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Be careful not to act like a know-it-all

Posted March. 21, 2020 07:44,   

Updated March. 21, 2020 07:44


“Did you tell the head coach that Jerry Sandusky did not have any clothes on in the showers?” (Attorney)

“Yes, sir.” (McQueary)

“Did you describe for him that he was touching the boy?” (Attorney)

It is part of a testimony transcript on a child sexual abuse recorded in a courtroom in Pennsylvania in March 2017. Mike McQueary worked as assistant football coach for the Pennsylvania State University and Jerry Sandusky was his senior on the team.

The Jerry Sandusky scandal drove the whole country into a state of shock, revealing around 50 victims of childhood and adolescent sex abuse. It was no wonder that the case was at the center of attention. The 2018 movie “Paterno” starring Al Pacino describes the head coach Joe Paterno, a heroic figure winning more than 400 games for the Penn State Nittany Lions football team over 61 years.

In July 2015, State Trooper Brian Encinia pulls over an African American woman named Sandra Bland in a town around Houston, Texas, for failing to use her turn signal when changing lanes. Upon lighting her cigarette after brief conversation, she was told by Encinia to put it out. Then, she refused, which only led the situation to escalate. Four days after she was arrested by the trooper, she committed suicide in a jail cell. The case inspired a documentary titled “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” in 2018.

“Talking to Strangers” is the latest book in six years written by world-famous journalist Malcolm Gladwell who presents hidden principles of human society and relationships based on up-to-date social science research. His books have been well received by Korean readers as well for their inspiring messages such as the 10,000-hour rule in the previous book “Outliers,” the power of hardship and weakness in ”David and Goliath,” and the significance of initial two-second judgments in “Blinks.”

The focal point of Gladwell’s new book is errors we make when we meet and talk particularly to strangers. Sandusky was arrested for child sexual abuse in 2001, 10 years after Sandusky’s wrongdoings were reported to head coach Paterno.

Gladwell brings up a few questions. Why did everyone turn a deaf ear to the young coach’s reports? Why are some people still arguing that one of the filthiest men in the world is innocent despite convincing evidence? What made Encinia’s words end up in a tragedy that could have been avoided by some simple nice words, “Make sure you use your turn signal when changing lanes next time,” or “Okay, have a nice day?”

The author argues that the answer lies in the default-to-truth theory presuming others to be honest, the transparency fallacy and the failure to account for context.

As unfamiliar as it may sound, the book’s main theoretical concepts strengthen their powers of persuasion by backing themselves on various cases, psychological theories and experiments, and even analyses of facial expressions by characters in “Friends.” Head coach Paterno as well as the president of university found it hard to turn their back on Sandusky, who had earned respect and recognition across the region for long, even after being briefed on his shocking crime. Underneath is social nature of human society that little trust can lead society to an end. Malcolm points out that Encinia made an error in identifying inner qualities while judging from an African-American woman’s brusque tone and smoking.

The court sentenced Sandusky, who was then in his sixties, 30 to 60 years in prison, no different from a life sentence, saying that it will have definite impact on his remaining years. Along with the removal of Joe Paterno's statue on campus, the university president, who was at the top of the reporting system, was dismissed.

Gab-Sik Kim dunanworld@donga.com