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Malcolm Gladwell reviews Why? by Charles Tilly
« on: 2006-09-29 11:25:00 »
vector: Premise Checker on the paleopsych list
Once again, persuasion can come in all shapes.
Malcolm Gladwell: A sociologist offers an anatomy of explanations.
Issue of 2006-04-10
Little Timothy is playing with his older brother Geoffrey, when he
comes running to his mother.
"Mommy, Mommy," he starts in. "I was playing with my truck, and then
Geoffrey came and he said it was his turn to play with the truck even
though it's my truck and then he pushed me."
"Timothy!" his mother says, silencing him. "Don't be a tattletale."
Timothy has heard that phrase--"Don't be a tattletale"--countless
times, and it always stops him short. He has offered his mother an
eyewitness account of a crime. His mother, furthermore, in no way
disputes the truth of his story. Yet what does she do? She rejects it
in favor of a simplistic social formula: Don't be a tattletale. It
makes no sense. Timothy's mother would never use such a formula to
trump a story if she were talking to his father. On the contrary, his
mother and father tattle to each other about Geoffrey all the time.
And, if Timothy were to tattle on Geoffrey to his best friend, Bruce,
Bruce wouldn't reject the story in favor of a formula, either.
Narratives are the basis of Timothy's friendship with Bruce. They
explain not just effects but causes. They matter--except in this
instance, of a story told by Timothy to Mommy about Geoffrey, in which
Mommy is suddenly indifferent to stories altogether. What is this
don't-be-a-tattletale business about?
In "Why?" (Princeton; $24.95), the Columbia University scholar Charles
Tilly sets out to make sense of our reasons for giving reasons. In the
tradition of the legendary sociologist Erving Goffman, Tilly seeks to
decode the structure of everyday social interaction, and the result is
a book that forces readers to reëxamine everything from the way they
talk to their children to the way they argue about politics.
In Tilly's view, we rely on four general categories of reasons. The
first is what he calls conventions--conventionally accepted
explanations. Tilly would call "Don't be a tattletale" a convention.
The second is stories, and what distinguishes a story ("I was playing
with my truck, and then Geoffrey came in . . .") is a very specific
account of cause and effect. Tilly cites the sociologist Francesca
Polletta's interviews with people who were active in the civil-rights
sit-ins of the nineteen-sixties. Polletta repeatedly heard stories
that stressed the spontaneity of the protests, leaving out the role of
civil-rights organizations, teachers, and churches. That's what
stories do. As Tilly writes, they circumscribe time and space, limit
the number of actors and actions, situate all causes "in the
consciousness of the actors," and elevate the personal over the
Then there are codes, which are high-level conventions, formulas that
invoke sometimes recondite procedural rules and categories. If a loan
officer turns you down for a mortgage, the reason he gives has to do
with your inability to conform to a prescribed standard of
creditworthiness. Finally, there are technical accounts: stories
informed by specialized knowledge and authority. An academic history
of civil-rights sit-ins wouldn't leave out the role of institutions,
and it probably wouldn't focus on a few actors and actions; it would
aim at giving patient and expert attention to every sort of nuance and
Tilly argues that we make two common errors when it comes to
understanding reasons. The first is to assume that some kinds of
reasons are always better than others--that there is a hierarchy of
reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and
technical accounts at the top. That's wrong, Tilly says: each type of
reason has its own role.
Tilly's second point flows from the first, and it's that the reasons
people give aren't a function of their character--that is, there
aren't people who always favor technical accounts and people who
always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and
roles. Imagine, he says, the following possible responses to one
person's knocking some books off the desk of another:
1. Sorry, buddy. I'm just plain awkward.
2. I'm sorry. I didn't see your book.
3. Nuts! I did it again.
4. Why did you put that book there?
5. I told you to stack up your books neatly.
The lesson is not that the kind of person who uses reason No. 1 or No.
2 is polite and the kind of person who uses reason No. 4 or No. 5 is a
jerk. The point is that any of us might use any of those five reasons
depending on our relation to the person whose books we knocked over.
