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Sarah Ruden

The Cult of Sweeping Competence

On suicide, smoking, and heroes of conscience.

This is my third essay about the social-science writer Malcolm Gladwell's work as characterizing secular America's reigning ideology, and—again—I am nervous about singling Gladwell out. I've done so only because of both the breadth and prestige of his writing; if there's any official version of reality in our élite media, this is it.

How to conclude? With the cult of success, or of talent, or of technology, or of innovation, or of expertise? None of these is very new or startling, and they've all found far more noxious expressions than in the prose of Gladwell, who shows a strong concern for reform, fairness, and opportunity. But all of these idolatries center on human ability, and might crudely be lumped under "the cult of sweeping competence"—a fitting cause for a highly skilled, persuasive author. Here is an example that struck me, because of some circumstances in my own background.

"Case Study: Suicide, Smoking, and the Unsticky Cigarette" is a chapter in Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference (2000), a rapt study of "social epidemics," with an emphasis on how they originate—and how they can be stopped when necessary. Suicide, plainly, could use some prevention. But as everywhere in Gladwell, the appearance of problem-solving is much more important than the problem, even a life-or-death one like this.

Having built up the "social epidemic" argument as literally compelling drama, Gladwell seems stuck within it himself. He can see the problem of suicide only as a "contagious" teenage fad, and so he posits nothing that might be done about it—on the Pacific islands where his account has concentrated, or elsewhere. "Boys will be boys" is close to how he sums up:

What is tragic about this is not that these little boys were experimenting. Experimenting is what little boys do. What is tragic is that they have chosen ...

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