Sun Ra - Column for 6/24

Read The Tipping Point

I've come to the conclusion that, by and large, people are mostly interested in supporting their previously held opinions. At some point, an individual - let's say, you - was young and impressionable, and a person you highly respected and/or wanted to emulate told you their opinion about some issue. And lo and behold, it became your opinion, too. Since then, you may have garnered facts about the issue, debated it, even studied the merits of the opposing viewpoint. But in your mind, you had already slapped a "decided" sticky note on the issue, and everything after that was just water under the bridge.

As the years go by, you develop a complex web of opinions, many feeding off of each other, others held because they fit better into the gestalt picture you think of as your "position". They are buttressed with facts and opinions of respected authorities, and armed with counter-arguments to opposing viewpoints. But at the root of each of them is the simple emotional pull of something or someone you like, or the push of something you don't. I know that, at the very bottom of my strongly held opinion towards space exploration, is my reading science fiction as a lad. And my knee-jerk dislike for Republicans is due in some part to my personal dislike for Ronald Reagan, which is due in large part to the simple fact that my (at the time) four year old sister didn't like him. Sure, the opinion is logical now, but in the dusty basement of my position lies good old emotional appeal.

Not, obviously, that every issue is like that, or that you won't change your mind now and then. Logic does enter into the picture. But the point is that, of the total set of all possible issues, you have some large fraction about which you aren't really open to changing your opinion. If the best debater in the world debated you on the topic, made hash of your objections and laid out concrete reasons for believing the opposite way, you would wind up in sulky silence but still opposed - in fact, more opposed - to whatever it was they were espousing. Because you had already made up your mind.

As an aside, I really, really hate rhetoric majors and common debate tactics. Is anything more mendacious than supporting a randomly chosen side to a topic? Oh, sure, rhetoric is a wildly useful skill, one which takes time and intellect to hone and master, but just know this - I hate you all. I recall a time many moons ago, at a party, when David Paschich, Qarin van Brink, and I were debating the merits of cats versus dogs. Or rather, Qarin and David were agreeing that cats sat at the right hand of God, and dogs should really be made extinct. I made a comment to the effect of "You can't make a blanket statment like that - animals are individually different," to which David replied "I just did."

As you can see, I still hold a grudge and a bag full of staircase wit. Oooh, a semantic argument. Ignoring the meaning for the form - why not simply say "Oh yeah? 'That.' There, I said it," or something equally worthless. How I despise the use of rhetorical gimcrackery in debate. (Note, however, that I nonetheless like Dave. One of the few Cal CS majors who is interesting as a person. I just have a little mental note on his file that says "uses irritating debate tactics - do not invite to discussion group".)

To return to our main thrust, though, basically most people have made up their mind on most issues, and discussing those issues with them is pretty much useless. Dave will always hate dogs, probably even after he is rescued from an icy crevasse by one. ("A cat wouldn't have slobbered on me.") My fiance's father will always think George W. Bush is the cat's meow, and will see an address that makes me wince at the man's idiocy as a paragon of clarity and wit. And I will always feel that gun control is a good idea, even if I wind up accosted by a man with a big knife.

However, we each also have a sizable gray area of topics upon which we have not made up our minds. And those are the ones where new information is always a joy. If you don't know how you feel about, say, arming airline pilots, then information about the issue either way is of interest. (Unless, of course, it is obviously biased, in which case you'll probably resent it.) If you have already taken a stand, then only one side of the issue will get you to take note.

Which brings us to the real topic of this week's column - particularly cleverly disguised - which is a book called The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. I would like to recommend it to you. I found it to be full of information that fit neatly into the gray area of "Huh. How about that." It's well-written and erudite, personal and humorous, and very, very interesting.

The thesis of the book is that little things can have a very large "epidemic" effect, whether it be in fashion, criminal behavior, education, lifestyle choices, etc etc. Gladwell draws from a myriad of specific examples and studies, tracing among other examples how a very few hipsters caused the sale of Hush Puppies shoes to explode, how 168 people in Colorado Springs caused a gonorrhea epidemic, and how removing graffitti made New York subways safe again.

And he dissects why and how this "tipping point" behavior works - why those 168 people, and no others, were the ones necessary for the disease to become epidemic. Who it was that had to recommend the shoes for them to become a national phenomenon. What it was about the design of "Sesame Street" that made it the educational children's show, rather than just another one-seasoner. And so on.

And, during the process of examining the nature of epidemic behavioral phenomenon, we encounter a host of fascinating people, interesting situations, and human insight. I'm not going to go into too much detail (and trust me, I haven't - the book is a tapestry of examples and personalities), because I don't want to diminish the reading experience.

So, tickle your gray area. Pick up a copy of The Tipping Point. It may have ideas you already agree with, it may have ones you disagree with, but it very definitely will make you say "Huh."

- Sun Ra

P.S. In the interest of disclosure, I will observe that there were a number of places in the book where it supported ideas I already held. For instance, it makes the observation that although people label other people as distinct personality types ("Generous", "Asshole", "Timid", etc), it's almost never the case that that is true. People behave different ways in different situations, and a person almost always behaves differently towards different people. No one behaves the same way all the time, and often behaves in a diametrically opposed fashion to the way you may have categorized them. This is an observation I had made some time ago, and it was gratifying to see it espoused. So that may have had something to do with my liking the book so much.

Columns by Sun Ra