Malcolm Gladwell and Talking to Strangers: Finding Order in the Disorder of our Living in this World Together

In his book Talking to Strangers, Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell delves into the psychology of our togetherness which makes us human. His particular focus is on how it is that we relate to on another in a world filled with competing information. Understanding that we come together with “different assumptions, perspectives and backgrounds” and different ways of regarding which of this information is true and which is not, we also can exhibit identifiable behaviors that have more to say about our need to uphold such binaries (between truth and lies, good and evil) than truth itself. As he suggests in an interview for the Guardian, “any element which disrupts the equilibrium between two strangers… becomes problematic.” Thus our inherent and built in need to protect against such disruptions is greater than any need to disrupt the order in search for the truth. This is simpy how human interactions function. It is, in fact, what allowed us to develop the way we have. Human interaction, key to our development, could not function otherwise. As he suggests, we are naturally driven towards “trust”, and thus when it comes to our awareness of the potentially disruptive realities in our world and in our lives its not so much about the evidence for something being true or not, it is about how much evidence, and furher which particular evidence at which particular time pushes our interactions over the line of trust into the chaos of distrust, thus requiring us to then face the truth of our reality and to respond.

Gladwell uses examples of cases of abuse and wrongdoing throughout the book to underscore how it is that this predication to trust works and how it is that certain information can push us to recognize something as a lie They are fascinating examples precisely because they can easily translate across our different experiences, be it our personal interactions with others, existing within a polarizing pandemic where allegiances to truth and accusations of lies has left us in a position of persistant chaos and division, or even war breaking out in Ukraine where we see a people caught between competing powers to the east and the west in contest over matters of truth and lies. Here is what Gladwell helps underscore- allegiances to truth (trust) and the resulting chaos of distrust in the truth is far more complex than simple right and wrong. The way out of chaos is not so much to uncover the truth- although truth is important- but to be able to once again trust. And more than this- to re-assume our unconscious trust in one another and our governing systems.

Perhaps one key part of his observation is how this necessary binary seems to lead us towards the creation of villains. Trust, as he says, “enables us” to exist together, and without it we could not exist together. Everything would deteriorate into perpetuated cycnicism of everything and all. We could not send our kids to school, we could not take our cars to mechanics, we could not drive cars made by companies, abide by instituted laws, etc without an assumed and prior trust in one another and in how the world works. “I can’t converse with you, for instance, if I subject every statement that comes out of your mouth to critical scrutiny before I accept it as true. Conversation cannot proceed without default to the truth.” The problem is that this also leaves us open to deception, and thus to protect against deception we establish these villains so as to allow our exclusive circles to feel safe enough to trust. This tendency makes it difficult to then note when the true villain needs to be addressed from within.

Here is where the complexity comes into focus. Assumed trust is neither blind nor universally applied when it comes to scientifically observable human behavior. We exist, necessarily, within exclusively formed societal bonds and assumptions that allow us to trust one another within the specific societal frameworks that we occupy. Displace us and trust gets disrupted. Insert a stranger that doesn’t appear to belong in our circle and trust gets disrupted.

Break this down even further and we find exclusively formed societal bonds in political divisions, religious divisisions, neighborhood divisions, and so on. What this reveals is how dependent our social function is on having recognizable, if not always directly defined, villains which often surface in the form of an other, something we see as disrupting the necessary order. This brings us to two central issues, or two-fold issues, when it comes to locating our predication to trust within a larger picture of patterned order and disorder. First is the human tendency to protect order and defend against disorder by way of establishing villains based on us and them paradigms. This reveals how our interactions work not according to truth but according to necessary trust, the latter being most important to uphold when it comes to functioning civilization. The problem is this necessary trust can convince us of the need to villainize the other whether this is true or not, and in doing so it can distract us from the real issues we need to attend to within our own circles.

The second part of this two-fold problem is the more serious, which is the truth that in this world sometimes distrust is necessary and upsetting the order is required in order for trust to operate. This is true when it comes to issues of oppression, power, abuse, harm. This is where it is important to locate that tipping point, the piece of information or the magic number in the amount of information needed to allow the lies (or the truth) to emerge and to challenge our trust in persons, institutions, events, ect. In these cases Gladwell points out that it is almost never the majority that achieves this tipping point, rather it is almost always a minute selection of individuals or even, in a lot of cases, an individual, that causes this tipping point to be reached.

