Tuesday, February 07, 2006

An epidemic of outrage

The whole cartoon jihad insanity seems to me to be a perfect example of a social epidemic reaching a tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his 2000 bestseller (that I only got around to last year.)

Based on my GoogleNews searches, no one seems to have brought this up yet, but the point is fairly obvious.

Gladwell postulates that ideas need certain characteristics in order to form the foundation of a social epidemic.  One is stickiness—which essentially means that the idea needs to either reinforce a stereotype or fit in within an already present understanding of the situation.  Another is the “Law of the Few” which explains how small number of people with particular skills (the relevant people in this case would be connectors and salesmen) cause epidemics.  

A small number of outraged Muslims try to get others outraged.  This fits perfectly into already present Muslim anger at the West as well as stereotypes of Westerners disrespecting Islam.  The idea is sticky, so people listen to the Danish Muslims and pass it on to friends and acquaintances.  The likely reason this epidemic took so long to take off would be explained by the fact that the initial Danes were not well-connected in the Arab Muslim community.  The idea was sticky enough that it kept growing though—like a flu virus that has an extremely high rate of transmission, but few symptoms.  Another example of an idea epidemic with few symptoms would be the conspiracy theories about America’s actions in Iraq which are common in the Arab world.  They reinforce stereotypes.  But their potency is diminished by the fact that the only people who feel empowered by them are those unhinged enough to become terrorists.  Distrust of America is a sticky idea, but with few conspicuous symptoms generally.  Suddenly though, in the past few weeks, the outrage over the cartoon snowballs and leads to riots and countless news stories, probably creating a bigger ruckus than such significant events as the US invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan.  

What caused this epidemic to reach its tipping point and not the others?  I would suggest that it was the call for a boycott of Danish goods.  Up until that point, the idea was sticky but useless.  Suddenly, an action was associated with the idea and it became all the more attractive and empowering.  At the same time, a boycott made news headlines all over and fanned the flames more.  The unknown face of this cartoon jihad, the person perhaps most responsible for the current chaos, would be the Egyptian who convinced his fellow businessmen to boycott Danish goods.  

Based on Gladwell’s theory, this new super-virus idea of anger coupled with the empowering action of the boycott led directly to the recent chaos.


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