If sometimes it feels like Malcolm Gladwell is just trying to troll you, well, you might be right. The influential ideas man and New Yorker writer admitted yesterday that he doesn't actually believe most of the things he argues. On the eve of Gladwell's newest release, David and Goliath, the author defended that practice and took on some of his critics in an interview with The Guardian.
Gladwell's constant contrarianism has reached the level of an eponymous adjective — Gladwellian. One of his most Gladwellian ideas was to defend performance-enhancing doping in sports from Lance Armstrong and others, likening it to a students doing their homework to overcome less-than maximum genetics. But he doesn't actually believe his own argument. Gladwell told The Guardian that he is "totally anti-doping … But what I'm trying to say is, look, we have to come up with better reasons. Our reasons suck! And when the majority has taken a position that's ill thought-through, it's appropriate to make trouble." Making trouble, to Gladwell, seems to mean taking a contrarian position and marshaling all available data in its defense.
His comparison of football to dogfighting, his assertion that football will become "ghettoized," his argument that the criticism of quote-fabricator Jonah Lehrer was just a "hysteria" — all thought-provoking anti-mainstream viewpoints, and all recognized as kind of ridiculous. And he's perfectly okay with admitting that point. "When you write about sports, you're allowed to engage in mischief," he told The Guardian. "Nothing is at stake. It's a bicycle race!"
And he's got some words for his critics, too, who claim that he oversimplifies complicated ideas. Of course he is, and if you think that's a problem, you can just go elsewhere. "If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them: you're not the audience!" he said. Feed the troll or get out of the way, he seems to say.
This all relates back to his new book David and Goliath, which tells stories about how underdogs take down the power structure. When the little guy takes on the big guys, "the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty," he explained. That could apply just as much to Gladwell's own arguments, which elicit a thoughtful conversation but won't unseat the overwhelming mainstream opinion.