The problem here then becomes exasperbated by our tendency towards needing villains to define our exclusive societal structures as reliable and to allow us to feel safe enough to function together within them in unconscious ways. This plays a key role in allowing us to assume trust, which is necessary for humans to function. To be clear, globalization and the age of the internet which has understandably collapsed borders and boundaries and broadened our awareness of the world hasn’t done away with our human penchant towards exlusivity. This is fundamental to the nature of being human whether we see this as a good and necessary thing or not. It has simply made it more targeted and reapplied it to the ways we live online and the ways we move through this world in the modern age. In truth we survive together in large part by securing the villains which subsequently upholds ourselves as the victims (or potential victims) whether this is true or not. This makes it that much harder to be able to address where the true victims are and to locate the source of the problem creating the oppression, which is not people but the systems and structures that govern us based on this mutual trust in one another.

To be clear there is no great answer to the problem of disorder and chaos and division, except to say more clearly where this is rooted, why it happens, and perhaps to become more aware of the inate relationship between trust and deception. Deception matters less when it is not causing harm. Trust matters less when deception is causing harm. Being attentive to where possible oppression exists and where it is causing harm is then necessary and important, even if we can’t allow this to dominate us and turn us into cynics where everything is a lie and everything is the enemy. Gladwell suggests that here is where we can perhaps take comfort in the idea that healthy functioning societies seem to exist where the majority are able to trust and where the few are free to be cynics. There is something about this equation, even if it doesn’t quite translate equitably, that allows for that tipping point to occur even if it takes a while to surface within the many predicated towards trust. It’s in societies where the cynics are oppressed and unable to be heard or where the majority live with cynicism, or even where there are too many exclusive circles holding power over one another, that the problem is that much greater.

As I was reading the book I kept thinking about how this intersects with my Christian faith, a faith that imagines a world where the diverse multitude that makes up humanity are able to exist and flourish together. A faith which does locate in its meta-narrative a real awareness of existing binaries between truth and lies. It feels like one crucial point is where trust in “God” becomes the great unifier. This trust allows us to assume that what is wrong will be made right, that truth will be revealed. Another aspect is a meta-narrative that alows us to not to see these binaries as existing in people but rather in nature itself where, in view of the biblical narrative, good and evil do exist as tangible and real agencies governing our existence. This is something that seperates the assumptions of the faith from strictly material views of the world where good and evil are not seen as agencies and where actions are essential benign and amoral functions in and of themselves. Seeing it this way through the lens of faith allows us to trust in the inherent goodness of people and creation while understanding that the potential for evil, and our participation in evil, exists as well.

A part of being faithful followers of Christ then is learning how to disinguish between that which brings order and that which sows disorder. In the Biblical narrative this is connected to two pictures- disorder caused by sin and necessary disorder which disrupts sin. The measure of this then is Christ who is the full revelation of truth and in whom we can place our trust as we move out into the world in ways that bring order to the disorder. But we also know that Christ is being revealed in ways that remind us that we don’t always see truth clearly or fully. We find Christ by calling out in our own places of trials and struggles and trusting that God is in this word and pariticpating in our struggles. We follow Christ through trust by way of locating and attending to the oppressed, the sick, the hurting in this world and being God’s presence in this world. By trusting in Christ we can assume greater trust in one another while also calling out the evil that threatens to throw our lives together into chaos. Key to Gladwell’s psychological anaylisis of the value and the problem of trust then is that order and disorder is something that happens as much in our togetherness as it does within ourselves. This is where division and disorder theatens to distract us from the real oppression that Christ is attending to and calling us to attend to on the way to the promise of new creation, new order. Here is the important point though- disorder in our lives can come as a result of sin. It can also be a result of necessary transformation. And usually this is where Christ disrupts our inner life with the truth that we need to hear precisely so that we can be Christ in the world. This is how God makes God’s presence known in this world. This is how we relearn to trust in the truth of who Christ is, who we are, and who we are living in this world together.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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