Talking to Strangers – another good read by Malcolm Gladwell

I just finished reading “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell and highly recommend it. Gladwell is one of my favorite non-fiction authors and has penned multiple best sellers such as “Outliers,” “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point.” His style is to season examples with a touch of data and analysis, without infringing on the story.

“Talking to Strangers” shares numerous examples and data that we humans tend not to read strangers very well. The main reason is we “default to truth.” In other words, we give more benefit of the doubt to strangers than we should. A healthy dose of skepticism would help in this regard. Without giving too many of his examples away, here are few to think about.

  • Neville Chamberlain wanted to meet Adolph Hitler to see if he could be trusted at his word. It should be noted that Chamberlain was not the only person to meet Hitler and misread him. The ones who saw Hitler more clearly never met him.
  • Amanda Knox was convicted of a crime she did not commit on very flimsy evidence, primarily because she did not react to the news of her roommate’s murder as the Italian police expected her to. Her manner convinced them she had something to hide.
  • Bernie Madoff did not come across as someone who was running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. When investigators met him they could not believe he was so doing. Yet, a man who had not met Madoff named Nat Simons handed the case to the investigators years before they paid attention – he saw too may red flags and dug deeper.
  • Fidel Castro had seven double agents working in the CIA that went unnoticed for years until the US allies caught a key Cuban agent in Europe. The CIA dismissed what would have been red flags rationalizing that the lie detector was picking up a false positive, for example.
  • Brock Turner was convicted of raping a co-ed at Stanford, primarily on the evidence that two Swedish grad students came upon him having sex with a comatose women near a dumpster. Gladwell notes meeting a stranger at a college party is bad enough, but made far worse when both have been drinking.
  • The Penn State president and Athletic Directors could not believe coach Jerry Sandusky was a prolific pedophile. People gravitated to all the good he had done without heeding the first witness to have observed something. The witness was not forceful enough to follow-up and make sure something was done.
  • Sandra Bland was arrested on a very minor traffic offense in a conversation that went awry when it needed not. There were too many incidences where the conversation could have been diffused, yet was not. She was taking a job at Prairie State University in Texas and her Illinois license plates gave Officer Brian Encinia pause. She committed suicide in her jail cell.

Gladwell highlights a study that concluded through tests that we tend to think people who are innocent, but nervous or anxious, as guilty and tend to give a free pass to the good bluffer who is guilty. The folks inbetween, we tend to judge a little better. Given the above CIA and other intelligence, judicial and police examples, those who say they are better at judging are not as good as they think.

One of the examples noted a computer algorithm looking at criminal history was far better than a judge who met the person at setting bail or releasing the offender. The judges released too many that should have had higher bail. Another noted the use of torture was not a good elictor of truth, as when people are tortured, they go into trauma and cannot recall the truth very well.

Like all Gladwell books, “Talking to Strangers” is a quick read. Yet, I hope you will walk away with a few nuggets of knowledge as I did.

 

Why so many gunshots?

In the United States, we live in a world where too many folks are shot. With guns so rampant in our country, it makes a difficult job for our police officers even more challenging. This may explain in part a bias to act when fear sets in. There are many fine police officers who do their jobs well day in and day out. Unfortunately, we do have an increasing number of situations that have arisen, where police officers may have acted rashly or too quickly. We need to evaluate these both within the profession and through the court system when necessary.

Yet, one of my concerns that does not get talked about enough is why are so many shots being fired? I am clearly concerned about the racial profiling that appears to be going on, as people of color are the ones being killed by police officers more so than other races. But, the number of shots is appalling to me as it seems double-digit shots are fired to subdue an alleged attacker in too many incidents.  What happened to shooting to wound an attacker? Why is it necessary to shoot a teen or twelve-year old boy eleven, fourteen, or sixteen times?

Bruce Springsteen wrote and powerfully sang a song a few years ago called “American Skin.” It is sometimes referred to by its subtitle of “41 Shots” which is the number of shots fired to kill a non-English speaking suspect who did not understand what he was being asked. He thought the police were out to get him and ran. When he pulled out his wallet, he was shot 41 times.

The fact that more Black youth are being shot is troublesome, but the number of shots the police officer feels obligated to use to defend himself or herself is also troubling. We need to be asking ourselves why? Why so many shots? Why are the shots fired so quickly? Were there no other actions that could have been taken?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “Blink” he mentioned the circumstances behind the Springsteen song. The essence of the book is we use gut instinct which is really our in-tune subconscious that sees situations before our conscious mind can register what is going on. In one example, he notes how a fireman told his colleagues to back quickly out of room as his experience was giving him an uneasy feeling. The fire was not burning as per the norm. What his subconscious experience told him was correct – the fire was actually beneath the room they entered and if they went in, they would be consumed by the fire when the floor collapsed.

