Malcolm T. Gladwell, CM is a Canadian journalist, bestselling author, and speaker. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He has written five books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Outliers: The Story of Success, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, a collection of his journalism, and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. All five books were on The New York Times Best Seller list. Gladwell's books and articles often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in the areas of sociology, psychology, and social psychology. Gladwell was appointed to the Order of Canada on June 30, 2011.
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Thank you for joining me this morning! Lots of really really good questions on a very
important and difficult topic. Invite me back! And for those who missed it, here's the link
to my piece in the current New Yorker on school shootings:
You have been criticized as simplifying complex issues in order to produce a commercially appealing narrative in your articles and books.
How do you respond to those criticisms?
Specifically, what do you do to ensure when you're writing you avoid the cognitive biases that lead people to create convenient narratives absent the necessary substantiating evidence?
I think lots of journalists get those criticisms from specialists in the field they are writing about. I happen to be a big fan of track and field--and whenever someone writes about track who isn't an "expert" like me, I roll my eyes. But then I have to remember: they aren't writing for me. And writing for the general audience requires a very different approach than writing for a group of specialists. With this school shooting piece, I think that principle applies. I took one idea from a very vast sociological literature, and took a case study from the news, and tried to use one to make sense of the other. Could the result be published in the American Journal of Sociology? Of course not. But does it help the average reader understand a difficult and painful topic? I hope so. I'm happy if I have done that.
Mass shootings (and even more so school shootings seem to be the very definition of outliers (1% or less). Why are we focusing on those instead of the 60% of gun deaths that are suicides or 30% that are non-mass homicides? It seems we have it all backwards.
Another very good question. Yes, you are quite right. The magnitude of gun violence in the U.S. is such that school shootings represent a very minor part of the problem. In a logical world, we would be talking way more about the other 99 percent. That said, I think the issue with this particular genre of violence is that it has the potential to spread: that was the point of my article. What began as a problem specific to teens were serious troubles and disorders has now engulfed teenagers who are, for all intents and purposes, normal. That's scary, because we don't know where the epidemic will lead.
Are you concerned that your article's focus on autism spectrum disorders as a correlate for schooling shooting behavior plays into the typical distraction of "mental health" we hear about after most mass shootings? America doesn't have a monopoly on mental illness, but we seem to have one on school shootings.
Relatedly, do you worry that a story like this stigmatizes the mentally ill even further?
Very important question. First of all I was writing about a case in which the subject's ASD was at the center of his entire legal experience. It was his diagnosis with mild ASD that led to him being put on probation--instead of behind bars. So I had to deal with it. The second half of the piece, which I gather you've read, is explicitly about trying to explain how we should NOT confuse John LaDue's attitudes and condition for those of the classic school shooters, like Eric Harris. That's why I have the long discussion of "counterfeit deviance"--the notion that we need to be very careful in assessing the criminality of people with ASD when it comes to certain kinds of behaviors: someone like John LaDue might be very innocently drawn into a troubling pattern of behavior. I was trying to fight the tendency to stigmatize those with ASD. I hope that came across.
That was the toughest article I had to get through in a while but that is a testament to your writing style. What do you think are the ways we can fix this culture of violence? Do you think pop culture is to blame?
As a member of the media, what are the steps you can take to stop this kind of problem?
Pop culture is to blame, absolutely. But the issue is that pop culture today is not what it was thirty years ago. The internet has created a rabbit warren for the all sorts of twisted fantasies: the paradox of the internet is that the group who seem to use it the most (teenagers) are those least well-equipped to deal with its pathologies.
Do you believe that curbing this school attack trend is more a matter of understanding/addressing the psychological condition you describe in the article, or equally or more to do with gun control?
I think that gun control is crucial for lowering the overall homicide rate: there's no question in my mind that the easy availability of guns in the U.S. is a huge contributor to the fact that we have a homicide rate several times higher than other industrialized nations. But school schooters are a far more complicated issue: they are a subgenre of homicide that is about a specific fantasy that has taken hold of some teenaged boys. We could crack down on guns and still have a Columbine.
I had to call my family for comfort after reading "Thresholds of Violence." It's scary to think how people with a lower tendency towards violence might be swayed after seeing the actions of others. Did you get depressed while writing this article? If not, what keeps you optimistic?
Yes, I got depressed. And I'm still depressed.
The experimentation and fascination with dangerous materials of LaDue seems common in young males, particularly those who are strong in engineering. For example, programming legend John Carmack was similarly caught with thermite at a young age.
Is there a path to identify and intervene for those who are at risk? We could lose some of the greatest minds if there became a culture of fear and distrust of the curious, high-threshold personalities like described in this article.
Really, really interesting point. I wonder if what we need is to create more benign avenues for this sort of adolescent fascination. Lots and lots of teenagers play with explosives--and have for years. Lots and lots of boys are fascinated with guns. For many years we had outlets for those sorts of fascinations (hunting, the military, chemistry sets etc). For whatever reason, some of those outlets have lost their cultural power with some kids. We need to figure out ways to give those outlets more life.
