Weeks before the publication of his much-anticipated book, David and Goliath, New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell came to Toronto Tuesday night to address a roomful of Goliaths.
The Grano Speaker Series, now in its 10th year, is the ne plus ultra salon of Toronto’s plutocracy, and the Canadian-raised author of The Tipping Point and Outliers was slated to explore the central theme of his new book: why some of the most disadvantaged succeed and some of the most privileged are susceptible to failure. Why underdogs have more advantages than you might think.
It would have made a lively debate in this kitchen party of one percenters, a shoulder-to-shoulder assortment of major industrialists, philanthropists, lawyers, real-estate magnates and former politicians. (A 60 Minutes camera crew was following Mr. Gladwell, whose parents were also in attendance.) But for various elaborate publication reasons, the discussion of the book was off the table for the evening. “I’m going to talk about something else,” Mr. Gladwell said to this reporter.
When told that it would have been interesting to hear the group’s reaction to his latest research, a wry expression crossed his face. He went on to explain that at one time he was floating his David and Goliath theory to trustees at the New York Public Library, the mandarins of Manhattan society. “They all identified as Davids,” he mused. “It’s either really deluded or dishonest.”
Despite the disappointment, Mr. Gladwell had no trouble provoking the room, throwing out the theory that we will not see another African-American president in our lifetime. And for that matter, if Hillary Clinton runs and wins the 2016 election, we will not see another female president.
The reason, he said, is tokenism. Pioneers don’t necessarily blaze trails, and Mr. Gladwell named a list of 30 female heads of state who were never succeeded by other women, including Canada’s own Kim Campbell. “The door is let open but then the door gets shut behind them,” said Mr. Gladwell. Those people who get through become fetishized for where they came from. They are too visible.
What’s worse, a psychological phenomenon called moral license takes effect, in which a positive event is subsequently used to justify immoral behaviour: for example, Germany’s unusual acceptance of Jews before the Nazis took over. Societies don’t act in a consistent manner. They don’t necessarily evolve. Instead, they oscillate.
The audience was rapt for the 36 minutes or so that he spoke. Few if any pulled busier-than-thou peeks at their iPhones.
But some, it seemed, weren’t buying the theory, either, later calling it “more than just a little depressing” and “dyspeptic.”
One audience member from Norway called on Mr. Gladwell to amend his statistic about 30 heads of state, saying that her country just elected another female. “A conservative!” she gleefully added. (Mr. Gladwell gamely conceded and said, “OK, 29.”) Someone from the tech industry cited the phenomenon of adoption curves, saying time is much more compressed now than it was decades ago. In other words, we assimilate events faster than we used to and maybe it’s too early to tell how we accept these changes.
Another question was why Mr. Gladwell didn’t factor the acceptance of African-Americans into professional sports to a greater degree.
On this night, it seemed, the Goliaths weren’t ready to lie down just yet.