Gladwell notes the same is true for police officers. We must train and retrain how to recognize danger and when danger is not present. Those few instances in the “blinking of an eye” matter. This is why the job is so hard. A judgment call has to be made and, unfortunately, those calls are not always right. With adrenalin flowing, the reaction can be to shoot often. I hope that is all it is. I would hate to believe there is an unstated rule somewhere that if an officer shoots someone, they need to be lethal. Yet, we must ask these questions, as the number of shots used to subdue someone are too common and too many.

The best suggestions beyond the training and retraining are two-fold. The police union needs to be as involved and engaged as a pilot union is around an air crash. We need all parties looking to see why something happened, not with the primary motivation to say the police officer was not without fault. Good people make mistakes. Good police officers make them, too. Let’s understand why and use that information to avoid it going forward. And, it needs to be said, not all police officers are equal in experience, talent and temperament, just like everyone else.

The other good suggestion is more community policing. Encounters with law enforcement officers should not only happen in negative situations, where you messed up or someone thinks you messed up. The more interactions that are positive will help reduce crime. More police officer visibility will help reduce crime.

Let me end that we need to get to better answers. A better answer does not include police officers getting shot. That serves no purpose other than making a bad situation worse. And, a life is lost. Saying All Lives Matter is 100% correct, but this theme usurps the reason for the Black Lives Matter protests. We need to help police officers serve the community better in a tough job. That involves training, evaluation and improvement and community policing. It also involves understanding that difficulty.

I recognize fully that as a White man I am treated differently and can go anywhere I want, treatment that a Black man is not afforded even when dressed in a suit. When a Black man is stopped by the law, he knows he must move deliberately or this may be the last thing he does on earth. Black youth are given “the talk” by their mothers to do this very thing – be respectful and move slowly. This is sage advice for all of us, but please know how hard a job the police officer has, even when less biased to act. All it takes is an instance and someone is dead. So, we must respect the law, while we still seek answers. But, we do need answers.

 

I might not survive this encounter – racial injustice lives on

Last week on “Real time with Bill Maher,” one of his panel guests was actor/ director Wendell Pierce, who has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies. I should note that Pierce is an African-American male, as this context is important for his viewpoint. During a discussion on domestic violence, Maher introduced the concept of race playing a role in how people perceive alleged perpetrators. Pierce’s opinion was very informative and well thought out. But, there was one particular commentary he made that needs to be stated again and again, as there are some who believe racial injustice does not still exist and is blown out of proportion by the media.

Pierce was dressed in a suit and tie for the show, which is important for his example. He said people who are not an African-American male do not and can not appreciate when he is stopped by a police officer or patrolman, that the thought goes through his head that “I might not survive this encounter.” He used a recent example where he said he was driving to a funeral in Mississippi, dressed like I am tonight, with two young children in the backseat and another passenger up front. He noted he was pulled over by a patrolman.

Pierce said he did what he always does when stopped and pulled his wallet out of his pocket and set it on the dashboard awaiting the officer’s arrival. African-American men do this to avoid the perception of going for a gun as you get your wallet out. He said it was a very hot day, so he turned the car off and left the AC running. After a few minutes of waiting, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw an officer pointing a rifle at his car mouthing the words to get out of the car, #$%&#$. So, a situation that did not need to be tense, was because the officer presumed malintent.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink,” he notes that there is a predisposition to act that is based on our experiences. The theme of the book is we make subconscious decisions all the time based on our experiences. These hunches have been formed over the years. He notes this can be good or bad, and cites as an example of the latter in the story of “41 Shots” that Bruce Springsteen made famous in his song “American Skin.”  In essence, an “English as a second language” person was perceived as a perpetrator as he did not understand questions officers were asking and, feeling in jeopardy, ran. Not condoning this flight, Gladwell notes the person was trying to pull out his wallet and was shot 41 times on a stoop. 41 times!

The recent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson is another example of this predisposition to act. As a result, someone is killed with his hands raised as confirmed by several sources. Trayvon Martin died because self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, presumed he was up to malintent and pursued him even when told not to by the police dispatcher. Something similar happened at a gas station where a civilian shot into a car and killed an African-American teen because they were playing their music too loudly.

