Malcolm Gladwell, historian

Historians in the News
tags: Malcolm Gladwell



What links Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, famed for her 2012 speech on misogyny, and the English Victorian painter, Elizabeth Thompson? This was the question raised by the New York essayist and author Malcolm Gladwell in his new podcast, Revisionist History , posed safely in the knowledge that while many listeners are familiar with Gillard, few will have heard of Thompson, And this, really, was the point.

Revisionist History is a 10-week series with the tagline “Sometimes the past deserves a second chance”. Gladwell’s plan is to re-examine past events that have been unjustly overlooked and he began with Thompson, whose 1874 painting, “The Roll Call”, drew such vast crowds when it was exhibited in London that it was assigned its own policeman. It was the equivalent, said Gladwell, “of people camping out in line for two days to buy Beyoncé tickets”.

Yet once the excitement died down, Thompson found herself frozen out of the art world and consigned once again to obscurity. The connection to Gillard? Both were operating in a man’s world and both scaled dizzy heights in their respective fields, only swiftly to lose their positions.

According to Gladwell, they fell victim to “moral licensing”, a phenomenon in which a good deed is invariably followed by a bad one. In the case of Thompson and Gillard, the fact that the door is opened for an outsider gives the status quo justification to close it again. “Once you know about Elizabeth Thompson,” he said, “you see Elizabeth Thompsons everywhere.”

This series marks a departure for Gladwell, who is best known for talking to business people about Fleetwood Mac and selling books about the power of thinking. His books have been criticised in some quarters for being simplistic and hokey but there are no such concerns here. As the title suggests, Revisionist History is heavy on historical fact, albeit presented through the prism of human behaviour. Its secret lies in turning serious and complex concepts into thoughtful and digestible stories. ...




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