Reason-giving, Tilly says, reflects, establishes, repairs, and
negotiates relationships. The husband who uses a story to explain his
unhappiness to his wife--"Ever since I got my new job, I feel like
I've just been so busy that I haven't had time for us"--is attempting
to salvage the relationship. But when he wants out of the marriage,
he'll say, "It's not you--it's me." He switches to a convention. As
his wife realizes, it's not the content of what he has said that
matters. It's his shift from the kind of reason-giving that signals
commitment to the kind that signals disengagement. Marriages thrive on
stories. They die on conventions.
Consider the orgy of reason-giving that followed Vice-President Dick
Cheney's quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry
Whittington. Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were
making way too much of it. "Accidents happen," they said, relying on a
convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into
the camera and said, "The image of him falling is something I'll never
be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there's Harry falling. And
it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life." Cheney
told a story. Some of Cheney's critics, meanwhile, focussed on whether
he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid
license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were
interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They
retold the narrative of Cheney's accident, using their specialized
knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and
on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than
two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have
done that. Had Cheney's shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees
from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in
the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn't nearly
good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.
Here are four kinds of reasons, all relational in nature. If you like
Cheney and are eager to relieve him of responsibility, you want the
disengagement offered by a convention. For a beleaguered P.R. agent,
the first line of defense in any burgeoning scandal is, inevitably,
There is no story here. When, in Cheney's case, this failed, the
Vice-President had to convey his concern and regret while not
admitting that he had done anything procedurally wrong. Only a story
can accomplish that. Anything else--to shrug and say that accidents
happen, for instance--would have been perceived as unpardonably
callous. Cheney's critics, for their part, wanted the finality and
precision of a code: he acted improperly. And hunting experts wanted
to display their authority and educate the public about how to hunt
safely, so they retold the story of Cheney's accident with the benefit
of their specialized knowledge.
Effective reason-giving, then, involves matching the kind of reason we
give to the particular role that we happen to be playing at the time a
reason is necessary. The fact that Timothy's mother accepts tattling
from his father but rejects it from Timothy is not evidence of
capriciousness; it just means that a husband's relationship to his
wife gives him access to a reasongiving category that a son's role
does not. The lesson "Don't be a tattletale"--which may well be one of
the hardest childhood lessons to learn--is that in the adult world it
is sometimes more important to be appropriate than it is to be
Two years ago, a young man named Anthony mugged a woman named Anne on
a London street. Anthony was caught and convicted, and a few days
before he was sentenced he sat down with Anne for a face-to-face
meeting, as an exercise in what is known as "restorative justice." The
meeting was videotaped by a criminal-justice research group, and to
watch the video is to get an even deeper sense of the usefulness of
"We're going to talk about what's happened," the policeman moderating
the meeting begins. "Who's been affected, and how they've been
affected, and see what we can do to make things better."
Anthony starts. He has a shaved head, a tattoo on his neck, and
multiple piercings in his eyebrows and ears. Beside him is his
partner, Christy, holding their baby boy. "What happened is I had a
bad week. Been out of work for a couple of weeks. Had my kneecap
broken. . . . I only had my dad in this country, who I don't get on
with. We had no gas in our flat. Me and Christy were arguing all that
morning. The baby had been screaming. We were hungry." His story comes
out painfully and haltingly. "It was a bit too much. All my friends I
was asking to loan me a couple of pounds. They just couldn't afford to
give it to me. . . . I don't know what got into me. I just reached
over and took your bag. And I'm really sorry for it. And if there is
anything I can do to make up for it, I'm willing to do it. I know you
probably don't want me anywhere near you."
Anne has been listening closely, her husband, Terry, next to her. Now
she tells her side of the story. She heard a sound like male laughter.
She turned, and felt her purse being pulled away. She saw a man
pulling up his hood. She ran after him, feeling like a "complete
idiot." In the struggle over her bag, her arm was injured. She is a
journalist and has since had difficulty typing. "The mugging was very
small," she says. "But the effect is not going away as fast as I
expected. . . . It makes life one notch less bearable."
