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Author Malcolm Gladwell. (Neville Elder For The Globe and Mail)
Author Malcolm Gladwell. (Neville Elder For The Globe and Mail)

Malcolm Gladwell explains how being the underdog can give people a leg up Add to ...

According to Malcolm Gladwell, each of his books has been more complex and interested in the world than the last. Which explains why, with David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, published this week, he has moved from reminding us all to practise for 10,000 hours to master something toward a range of more complex questions: Was it right for civil-rights activists to bait racist police? How do you help a team of athletically disinclined 12-year-old girls win basketball games while learning about life? And what should we do with the knowledge that, contrary to widely held belief, smaller class sizes do not yield smarter students?

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In each of these cases, the answer is something unexpected – though that is the very thing that Mr. Gladwell’s influential books have taught us to expect. His success can be measured in the millions of books he has sold, but is better quantified by the extent to which his impish, not-what-you-thought brand of science writing has become the norm.

His latest hypothesis is quite simple: What if being disadvantaged, being an underdog, is actually an advantage? As usual, Mr. Gladwell illustrates his argument with lots of fascinating studies and charming stories. But, unlike his previous books, David and Goliath feels especially resonant, perhaps because it arrives at a moment – of income inequality, government shutdowns, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement – when disadvantage is an ever-present reality.

Mr. Gladwell spoke with The Globe and Mail from Atlanta, at the beginning of a long book tour.

You’ve called this a moral book. Why?

It’s a story about individuals and the choices they’ve made, the things they learn. And a lot of those situations are moral ones. When I’m discussing crime or Northern Ireland or Wilma Derksen [whose daughter was abducted and killed] or [pacifist French pastor] André Trocmé, these are all people or issues whose framework is fundamentally moral. Or at least the questions they’re dealing with are fundamentally moral.

Why make a more moral exploration at this point?

I never really know why I get seized by certain kinds of questions. Maybe it’s a more reflective moment in my life. I feel like each of my books has gotten more engaged with the broader world. The Tipping Point was the most practical and business-friendly. And each one that’s followed has gotten more complex and harder to define.

In the wake of the news this week that U.S. health-care reform will leave two-thirds of poor black citizens and single mothers without health insurance, is the U.S. at this point a machine that makes underdogs?

It is striking how it feels a lot like the 1920s right now in the U.S. You have a combination of sharply increased privilege at the top end, and yet even as the privileged are extending their lead over everybody else, they are simultaneously angry. Angry at the system, feeling cheated – the Tea Party movement is not a movement from the bottom, it’s a movement from the top. It’s upper-middle-class white people who have somehow contrived to be angry in the face of the way the country is moving. These are not people who you would have thought to be the principal sources of social protest and complaint. There is something really weird and screwy going on in American culture right now around these questions of power and advantage.

You make the point that power “has to be seen as legitimate, or else its use has the opposite of its intended effect.” Elsewhere you note that 77 per cent of Americans agree that we should have smaller class sizes, and point out that it’s virtually impossible to get 77 per cent of Americans to agree on anything. Given that truth, and given your idea about the perception of legitimacy of power, can we expect any government to be able to function as anything other than a Goliath? Is there such a thing as a David state?

There’s a distinction between agreement and consensus and a shared perception of legitimacy. Legitimacy has very little to do with the content of ideas being expressed. It’s really about the process by which they’re expressed. You might be in power, and I might disagree with every one of your policy prescriptions, but still concede your legitimacy depending on how you behave, whether I feel like I have a voice, even if that voice, ultimately, does not prevail. Or even if things are not in my best interest, I don’t feel like someone else is getting a better deal. Or whether there is some consistency in the way people are treated. The reason democracy works, in the West, is because of its extraordinary level of consistency. You know when there is an election, there’s going to be another one coming relatively quickly, within four or five years. And that’s happened like clockwork over and over again for hundreds of years, so we have faith in the system. Even if we don’t like the guy now, we know there’s a chance we’ll get someone we like later. There’s all kinds of room for legitimacy to exist in the absence of consensus. I do agree that, in America, and in some senses Canada, there’s probably more disagreement over policy than ever before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there ought to be a diminution in the perceived legitimacy of the state.

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