Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Social Epidemics

Some popular non-fiction books can be worthwhile. I haven't read this one, but 'The Tipping Point' by Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting sound to it. The main focus is upon why things can change so quickly and unexpectedly. Sometimes the smallest changes can effect the greatest results. Certain messages have a stickiness factor that means that they have an impact that lasts through being memorable while others are easily forgotten.

Gladwell believes that ideas and behaviour and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. They are social epidemics.

An idea, trend or social behaviour can be contagious in exactly the same way that a virus is. One chapter, for example, deals with the very strange epidemic of teenage suicide in the South Pacific islands of Micronesia. In the 1970's and 1980's, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. Gladwell also asks: Isn't this the explanation for the current epidemic of teen smoking in this country? No generation has been better educated about the dangers – yet they persist. And what about the rash of mass shootings in the USA over past years?

Gladwell believes this can be positive too, but it's worth thinking about social epidemics. Why is crime contagious? The book refers to the problem of fare-beating on the New York subway – this snowballed simply because people joined in after watching others do it. One explanation is that if people can see prohibited behaviour as marginally accepted and permissible with no significant consequences they will follow suit. Gladwell gets tied up with nature versus nurture – whether our environment shapes us or whether it is down to genetics and personality. He refers to the Broken Windows Theory which argues that crime is the inevitable result of disorder – that crime is contagious and the criminal is prompted to commit crimes based on his perceptions of the world around him. An alternative view believes that the criminal is a personality type. Peter Hitchens' book 'A Brief History of Crime' is a discerning analysis of this crime crisis that the UK has descended into. Hosea 4:1-2 'Hear the word of the LORD, ye children of Israel: for the LORD hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood'

To these things we must say to our politicians and rulers as well as to the sociologists, as with Anselm in his book 'Cur Deus Homo': 'You have not as yet estimated the great burden of sin'. This is what underlies any destructive social epidemic.