John Gray alleges that Malcolm Gladwell tells the kinds of “fairy tales” that his readers want to believe — in other words, by (falsely) packaging his writing as scientifically informed, counterintuitive truth-telling, Gladwell is actually reinforcing the narratives his readers prefer. Here’s Gray:
The recurring conflict in Northern Ireland is an instructive example. Devoting a chapter to the subject, Gladwell tells the story of the Troubles as a mix of intellectual obtuseness and brutal neocolonial oppression. “In Northern Ireland,” he writes, “the British made a simple mistake. They fell into the trap of believing that because they had resources, weapons, soldiers, and experience that dwarfed those of the insurgent elements they were trying to contain, it did not matter what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them.” As will be clear to anyone with a smattering of historical knowledge of the region, Gladwell’s casual reference to “the people of Northern Ireland” betrays a fundamental lack of understanding. The root of the difficulties of the province is in the fact that it is home for not one people but two: two highly distinct, often antagonistic communities, divided and separated from one another for centuries by different histories and rival allegiances. While initial mistakes by British forces made the situation thornier than it need have been, any resolution was bound to be arduous, messy, and partial.
Telling the story as it appeared to a young newlywed Catholic woman and her family, Gladwell presents the Troubles as being the consequence of British policies. It was not the burden of history, but only the use of force by a British commander in June 1970 that set the region on course for decades of conflict: “what should have been a difficult few months turned into thirty years of bloodshed and mayhem.” (Oddly, Gladwell fails to discuss the much more serious error committed on “Bloody Sunday,” January 30, 1972, when British forces shot and killed a number of unarmed demonstrators in the Bogside area of Derry.) One might imagine, on the basis of Gladwell’s account, that the majority of the casualties of the Troubles were killed by British forces. In fact, around 60 percent of the more than 3,500 people killed between 1969 and 2001 were killed by Republican forces, 30 percent by Ulster loyalists, and 10 percent by British troops. Within this overall figure, British forces and local security services suffered more than 1,100 deaths. If the British were Goliath in this conflict, they suffered a good many wounds in its course.
Gladwell’s account does more than oversimplify. It is a kind of moral cartoon, a rendition of events in which there are no difficulties that cannot be overcome by reasonable men and women of goodwill. He tells us nothing of the lengthy and tortuous path that led to the relative peace that prevails in Northern Ireland today. If only he had been around to have a quiet word with British commanders, Gladwell seems to be suggesting, and share a few academic papers with them, none of the horrors that unfolded need ever have happened.
In Northern Ireland and elsewhere, he is in over his head. The yarns that Gladwell tells bear little resemblance to the tangled realities. This lack of reality, however, is what makes his books sell. It is not that the stories he tells are false. Rather, they belong in a category that is neither true nor false—a species of inspirational nonfiction in which fidelity to reality is of secondary importance, if not a hindrance. Gladwell’s trick is to have made edification seem like empirical research.
Read the whole thing. Gray calls Gladwelliana “a mix of moralism and scientism,” an ideology that believes science and positive thinking can overcome any Goliath. Gray says believing this can get you killed. He also says:
Scientism has many sources, but central among them is a refusal to accept that intractable difficulty is normal in human affairs. Many human conflicts, even ones that are properly understood, do not fall into the category of soluble problems.
The tragic sense of life doesn’t sell books.