Outliers: The Sophistry of Success

In the spirit of a don’t-let-the-terrorists-win response to the GNAA’s recent siege of Tumblr – though I’m not very much in disagreement with them – here’s a new blog post (cross-posted from Goodreads) and an avowal of more to follow.

Disdain for unimpressive logic which trades on randomly associated anecdotes to prop up banal conclusions that don’t quite follow yet are presented breathlessly as amazing and insightful is the hallmark of irritating encounters of the intoxicated by the sober observer, but for whatever reason if the intoxicant is not a botanical herb or fermented liquid but properly syntactic strings of text inside a widely publicized bestseller we go right in for the contact high, which is what makes such nonfiction prose much more insidiously dangerous than taboo narcotics.

The very things lauded about this book are the reasons it should cause more alarm and suspicion than adoration or enjoyment: ease of digestion and abundance of storytelling. Malcolm Gladwell’s short second-person sentences read rather like a motivational speech, with typical signpost turns of phrase that lead inexorably into his conclusions, which are thus arrived at purely through structural format in place of serious evidence. His storytelling is pleasant enough, though it is very sparsely sketched and colorless for detailed journalism or any other type of informative writing, which is important to a more critical viewer because that colorlessness implies that he feels there is no need to fully describe characters or situations (e.g. it is a given that Bill Gates is one of the best minds in computing rather than an unoriginal and parasitic opportunist; it is a given that top universities are bastions of free thought and creativity rather than the oppressive ivory-tower conformity coercers that crazy Christopher Langan [with his genius IQ] thinks they are) because he can comfortably operate with what “we all already know” no matter its actual untruth.

Then too with his nifty-tale and scientific-study-summary delivery mechanism can he have you swallowing such sugary ideas as plane crashes being caused by obsolete cultural practices of foreign peoples. The pilot star of this chapter’s anecdote complains of extreme fatigue forced upon him by overlong shifts, but as business discourse teaches us, upper management knows best, so better to focus on problems like native language use that can be solved by high-level corporate consultants than trivialities that the employees might (myopically, of course) complain about in regard to their direct working conditions. One can similarly come up with alternate explanations for math performance and perseverance (such as a sense of social shame, possibly related to a different view of society and equality) as well as school performance and reading ability which are not permitted by the cheerful guidance of Gladwell’s arguments – none of which seem to require very precise footnotes, for after all his points are bolstered by rather bold leaps of unmerited and undocumented confidence in his reduction of a multitude of data readings into one.

The deeper criticism of the book, though, is the whole notion of the outlier and the successful person, because it continues the popular reification of wealth, prestige, fame and single-mindedness as the elements of greatness. In other words, quantifiability and sellability define worth, rather than profundity of critique or aesthetic appreciation or novelty or exploration or freedom – hence the advocacy of six-day-a-week twelve-to-fourteen-hour stints at the schoolhouse to raise those test scores and lift those poor poor people up out of their misery, after all “Arbeit Macht Frei” as they say. (Gladwell could easily argue for the reinstitution of slavery, with warm expository passages about singing poignant spirituals in the Alabama sunlight, rhetorical questions about how the South produces so much cotton so well, finally answering himself by lauding the “particular set of circumstances” that allowed certain people in the right place at the right time a considerable amount of experience to acquire skill at efficiently picking crops.) There is something much more interesting and admirable about Langan’s iconoclastic quest to know the nature of the universe on and with his own terms, but this seems to merit pity if not scorn in the book’s scheme of success because Langan is not raking in millions or winning Nobel Prizes, which is how the newsmen tell us who and what we’re supposed to pay attention to.

Much more can be learned from any novel than from this and many similar nice-story nonfiction bestsellers because the novel lets us draw our own conclusions and wisdom without masquerading as solid truth; besides the novel is much less likely to memetically infect speech with the irritating buzzphrases and trains of thought that pepper the latter, which means one’s reeling drunkenness can more readily be avoided.

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