Malcolm Gladwell on Criticism, Tolerance, and Changing Your Mind
By Maria Popova
At a recent event from the New York Public Library’s wonderful LIVE from the NYPL series, interviewer extraordinaire Paul Holdengräber sat down with Malcolm Gladwell — author of such bestselling books as The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (public library), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (public library), Outliers: The Story of Success (public library), and his most recent, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (public library) — to reflect on his career, discuss the aspects of culture that invigorate him with creative restlessness, and update his 7-word autobiography.
The entire conversation, embedded below, is well worth the time — there’s something rather magical about witnessing two minds of great intellect collide with great humanity — but three of Gladwell’s points gave me particular pause. Excerpts and transcribed highlights below.
Gladwell offers a brilliant and increasingly urgent criticism of contemporary criticism — a form of discourse that, at its best, is an increasingly rare art and, at its worst, breeds a vicious cycle of compulsive people-pleasing as a futile defense against hateful trolling:
Criticism is a privilege that you earn — it shouldn’t be your opening move in an interaction…
The notion that the only way you can critically engage with a person’s ideas is to take a shot at them, is to be openly critical — this is actually nonsense. Some of the most effective ways in which you deal with someone’s idea are to treat them completely at face value, and with an enormous amount of respect. That’s actually a faster way to engage with what they’re getting at than to lob grenades in their direction…
If you’re going to hold someone to what they believe, make sure you accurately represent what they believe.
Gladwell echoes comedian Bill Hicks’s spectacular letter on what freedom of speech really means and laments the hypocrisies of what we call “tolerance”:
What we call tolerance in this country, and pat ourselves on the back for, is the lamest kind of tolerance. What we call tolerance in this country is when people who are unlike us want to be like us, and when we decide to accept someone who is not like us and wants to be like us, we pat ourselves on the back… So when gays want to be like us and get married, we finally get around and say, “Oh, isn’t that courageous of me, to accept gay people for finally wanting to be like us.”
Sorry — you don’t get points for accepting someone who wants to be just like you. You get points for accepting someone who doesn’t want to be like you — that’s where the difficulty lies.
But perhaps Gladwell’s most culturally important point — and I say this as someone who ardently advocates for the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind — has to do with the tyranny of our irrationally immovable opinions:
I feel I change my mind all the time. And I sort of feel that’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.
If you create a system where you make it impossible, politically, for people to change [their] mind, then you’re in trouble.
Published June 24, 2014