I was born without teeth — and there Richard III had the advantage of me; but I was born without a humpback, likewise, and there I had the advantage of him.
— Mark Twain1
In his recent best-seller, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell covers the subject — and the frequent success — of ordinary people who tilt at extraordinary opponents or forces. In other words, instances where a disadvantage become an advantage. Gladwell’s point is that it happens quite frequently and we don’t realize it. You want to argue? Gladwell’s day job is as a staff writer for the New Yorker, which gives him a distinct advantage right there.
The David and Goliath story is his lead-off prima facie case. Traditionally, we view Goliath as a huge giant of a man, an accomplished warrior armed to the teeth with sword, spear, armor and probably a wrought iron jock strap. The only guy in the crowd willing to take him on is David, a 97-pound weakling, like Charles Atlas before he saw the light, a shepherd boy, literally in shorts and tee shirt, like an undiscovered and under-rated Mark Zuckerberg, nary a bit of armament but a sling shot with which he occasionally annoys the sheep, using them for target practice, in addition to the usual mauvais hanky panky we’ve all heard endlessly about shepherds and their flocks.
You’ll put at least eight-to-five on giant, right? Not so fast, says Gladwell. If there had been endocrinologists in those days, they could have told you by just looking at him that Goliath was not only down a quart mentally, but he had an overactive pituitary gland, accounting for his cumbersome size and unmanageable weight, and his dim-bulb occipital lobe limited his vision, enabling him to do nothing but close-range scuffling with his stupid broadsword, which was about three feet long.
On the other hand, the sling that David possessed was a strategic weapon with which his constant sheep-shooting had honed his marksmanship to deadly accuracy at a distance, while the rock he chose — about the size of a Titleist golf ball — represented a lethal missile. Altogether, the AK-47 of that time.
Clear? Crystal, as Jack Nicholson would say. Asymmetrical conflicts, according to Gladwell, are interesting because not infrequently there’s a reason why little guys whip big guys, making us all feel warm and fuzzy, and not only because little guys are good like Popeye and big guys are bad like Bluto.
When I was laboring as a penniless stock broker, I had two friends, Jimmy and Dick, with whom well nigh every day after the market closed I would repair to a nearby estaminet. Dick was 6’2″ and well-built, Jimmy was maybe 5’7″ and well-intentioned. At least, he loved Dick like a brother. Except that he had a subconscious aversion to big guys, (a Davidian complex, if you will) which only emerged when he was alcoholically challenged. Accordingly, after three drinks, Jimmy would look around the bar for the biggest guy in attendance. It was usually Dick. So he would begin to needle Dick to the point where Dick (who loved Jimmy like a brother) would pop him, put him over his shoulder and take him home.
Dick and Jimmy are an oversimplification of Gladwell’s thesis that in cases of asymmetrical conflict, our assumptions are unreliable concerning disadvantages in a world of advantage. Besides, Jimmy is an example of what Gladwell is NOT talking about: he didn’t have an inferiority complex — he really WAS inferior.
Try this one. In a past life when I was chasing dollars instead of, more conventionally, women, I had an occasion to interview Edgar Kaiser, one of the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve encountered (His father built Liberty ships and automobiles, but Edgar went far beyond that.) And Edgar was dyslexic.
Gladwell has that one covered too. It appears that dyslexia, far from being a disadvantage or handicap, has a particularly useful application to corporate thinking. “We see so many entrepreneurs that have dyslexia,” says Gladwell. “When you talk to them they tell you that they succeeded not in spite of their disability but because of it… That suggests that the distribution of responses to an obstacle are profoundly bimodal. We pretend that they are not.”
And then there’s the old chestnut of “deprived childhood,” or children deprived of one or both parents at a tender age. According to Gladwell, concerning not a few of such children — certainly not a majority — “a parental loss appears to be, ultimately, a desired difficulty.”
I offer the flip side: my father put me and my brothers through university. I worked in the summers but, according to his mandate, the dough went in the bank. Because of this desired advantage, I hadn’t a clue about money or its husbandry till I was 40 years old. (And damned little since, actually, although I’ve spent my life laboring in the financial vineyards.)
And speaking of desired difficulties, what of the curse of manic depression? A split vote, here. Winston Churchill, a classic bi-polar when we needed him most, declared that the line between great achievements and abject failure was as thin as a razor’s edge.
Ernest Hemingway, who was also as bi-polar as Admiral Perry, climbed a lot of literary Kilimanjaros, before he blew his brains out in Ketchum Idaho. On balance, Poppa would probably conclude that his disorder was a desired difficulty. I kind of finger that possibility myself – I think I’d settle for an ignominious final curtain if I could have written For Whom The Bell Tolls.
But I maunder. The subject was the advantage of disadvantage, or perhaps the misperception thereof. My late and inadequately lamented brother Jack was born with such lousy eyesight that he had virtually no depth perception, which is the taken for granted miracle of binocular vision. In Jack’s cramped little world, like Aldous Huxley, he explored all alone the art of seeing. And developed his own capability somehow to adapt two-dimensional visualizing to a perception of linear and spacial relationships to compensate. I don’t pretend to understand that, but as a result, he became an outstanding architect, with a gold medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, an Honorable Mention in the famous Toronto City Hall design competition in the Fifties and, after practising in New York, ultimately became vice-president of a firm that built much of L.A.’s skyline.
And since I’ve become hopelessly nepotistic, I choose to conclude with the case of my son, Reverend Kevin Annett, B.A., M.A., M. Div (also a soupcon of Law School, until he recoiled from the prospect of being a lawyer in today’s society). He also earned a Ph.D. that was denied him by the University of British Columbia, whose Trustees were offended (and implicated) by his subject matter, as I will shortly explain.
Put the case that a church minister in a small Vancouver Island community decides to blow the whistle on criminal activity extending over a century among all the Churches of Canada, cheek by jowl with the Government of Canada, the RCMP, the Attorney General of British Columbia, MacMillan Bloedel, the largest forestry company in that Province, and it’s blushing parent, The Weyerhaeuser Company of Seattle, all complicit in a clutch of different ways too numerous to mention, but having this in common, that it would be nice if Reverend Kevin Annett were quietly blown away. Which they did, quite effectively, trashing his life, his family, his livelihood.
Sounds like a dandy case of Dave-boy and those Goliathan big guys, right?
Oh, I forgot to mention the mainstream Canadian media, who initially gave the whole Canadian genocide issue thereto appertaining a little ink until that brief news cycle was forced off the pages by the Millennium glitch and has been largely missing ever since. And, finally, the Canadian public, who have been as usual fast asleep on the subject of anything indigenous or genocidal for the past 20 years since the whistle was first blown.
Come on, Gladwell, give me a leg up here. Well, I suppose the expert on advantageous disadvantage would say that if you think all those institutions are omnipotent, you’d have to point out that there’s nothing dumber than a federal government that has been headed up by such geniuses as Diefenbaker, Joe Clark, Jean Chretien and latterly and most convincingly by Stephen Harper, whose landmark achievement is that he is currently moving to abolish the Indian Act, and as a short-cut, what’s left of the Indigenous peoples along with it. As for the dumber than dumb churches, corporations and the Musical Riders, their actions daily speak all the volumes that are necessary.
On the other hand, you have this little defrocked shepherd boy who has the most lethal, long range, accurate weapon on earth. The Truth.
And, jesting Pilate to the contrary, we don’t need Malcolm Gladwell to tell us what Truth is. Especially when it hits us in the middle of the forehead.