As a white person, let me state the obvious. While I can empathize greatly with Pierce and other African-American males, there is no way I can walk in their shoes. There is no way for me to know what it is like to fear for my life in circumstances which should not warrant fear. There is no way for me to fully understand how racial injustice continues, when it is obvious that it still does. I have read the excellent book by Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow” which speaks to the higher preponderance of incarceration for African-Americans for drug crimes, when whites are equally guilty as indicated by the data. The book also speaks to the number of African-American teens who are in adult prison and, as a consequence, are being taught more to be a better criminal rather than a better citizen. So, they leave prison with few opportunities and may resort to a life of future crime.

Per Pierce and others, the solutions lie in education. The solutions lie in better after school programs.The solutions lie in providing opportunities. The solutions lie in better parental guidance. The solutions lie in better training of police officers to handle confrontations. The solutions lie in community based policing where the efforts are to reduce crimes through positive interaction. The solutions lie in better remedial sentencing where kids can be taught an education, skills and how to be good citizens. And so on. Racial injustice may have lessened, but it is alive and well in America. Anyone who thinks otherwise, needs to do some more homework or look to better sources of information.

How do you know who the good guys are?

A common refrain echoed in a couple of recent comments on blogs regarding gun deaths is the line from Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, who said “the only defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I have asked this rhetorical question before, but let me ask it again – “how do you know who the good guys are?” Just using a few examples as to why I pose this question, note the following.

There is a man on trial in Jacksonville, Florida who killed an African-American teen in a gas station because of an argument started over turning the volume of the radio down. There were several young men in the car and the alleged assailant’s wife was inside paying for items from the convenience store. No weapon was found in the car or at the scene from the African-American youth, yet the man said he saw a weapon. So, someone is dead over playing music too loudly. I would wager that people have come to his defense to say he was a good person.

A couple of months ago, a retired police officer shot a man in a theatre (who was with his wife) for talking on his cell phone. He apparently was speaking to the baby sitter while he and is wife were on a date. So, someone is dead over talking on a cellphone in a theatre. Like the above, the punishment does not fit the crime of talking in a theatre. I have already heard footage of how the retired police officer was such a good person.

Last year, George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch person, was acquitted of killing an unarmed African-American youth. What bothers me about this acquittal is Zimmerman was told not to follow this person by the 911 officer when he called 911 to report the person. Yet, he followed Trayvon Martin and now Martin is dead. People talk about what a good person Zimmerman was and how he was so vigilant on the neighborhood watch.

Then, there are the countless deaths that occur every day in America. Our significant gun death problem is not the result of horrible mass shootings. No, by far, our gun death problem happens everyday. People get in arguments at home, in restaurants, in bars, at games, at concerts, etc. and make impulsive decisions and a life is ended because a gun was present. Plus, the number of suicides increase because of impulsive decisions when depressed and easy access to a weapon. Then, you have the accidental shootings by minors who find a weapon. This past week, yet another occurred when a two-year old shot his seventeen month old sister.

There are two tests you can do to validate these kinds of deaths. First, look in any paper for about a week and count the number of gun deaths. Second, and more troubling, Google “six-year-old shoots four-year-old” and count the number and pages of stories over the last few years. I cite this statistic in earlier posts, but according to the Journal of Acute Trauma and Medicine, looking at the wealthiest 23 nations, for every 100 gun deaths, the US has 80 of them. For every 100 children and teen gun deaths, he US has 87 of them, with the remaining 22 countries totaling 13. I view this as a problem.

Gun deaths are due to a variety of factors – lack of civility, predisposition to act, drugs, mental health issues, poverty, entertainment violence, but make no mistake they are also about gun access. Guns do not kill people, that is true, but people with access to guns do. I am not advocating infringing on Second Amendment rights, although that argument is an overplayed hand that applies little this day and age. But, I am advocating what Americans have noted in surveys – we want elongated background checks and longer waiting periods. And, the police have long advocated the codification of bullets, so crimes can be solved more quickly.

But, it has to be more than this – we must deal with getting more civil with each other and not letting simple arguments lead to a death. We should also deal with these other issues, especially the mental health one, but lack of civility needs to be addressed. The other related issue is what I call a “predisposition to act.” From Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” he notes the story that Bruce Springsteen captured in his song “American Skin” (or sometimes referred to as 41 Shots). A man who did not understand English very well was shot 41 times trying to get his card out of his wallet. The police involved were confirmed to have a predisposition to act toward this person and fired their guns in haste. They also fired 41 times on one person.