After writing about how all the school shooters studied and learned from their predecessors, why did you publish LaDue's discussions on the relative merits of various bomb making methods and the mistakes he thought his predecessors made?
Another good question. A couple of reasons. One--if we can't discuss a case like this frankly, and learn from it, we can't make any progress in arresting this phenomenon. It was very important to make the point that at this point in the epidemic the focus of would-be shooters is on their predecessors and the tradition they believe they are joining. Second, LaDue doesn't go into the kinds of specifics that would be at all useful to anyone else. And thirdly--and most important (and this is the point I've been making over and over again)--it is no longer the case that the mainstream media is driving this obsession/cultural narrative. The next generation of teen shooters are reading my article or Dave Cullen's brilliant book on Columbine or sociological journals. They have their own culture online. The media's not the issue anymore. The crucial shift that happened after Columbine is that the movement turned inward: the shooters went from being influenced by the broader culture to creating their own, internal shared world.
What in your own background informed your perspective on school shootings?
Well, I'm from Canada--where, like most other Western nations--school shootings are very rare, and when they happen appear to have spread from the United States. So I guess as an outsider I might be more struck than most by how STRANGE this phenomenon is.
A lot of people will put these shootings down to sheer 'craziness' and they consider them isolated incidents, but here in Ireland we too have 'crazy' people and people who aren't stable, but they don't have guns so they don't end up killing people. So surely guns are the problem? Because if you don't have a gun then you aren't mobilised to shoot, so this idea of 'copycats' you have is really interesting to think about, I couldn't agree with you more. Excellent article and I look forward to a response!
I couldn't agree more. Except that I have no idea how to get American "back" to the "pre-gun" condition like Ireland or England or any other Western nation is in. Remember its not just guns that are the issue here. It is the existence of a accompany, powerful fantasy about how they ought to be used.
Mr.Gladwell, huge fan of your books. Can you tell us about anything in the pipeline?
Well, I've been caught up for the last few months on the piece I just published in the New Yorker trying to explain school shootings. That's what I'm here to discuss!
Do you think an organized movement against the "Eric Harris" manifesto/phenomenon/obsession would help curtail these massacres in the US? If so, what would that look like to you? Thank you for your thoughtful article!
I have to confess I don't know what an organized movement against the Eric Harris obsession would look like. There is always the danger that in demonizing him we only add to his allure. The one solution people always talk about is having the press show more restraint in writing about shooters. But even that is of limited use: the would-be shooters are now all following and learning from and emulating each other privately--though youtube and niche websites. The internet has made this a VERY difficult problem to solve.
Fellow Canadian-turned-New Yorker here! In your article you talk about the charismatic figure Eric Harris has become for many of the young men who have sought to follow in his footsteps and mention that he said he wanted to "start a revolution". Did he profess anything approaching an ideology or motivational ethos that contributed to the spread of this behavior and made it seem attractive to others?
Or is it just the activity that is compelling for copycats, rather than any professed beliefs of Eric Harris or any other individual?
From our perspective--you and I--he didn't. But then again we're not troubled, unhappy teenagers. Nothing about Eric Harris makes sense logically: his "revolution" was about bullied teenagers rising up against their aggressors. And his solution was to try and blow up his entire high school and take his own life. That's not rational behavior. What he had was charisma, and the allure of transgression.
You talked about adolescents like Harris having a terrorist mentality. Do you think that the cultural script that Columbine popularised is being influenced by jihadist scripts? Also, what do you think of the Newman et al thesis of the social roots of school shootings? Thank you!
I don't know if there is a link between Jihadist scripts and school shootings. What I would say, I guess, is that both are examples of the particular vulnerabilty of teenaged boys (and sometimes, but rarely, girls) to certain kinds of extravagant, suicidal, violent worlds. One of the things that came up in the John LaDue case was how long he would need to be monitored before it would be safe to have him be a free citizen again. And the answer of the psychologist was that by his mid-twenties he would in all likelihood be fine. What they were saying is that every parent of a teenaged boy instinctively knows, which is that children in that period of their life are really, really vulnerable and volatile. That's why we need to have a proper conversation, as a country, about what teenaged culture ought to "look" like.
Do you think that "Gun free zones" have much to do with the prevalence of shootings? Should the idea of "Gun free zones" be re-considered?
As i just said, I'm not sure that a focus on guns really gets at the problem here. Remember that Columbine--and the thrwarted case I wrote about--are really bombings. (In the case of Columbine, its just that the bombs didn't go off). We are dealing with teenagers who have the mentality of terrorists: laws like gun-free zones are really aimed at more spur-of-the-moment criminality.
As I said, the point of the article was to get people to understand that someone on the autism spectrum is NOT like a typical school shooter. That's why the piece spent so much time talking about counterfeit deviance. But I think it is important to point out that certain people (and some people with ASD fall into this category) are more vulnerable than others to these kinds of epidemics, especially when they evolve as far as the school shooting epidemic has evolved. The trouble John LaDue got into is really OUR responsibility. The article was intended to be a wake up call to the rest of us about the consequences of failing to halt the spread of this epidemic.