The video above is really worth watching. As with most of Malcolm Gladwell’s best material, when he begins you’ll know nothing about what he’s talking about and by the time he finishes you’ll wonder how you lived all of this time without knowing about it. That’s how I felt anyway, though admittedly I have a huge intellectual crush on Gladwell. I strongly suggest you watch the whole video, but if not here’s the section I want to dwell on.
But do you know what the crucial thing is? In that exact same period that we’ve been using these drones with devastating accuracy, the number of attacks, of suicide attacks and terrorist attacks,against American forces in Afghanistan has increased tenfold. As we have gotten more and more efficient in killing them, they have become angrier and angrier and more and more motivated to kill us. I have not described to you a success story. I’ve described to you the opposite of a success story.
And this is the problem with our infatuation with the things we make. We think the things we make can solve our problems, but our problems are much more complex than that. The issue isn’t the accuracy of the bombs you have, it’s how you use the bombs you have, and more importantly,whether you ought to use bombs at all.
He’s right and, when it’s put that way, it seems obvious that we should be questioning the fabric of our geo-politics, our historical reliance on the sword, the siege engine, the bow, the gun, the cannon, the tank, the bomb, the drone to “solve our problems.” Most of the time though, that isn’t obvious. Most of the time most of the people accept that wars will inevitably happen, and so the conversation moves from legitimacy to efficiency.
That’s a problem. Because whatever the answer, the question of violence is among the most important, perhaps the most important one we as a people have to address. And yet, with surprising frequency there’s no space left in the political sphere for serious discussion of another way.
Very often, to question the necessity of warfare and cite peace as a real aspiration is seen as naive. They’re ideas that Ms. World has, not ideas that serious people concerned with serious matters have. When I voice pacifistic opinions people regularly intimate to be that I don’t know or understand enough about the “real world” to see that wars are necessary.
Happily, I’m in good company. In 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, connecting feminism and anti-militarism in a manifesto for war-prevention. She had already written some of the finest novels of the century and yet, continuing into the modern day, the most common response to ‘Three Guineas’ has been, though I’m paraphrasing slightly, “I’m not saying that I don’t take women or pacifism seriously…but didn’t she kill herself a few years later? Just saying.”
The first time I spoke at a chamber debate in The Hist the motion was “That This House Supports Irish Neutrality”. I spoke in favour and I made the same arguments I would make now, that I believe that war should be avoided wherever possible and that if the international community is to change its views, then individual countries have to meaningfully commit to non-violence. And I was patronised and gently mocked. Apparently the “real” issues on the proposition were about Ireland’s military capacity, about the danger of a small nation making enemies, about the financial cost of war. Efficiency, not legitimacy.
That experience really affected me. I kept debating, but I stopped being so honest. I stopped making the arguments I felt, and started trying to do what other people were doing. Hardly anyone else was saying that the primary goal of the international community should be violence prevention. So I didn’t say it either.
Mild humiliation is a particularly insidious and effective form of censorship.
Eventually though, sometime around the beginning of my third year of University, something shifted. I started listening to myself again, I started talking about big issues I cared about, and I started shouting about them and getting emotional about them.
Thankfully, that authenticity came with a greater level of success. Thanks to that success, no matter arguments I made people gave them time of day. I had intellectual currency. I had a new freedom argue my most deeply felt opinions. And I think that everyone could have that freedom.
So, how does this connect back to Malcolm Gladwell? Even if you don’t imagine a charming domestic life with him like I do, there’s no denying that he has almost limitless amounts of intellectual currency, that his is one of the great minds of the moment. So, if Malcolm Gladwell is saying that we need to seriously reconsider our militarism, that gives the rest of us a new freedom to suggest the same thing and be listened to. He shares his intellectual currency.
Then, each time someone makes an argument that seems implausible, that argument becomes a little bit more plausible, the culture shifts a little, the assumptions shift a little. What’s more people get a bit more space to talk, and that’s a victory in itself.
P.S. I’ve use the question of anti-militarism as an illustration of this problem, but I think the same theory can be applied to a very wide range of issues.