Getting back to the three stories above, these good guys with guns were emboldened to act. They had a predisposition to do something that ended up with three people dead. Three people who need not have been killed for their so-called transgressions. Having access to a weapon will compound an impulsive or irresponsible judgment call. This is one reason why allowing guns in bars is about the most inane idea possible.” Morons in the News” on the various morning radio shows are filled with impulsive decisions that ended in death over stupid or drunk arguments. Guns, alcohol and testosterone are an unhealthy mix.

So, when someone next raises the comment about the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, ask the headline question above. How do you know who the good guys are?

David and Goliath – Interesting View froms Malcolm Gladwell

I have often quoted Malcolm Gladwell, who is the best-selling author of books called “Blink,” “Outliers ”  and “The Tipping Point.” His latest book is also excellent and in keeping with his style of an outside looking in perspective – “David and Goliath.” Its subtitle elaborates further on its theme – “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”

“David and Goliath” helps us question how often and why underdogs are and can be successful. He starts with the biblical tale of how David slew the giant infantryman, Goliath, as one of the most celebrated underdogs. But, as Gladwell points out, David was not necessarily an underdog. David was an expert with a sling and had a history of bringing down large animals who threatened livestock. A sling was one of the artilleries of the day. When King Saul wanted David to wear armor to fight Goliath, he responded that he was not used to fighting in that way and did not care to put on the armor.

Goliath was likely around 6’8″ or larger, quite the imposing figure. He was insulted by the little boy coming down to fight him, but it may have been more than that. Based on observations made by Gladwell from the scriptures about an escort helping Goliath with his weapons, Goliath’s size and other comments the giant man made, Goliath may not have been able to see very well. So, David, whose accuracy with a sling was not unusual for someone who often used one, actually had an advantage over Goliath provided he fought him his way. He would only lose that advantage if he came in too close. Once released by sling, David’s stone traveled at significant speed and with its usual accuracy to Goliath’s peril.

Gladwell uses many other examples in his book about success of perceived underdogs. He highlights several times how people compensate for shortcomings and actually position themselves for success. A good example was the high percentage of dyslexic people who have been successful – David Boies, Charles Schwab, Gary Cohn, Richard Branson, etc. He notes how each compensated for their dyslexia by being terrific listeners, great involvers, and more daring people to get ahead. They also found their way into positions which would not obligate them to spend more time with their weaknesses, but would take advantage of their talents.

Boies became a great trial lawyer, but would have been a horrible corporate lawyer. Why? Because a corporate lawyer needed to read subtleties in printed contracts and documents, while a trial lawyer did not. Being a trial lawyer took advantage of his listening skills and ability to condense a case down into its simplest terms for a jury to understand. His listening skills were paramount as he could pick up on a slight hesitation from an expert witness as a sign of uncertainty. He was renowned for using the opposition’s expert witnesses to benefit his clients. He also prepared his witnesses to use the same inflection on answers to avoid the same trap. Ironically, none of the successful dyslexics would wish their dyslexia on their children, as it makes life hard.

Gladwell’s gift is to help people challenge normative thinking and show that what people believe to be true is not necessarily so. Several times he notes where efforts to accomplish something by a larger, stronger force, has the opposite effect, actually galvanizing the underdog for future success. In one enlightening example, he discussed the Battle of Britain, where the Germans mercilessly bombed London and surrounding areas. Yet, the conclusion by some psychological experts, the Germans would have been better off by not bombing London at all. Why? Outside of those who lost their lives and those who were close to the bombing, the great many who survived each bombing actually became more resolved. The survivalist nature of “I am still here,” had a profound impact. It was the British citizens saying to the Nazis, “is that all you got?” The world owes a huge debt to the British people for standing up against great odds by themselves until others would join in. Their resolve was only bolstered by overcoming the underdog status and still be standing after the bombs were dropped.

There are numerous other examples, but I wanted to give you a taste of the book. Gladwell’s books are a great blend of observation and storytelling with some data mixed in. His observations are grounded in his experience of always being an outsider. When I have seen him interviewed, he notes how different he looks as the son of a Jamaican mother and British father who grew up in Toronto. He said we were always outsiders, so we never accepted the status quo. His books are also a quick read. It is also hard for me to pick a favorite. Start with one and, if you like it, give another one a chance. You will be better for it, as he makes you think.