Malcolm Gladwell on Legitimacy

By Chloe McConnell October 2, 2011

Sunday afternoon at the SVA Theatre, Malcolm Gladwell surprised the audience by revising the topic of his talk. “I am not going to discuss the virtues of obnoxiousness,” he said. “It is fun to come up with titles that sound like interesting talks. I actually don’t know what the virtues of obnoxiousness would be.” Instead, he talked about the virtues of legitimacy.

Gladwell defined the three elements of legitimacy as trustworthiness, neutrality, and standing. Using taxes, alcoholism and the I.R.A. as examples, Gladwell blamed a lack of legitimacy for much of the turmoil around the world.

“Deterrence theory misses a much larger truth,” he explained. “People choose to obey the law not because of a calculation of risks and benefits but because they think of a larger justice.”

His talk focussed on the “bulldog-like” Alva Erskine Vanderbilt. “Alva is a very unlikely radical,” Gladwell explained. At the end of the nineteenth-century, she married into the wealthiest family in the United States and occupied her time by building gaudy mansions around New York. However, after divorcing her unfaithful husband William Kissam Vanderbilt, she was vilified by New York society and faced a “hellish” world devoid of freedom.

“But she does not stand back because she does not see society’s judgment as legitimate,” Gladwell said. “She has been denied on every level the basic fundamental rules of legitimacy and she is angry.” This rage led her to donate money to the women’s-suffrage movement. “She puts every ounce of her domineering and ambitious personality into the cause and she is successful,” Gladwell said with excitement.

“Alva wins in the end and the message of that victory applies as much to this day as it did then,” Gladwell said, his voice rising to a shout. “The lesson at the end of the day is that the powerful are judged not by their ends but their means. If you deny people legitimacy then they will come back and defeat you.”