Book Corner 2019.43

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Talking to Strangers by Malcolm (sigh) Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest is as much an engrossing page-turner as any. It goes off on many tangents but all are related to the theme of how we “get things wrong,” particularly when judging and trying to interpret strangers. His goal is to try to examine in detail what happened in one particular case of a traffic stop come to a tragic end. Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal; she was rude to the cop; things escalated, and she was jailed. She killed herself in her jail cell.

Gladwell brackets the book with the story of Sandra Bland. Ultimately, he comes to the explanation that the police department in question was applying an aggressive kind of “stop and frisk” as applied to cars that had no place in a low-crime area such as the rural Texas road where Bland was pulled over. Police departments across the country have misinterpreted an approach to preventive crime fighting that was proven effective in extremely targeted high-crime areas, and are applying it globally.

So, the results of a study are misinterpreted. This puts two strangers in a confrontational situation they should not be in. And they get it tragically wrong.

Thus, a book about the bigger picture of “Talking to Strangers”. There is a chapter about the Penn State child abuse case; and one about college drinking, blacking out, and date rape; and one about the murder case that happened in Italy involving American students. I particularly liked one about how the suicide rate in England plummeted as the nation switched from what they called “town gas,” which will kill you if you stick your head in the oven, to a new formula of natural gas which was not lethal. Turns out (“turns out” – there’s a cliché that that phrase is what all Gladwell books boil down to)… people don’t so much want to kill themselves in general, as to kill themselves in a particular way. Take away that method and… they very well might not. People’s desires are situational. Thus, efforts to put life-saving nets off the Golden Gate Bridge; and, of course, handgun control. Impediments like these, which take away or effectively hinder the possibility of ending one’s life in a particular way, can save lives.

So, um, where were we – that’s right, “Talking to Strangers”! It’s really hard in retrospect for me to remember how all these things tied into that overarching theme. It’s a bit of a stretch, but they do all seem to contribute to the narrative of “things going wrong” in the Sandra Bland case. I didn’t mind the stretch. I love Gladwell’s books and I can’t resist being happily carried along into any tangent he cares to take me to. ( )

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