It was Christy's turn. She got the call at home. She didn't know
exactly what had happened. She took the baby and walked to the police
station, angry and frightened. "We got ourselves in a situation where
we were relying on the state, and we just can't live off the money,"
Christy says. "And that's not your problem." She starts to cry. "He's
not a drug addict," she continues, looking at her husband. Anthony
takes the baby from her and holds him. "If we go to court on Monday,
and he does get three years for what he's done, or six years, that's
his problem. He done it. And he's got to pay for what he's done. I
wake up and hear him cry"--she looks at the baby--"and it kills me.
I'm in a situation where I can't do anything to make this better. . .
. I just want you to know. The first thing he said to me when he
walked in was `I apologized.' And I said, `That makes what
Watching the conference is a strange experience, because it is utterly
foreign to the criminal process of which it is ostensibly a part.
There is none of the oppressive legalese of the courtroom. Nothing is
"alleged"; there are no "perpetrators." The formal back-and-forth
between questioner and answerer, the emotionally protective structure
of courtroom procedure, is absent. Anne and Terry sit on comfortable
chairs facing Christy and Anthony. They have a conversation, not a
confrontation. They are telling stories, in Tilly's sense of that
word: repairing their relationship by crafting a cause-and-effect
account of what happened on the street.
Why is such storytelling, in the wake of a crime, so important?
Because, Tilly would argue, some social situations don't lend
themselves to the easy reconciliation of reason and role. In Jonathan
Franzen's novel "The Corrections," for example, one of the characters,
Gary, is in the midst of a frosty conversation with his wife,
Caroline. Gary had the sense, Franzen writes, "that Caroline was on
the verge of accusing him of being `depressed,' and he was afraid that
if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit
his right to his opinions. . . . Every word he spoke would become a
symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument." Gary was
afraid, in other words, that a technical account of his behavior--the
explanation that he was clinically depressed--would trump his efforts
to use the stories and conventions that permitted him to be human. But
what was his wife to do? She wanted him to change.
When we say that two parties in a conflict are "talking past each
other," this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate
attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. Proponents of abortion often
rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the
viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion
turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created
and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has
proved to be so intractable? If you believe that stories are the most
appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and
technical accounts will seem morally indifferent--regardless of
whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is
best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard
not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually
unserious. By Tilly's logic, abortion proponents who want to engage
their critics will have to become better storytellers--and that,
according to the relational principles of such reason-giving, may
require them to acknowledge an emotional connection between a mother
and a fetus. (Ironically, many of the same members of the religious
right who have so emphatically demonstrated the emotional superiority
of stories when it comes to abortion insist, when it comes to Genesis,
on a reading of the Bible as a technical account. Thus do
creationists, in the service of reasongiving exigency, force the Holy
Scripture to do double duty as a high-school biology textbook.)
Tilly argues that these conflicts are endemic to the legal system.
Laws are established in opposition to stories. In a criminal trial, we
take a complicated narrative of cause and effect and match it to a
simple, impersonal code: first-degree murder, or second-degree murder,
or manslaughter. The impersonality of codes is what makes the law
fair. But it is also what can make the legal system so painful for
victims, who find no room for their voices and their anger and their
experiences. Codes punish, but they cannot heal.
So what do you do? You put Anne and her husband in a room with Anthony
and Christy and their baby boy and you let them talk. In a series of
such experiments, conducted in Britain and Australia by the
criminologists Lawrence Sherman and Heather Strang,
restorative-justice programs have shown encouraging results in
reducing recidivism rates among offenders and psychological trauma
among victims. If you view the tape of the Anthony-Anne exchange, it's
not hard to see why. Sherman said that when the Lord Chief Justice of
England and Wales watched it at home one night he wept.
"If there is anything I can do, please say it," Anthony says.
"I think most of what you can do is between the two of you, actually,"
Anne says to Anthony and Christy. "I think if you can put your lives
back together again, then that's what needs to be done."
The moderator tells them all to take a break and help themselves to
"Metropolitan Police tea and coffee and chocolate biscuits."
Anne asks Christy how old the baby is, and where they are living. It
turns out that their apartment has been condemned.Terry stands up and
offers the baby a chocolate biscuit, and the adults experience the
kind of moment that adults have in the company of babies, where
nothing matters except the child in front of them.
"He's a good baby," Christy says. A convention. One kind of reason is
never really enough.