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.

 

Protecting institutions must start with accountability

With the parade of accusers testifying at the trial of Larry Nassar, the US Olympic gymnastic physician who sexually assaulted hundreds of young females, the finger is now being pointed back at Michigan State University, his employer. The university leadership allegedly did not take seriously previous accusations. It is alleged MSU brushed it under the rug to protect the institution.

The same could be said about Barry Bennell, an elite youth soccer (football) coach in the UK who sexually abused young boys for decades and yet no one did anything about it. Or, Penn State University where the University President and legendary football coach turned a blind eye toward Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys and men. And, by far the worst example is the Catholic Church which long knew of sexual assault in their ranks and chose to hide it, move priests around or, in a horrible failure, try to train the sexual proclivity out of the predatory priest.

Now, the #metoo movement is providing support, encouragement and a window for women and men to come forward. And, they need that support. Harvey Weinstein is more than an individual predator, he represents a business, as do Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, Charlie Rose, etc. These men represent institutions that have revenue streams and reputations that are bigger than that of the individuals.

What happens to the victims who dare come forward are they run up against institutions that first and foremost think of protecting their reputations and/ or revenue streams. Weinstein had a mountain of people helping him threaten and pay off victims who accused him. The movie “Spotlight” on the investigative work of The Boston Globe (about sexual abuse by priests) revealed how there was a secret list of about ninety priests in the Boston area who were known by the church as to having sexually abused young boys as the church settled the cases.

The first step to addressing these issues must be for the institutions to be accountable. They must investigate these accusations with accountability, responsibility and due diligence. If they find fault, they need to admit it and take action. If they do not, the institution betrays the trust of people who support that institution. Leaving a predator in place is beyond poor stewardship, it is criminal.

The movie that angers me more than any other is called “Mea Maxima Culpa,” about the sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in a Milwaukee home for deaf boys in the 1960s. It is revealed later that some church leadership knew of the abuse and did not act. Sadly, there was a similar home for deaf boys near The Vatican that had the same kind of abuse. What would Jesus do? – he would not let a predator prey on more children.

Sexual assaulters prey on people. They use their power of control to abuse, silence, deny, defame and refute their victims. And, if needed, they pay off the victims asking for silence in return. Institutions must stand up more for their victims and less for the assaulters they employ. Believing the predator will stop after a settlement has been proven time and again to be a pipe dream.

To close, I am reminded of the true story of the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who effectively ended her soaring career when she tore up a picture of the Pope on live TV in protest over the silence of church leadership on sexual abuse by Irish priests and other failures. She was booed off every stage after that and unjustly ridiculed. Twenty years later after the Irish priest scandal broke, she was proven correct. Yet, how many more boys were sexually abused in those twenty years?

This story is why it is important. How can these institutions and companies allow these predators to abuse more children and adults after they know? Again, that is criminal, in my mind. Sadly, these kinds of sexual assaults occur too often in everyday organizations affecting everyday workers. We must shine spotlights on these activities and efforts to mask them from the public if not remedied.