hope he takes on the abortion debate next, which, Gladwell suggests, could be resolved if only the pro-choice would explain things from the perspective of the mother, or the pro-life side would detail what happens to a fetus during an abortion (if only claiming to support "life" were a convention!)

When we say that two parties in a conflict are "talking past each other," this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable?
Blink! Gladwell needs a better editor.

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