Loving the tradition from the margins: What Malcolm Gladwell is missing about power in his Mennonites podcast

Contributed by Luke L Miller

Chester Wenger’s “An open letter to my beloved church” in 2014 was a beautiful, poignant reflection by a man who dedicated his life to the Mennonite Church on why he had chosen to perform the marriage ceremony for his gay son Phil. He documented the way he had come to believe the church must bless LGBTQ people’s marriages, made a powerful argument for his position, and explained that now at age 96 he was finally ready to “let this light shine.” He demonstrated humility, grace, and peace in his words: peace with his decision and peace with the consequences that it caused when his ordination was taken away by Lancaster Mennonite Conference.

I haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but I’ve now listened to every released episode of his podcast “Revisionist History,” and his methodology is clear. He uses a concept in social psychology (often a recently published one) to provide a lens for reflecting on the way something about the world works. The conceit of the podcast is that he will use these concepts (ideas like “moral licensing” and “strong link/weak link”) to re-examine incidents from the past and draw surprising or compelling conclusions.

Illustration of Malcolm Gladwell by Surian Soosay

Illustration of Malcolm Gladwell by Surian Soosay. Licensed under Creative Commons. Original here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ssoosay/5982796280/

In his August 11, 2016 episode of the podcast, Gladwell didn’t simply present Chester’s and Phil’s stories and words on their own terms; he used them, in the way he used all stories in this series, to advance and argue for a particular concept, in this case “generous orthodoxy,” the idea that institutions are changed by those who exhibit both an “openness to change” and a loyalty to the traditions of the institution they’re trying to change. Chester is made to represents the “good” kind of action, and black students at Princeton arguing against the prominent use of Woodrow Wilson’s name and figure on campus as the “bad” counter-example.

Although he claims to be sympathetic to the Princeton students in the podcast, he constantly misrepresents their goals and arguments. I didn’t follow the story extensively in the news at the time, but just from the soundbites he played, their message was clear: Princeton has a choice which parts of their identity to prioritize – the legacy of Woodrow Wilson or their commitment to make their campus a safe home for students of color. Even in the clips that Gladwell chose, which he used to show how non-loyal the students were being, I heard a pretty sophisticated historical argument: the early history of Princeton was tied intimately to the slave economy, so there’s nothing about placing African-American bodies at the center of Princeton’s identity that is ahistorical. It’s simply a matter of which part of Princeton’s legacy to view as important and essential. But this is how Gladwell chooses to present the students’ ideas: he says that they want to do away with the names of “rich white men” on campus (and makes a great show of reading a whole bunch of them off) because the names make them “uncomfortable.” His advice? First, he chides them for having chosen to come to Princeton despite knowing that it was already full of the legacies of “rich white men.” Second, if they really wanted to show how much they cared about the Princeton legacy/tradition, they would drop out of school in protest until Princeton caved.

I think the centrality of loyalty and love of the tradition we are trying to change is a very valuable concept, and looking at the work of Pink Menno, and at the broader & longer history of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, one that has been robustly present from the beginning. In fact, in the words and stories of the LGBTQ Mennonites and their cis straight allies as they witness to the church, I have always found an immense amount of love and gratefulness for the Mennonite church and its traditions, and a call to the church to be true to its broader calling and identity.

What Gladwell actually provides, unintentionally, is a master class in how unreflective wielding of power and privilege can be used to vilify uncomfortable claims made by vulnerable individuals, failing to recognize the kind of love they offer the institutions they are trying to change. Wenger’s witness is shifted away from the claims made in his letter, that he believes the church needs to change to welcome LGBTQ individuals, and shifted instead onto how the particular way he went about making this claim can be used to divide “good” dissenters from “bad” dissenters, without any reflection on how one’s social position, age, history, and overall power affect the options that are even available to express dissent. The standard he applies is not any rigorous, reflective, difficult insight into how people who are constantly driven away from the center of an institution can still witness and work for change of that institution from the margins. Rather, in the way he defines generous orthodoxy, he provides a standard by which an institution invested in its own preservation (or those who identify closely with that institution) can reject as “disloyal” those who don’t make claims that are easily acceptable as comfortably “loyal.” My honest impression when hearing Gladwell’s argument was that he was using Chester Wenger to conclude that white people’s discomfort with black anger means there must be something wrong with black people – something like disloyalty.

The outcome of the way Gladwell used Chester and Phil’s stories that I fear most is that he has managed to transform Chester’s words and actions from a courageous stand on behalf of LGBTQ people into a tool that can be used against them. Queer people in the church will continue to challenge its power structures in ways that do not feel “loyal” to the casual observer who doesn’t do the work of examining their words and claims. Many queer people have been forced so far away from the center of the church that we don’t have the option of wearing the mantle of orthodoxy, at least in ways that would be broadly celebrated. And yet this is a conversation about our lives, bodies, faith, and stories, and at some point we will have to become the leaders of the conversation. Chester Wenger’s letter points the way to this; Gladwell’s podcast points the other way.

3 comments on “Loving the tradition from the margins: What Malcolm Gladwell is missing about power in his Mennonites podcast
  1. Maegan Yoder says:

    Thank you Luke! You managed to nail how Gladwell presents his arguments and why they are offensive to marginalized people.

  2. Thank you so much for this astute observation and analysis, Luke. I read Gladwell’s Tipping Points but haven’t otherwise taken notice of him. Until this. How terribly disturbing, especially since Mennonites are now tuning in to Gladwell like never before –because wow this “great mind of culture” noticed us Mennos! This take on it deserves and desperately needs wide readership.