I imagine that those who forked out the moolah to listen to author Malcolm Gladwell speak last evening at UWI are still filled with some of what he shared. Gladwell is a great story teller. Actually, his stories are like tapestries, that he weaves towards his main point. In a way they can seem like shaggy dog stories. He told us one of those yesterday to make his point about his understanding of legitimacy.

He described himself as a perfect Jamaican. How so? He was born in England to an English father–a mathematics professor–and a Jamaican mother–a psychotherapist. They moved to Canada. So, he has some Jamaican link, but lives abroad. He sends money to Jamaica: he did not say to whom or for what. But, let’s assume it’s all good philanthropy.

His story was about Alva Smith, and how she transformed from social nobody, to a Vanderbilt wife, to a mother who forced her daughter to marry into English nobility rather than to her love (a typical offspring off New York socialites), then saw the lights and threw herself into the women’s suffrage movement. Her daughter also did, too, eventually. Both women dumped their husbands in efforts to reposition their less worthy existences.

Gladwell told us all this during an hour’s talk.

Legitimacy, he argued, is based on three legs: respectfulness, equity, and trustworthiness.


Malcolm Gladwell, always engaging.

Without it, people will inevitably turn against those who deny them these things. I see it as injustice, but am not going to haggle over terms. The process seems clear.

The women in his story lacked those three elements in the lives their husbands and society at the time allowed them. They sought to gain those elements in their own ways. Alva spent like crazy, especially on large homes. Then she poured her money into her daughter’s husband, whose family estate had seen better times. Her daughter eventually poured herself into repositioning women in society’s eyes.

In typical Gladwell style, the story is compelling. But, as he admits, it’s not complete.

It’s an interesting story because part of it sounds good, but the untold part puts that good into stark relief. While Alva laudably reached out to black women suffragettes, her ‘victory’ in getting white American women the vote in 1920 left their black sisters behind, and their black brothers. The USA did not truly enfranchise all its citizens for nearly another 50 years.

Much as I like Gladwell’s provocative way of looking at things, one has to beware being reeled in by a nice narrative.

Of course, if one looks beyond the USA, we can see that whatever the proportions may yield in some circumstances one isn’t left with clear universal truths. Whatever American women were able to do to change the legitimacy of their country’s voting, it had little or no effect in most of the world. So, nearly 100 years on, some women are still clamouring for voting rights, while many still yearn for other basic rights and the removal of a raft of institutional discrimination. Even in the USA, the vote for women was necessary for some advancement, but not sufficient.

Social change is complex. He doesn’t claim to understand the whole world, but has interesting views about how some some of it works.

Questioners asked for more clarification from Gladwell, and hoped to translate his words into the Jamaican context. Many will see that Jamaicans gave tolerated illegitimacy for decades. What then will be the tipping point, to coin another Gladwellism?

I had a thought as I listened last night about how people have rejected one illegitimate regime only to revert to it sometime in the near future. My mind was on countries that rejected the Soviet regime, but hold onto or brought back the essential pillars of that system. Of course, Jamaican politics has plenty of this political recidivism.