Malcolm Gladwell Talks Presidential Election, Policing in America and ‘Talking To Strangers’

The writer of big ideas — celebrated author, raconteur, and podcast host Malcolm Gladwell — sat down with New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max for a in depth conversation at a Montclair Literary Festival preview event Thursday to benefit Succeed2gether.

Max started the conversation by crediting Gladwell with a major shift in magazine writing because he proved you didn’t really have to have a “person” to lead an article, adding that Gladwell’s “it turns out” phrase was the action figure in his writing that led beautifully to “The Tipping Point,” the book that explored how little things can make a big difference. That book joined Gladwell’s other titles — “Blink,” “Outliers,” “What the Dog Saw,” and “David and Goliath” — landing on the New York Times bestseller list. Gladwell’s latest title is “Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.”

D.B. and Malcolm Gladwell and Montclair Literary Festival. Photo: Bill Solomon

“Talking To Strangers” is inspired by the Sandra Bland case – a young black woman pulled over by a white police officer in a small town in Texas. She gets arrested and three days later, is found hanged in her jail cell. Gladwell describes Bland’s death as an unusually powerful and heartbreaking story to investigate and says her tragic death is “what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers.”

“When you look at the statistics surrounding police stops in this country, and the sheer number, it gets lost in the conversation that other countries don’t do this,” says Gladwell, who adds that this isn’t the case in Canada, where the motto on the back of police cars is “people helping people.”

Of the Bland case, which was considered a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement, Gladwell “wanted to explain why so many of us had a kind of visceral outrage at that particular act. And also the more you understood what happened, I thought, the more angry you would get because you would come to understand that your initial response was, in fact, morally inadequate.”

When looking for ideas, Gladwell says he reads memoirs, and tries to find the person who is both interesting and not overly constrained. The sweet spot he found are memoirs written by mid-level government bureaucrats involved in intelligence service. It was in one of these memoirs that Gladwell discovered the story of the Mountain Climber, a mysterious CIA legend nicknamed by the Cubans. The Mountain Climber is just one of the stories explored in “Talking to Strangers,” which also tackles Bernie Madoff and Jerry Sandusky.

One of the more interesting moments in Gladwell’s conversation with Max was when he spoke about the way we choose our leaders, a particularly timely topic, given that the country will elect a president in November.

Gladwell says empirical evidence shows the system we have for electing leaders is “utterly failing at its task.”

To figure out what we want in a leader, he says, we have to first correct the bias that skews strongly toward “tall, middle-aged, Protestant white men.”

One way to fix it, Gladwell suggests, is to “make our choice without having any knowledge of what people are, what the color of their skin is, what their gender is, what their height is, what their denomination is and what their age is.”

“Because it’s not useful to know what Bernie Sanders actually looks like,” says Gladwell, or that Warren is female.

He says we can start by having 22 candidates in the Democratic field, and then just number them, one to 22.

“Then we never meet any of them. We simply have them email responses to questions. That’s what the debate is. That’s one way of doing it. The other way to do it is, we meet them all and we simply say, ‘okay, we’re going to pick your top 20’ and then we just pick names out of a hat, because here’s the thing: There is no one in this room who could truthfully tell me that they know which of the 22 candidates who began this process will be the best person,” says Gladwell.

“Everything we know about selection tells us that when we make predictions about people, our predictions are routinely false. You can’t do it right. We think we can. You cannot do that. You do not know who the most honest person is. You don’t know who the smartest person is.”

Gladwell’s discussion of turning the election process upside down gave the audience a great glimpse of Gladwell’s mind at work and demonstrated why his books are so fascinating, Hee gets us to challenge what we think we know and the way we think and then to see things from a completely different perspective.

A packed house for Montclair Literary Festival’s Malcolm Gladwell talk to support Succeed2gether. Photo: Bill Solomon.

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