Malcolm Gladwell, The Power of Context and Crime

At Sunset

November 2007

Quote from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell:

“…the lesson of the Power of Context is that we are more than just sensitive to changes in context. We’re exquisitely sensitive to them.” pp 140“. This is an epidemic theory of crime. It says that crime is contagious-just as a fashion trend is contagious-that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community….The impetus to engage in a certain kind of behavior is not coming from a certain kind of person but from a feature of the environment

.” pp 141

Note: I have a feeling that this book will turn up in several more blogs. I see the relevance of his writing to life today and maybe always. It is simply compelling.

I need to talk more about NYC and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. I am sitting here with The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell open in front of me. Yesterday I wrote about Tucson, AZ where violent crimes, property crimes and drug crimes are a big concern for citizens. I saw the front page of the local paper today announced the ever-present worry about drug running from Mexico. Nogales, Sonora, Mexico is only a little more than an hour away from Tucson, Arizona.

It seems that spot light helicopters at night and check points on the freeway between Mexico and Tucson do not do that much good. Drug running has been around for a long time. And, unfortunately, the crime acts like toothpaste in a tube. When you squeeze it out of one area it simply goes somewhere else. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying that Tucson should quit squeezing…not at all.

But the goal is to stop the importing of violent crime along with the drugs. Now when you read about Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, in The Tipping Point, you will learn how little things make big differences.   Bratton was the former Transit Director in New York that came up with a system for stopping turnstile jumping.  Plain-clothes policemen were posted on the turnstiles in the subways.  When they caught a turnstile jumper or anyone that misbehaved on the subway, they handcuffed the offender to the railing on a chain, lining them up side by side until they filled a city bus.  The people who were caught were held in plain view of all subway riders.  The police commissioner brought in buses retrofitted with the equipment to do background  and fingerprint checks on the fare cheaters. One out of every seven of those caught jumping turn stiles or dropping slugs in pay slots had outstanding warrants. Fare beating!!!! Who knew? The bad guys quit carrying guns, paid their fare and behaved themselves. Crime in the New York City Subway system dropped dramatically.

So when Bratton became the police commissioner, he continued to do all the things that had been done before.  He began enforcing quality of life laws above ground. Squeegee men, panhandlers, people that urinated in the street, public drunkards, and loiterers were all breaking quality of life laws. They bothered people and intimidated with unwanted behavior. The things they did were quality of life issues and disgusting to most people. They created an environment inviting an epidemic of crime. Just like disease, crime breeds in conditions where people are allowed to act like animals. So Bratton encouraged policemen to arrested people for these offenses and crime began to drop.

Malcolm Gladwell called this the “Broken Windows” syndrome (ideas of criminologist James Q. Wilson and George Kelling). Lack of concern for quality of life by the people in charge, whether it be the owner of a piece of property or the mayor of your community, send a signal to criminals that no one cares. So when windows are left broken in a downtown building, the graffiti will follow close behind. The criminals will show up in neighborhoods that are ignored by the community. The quick removal of graffiti, repair of broken windows, cleaning of littered parks and streets and enforcement of laws forbidding unwanted public behavior deter crime.
Maybe all it would take is for the street cleaner to show up or for people to make an effort to get to know their neighbors! Attention discourages criminals and neighborhoods. Gladwell pointed out that people intimidated by dirty, unkempt surroundings are an easier prey for predators of all kinds. A human with a good self-images, attended to by his city and befriended by his neighbor is much less likely, it seems to me, to be an unwilling victim.  (The New York Transit Authority figured out that graffiti removal was more important than the larger issues and brought about changes in peoples behavior) Neighbors that live side by side not only physically but also socially could keep unwanted activity at bay.

So, as Gladwell says, the Tipping Point is not an Al Capone but simply a broken window. Al Capone would have noticed the window, drawn the conclusion that he could do what he wants. Why? Because nobody cares…nobody cares!! It is as simple at that.

The Tipping Point, chapter 4, The Power of Context (part 1), pp 133-168.

If my dear Dr. Martha Addy (Learning Forever) were alive today, she would be talking about the implications of the powerful writing by Malcolm Gladwell. The cover of the book says simply, “A fascinating book that will make you see the world in a different way”. AMEN

Thanks for reading.

b

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2 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell, The Power of Context and Crime

  1. It’s interesting. We think we aren’t affected by context — or at least we try not to be, but we are social creatures, can’t help ourselves.Your posting today makes me think of a Yahoo article today, about how people are optimistic about their personal lives, but not about the future, generally. Maybe this is a non-sequitur — but how can that be. It seems that if we would learn from Gladwell’s theory and do even the smallest thing to change our context, we wouldn’t be quite so concerned about the future.http://news.yahoo.com/page/election-2008-political-pulse-voters-mood;_ylt=AlPW8vIG8EiRnTldIQoEZnbq188FMy best,Whitneywww.whitneyjohnson.com

  2. It’s interesting. We think we aren’t affected by context — or at least we try not to be, but we are social creatures, can’t help ourselves.Your posting today makes me think of a Yahoo article today, about how people are optimistic about their personal lives, but not about the future, generally. Maybe this is a non-sequitur — but how can that be. It seems that if we would learn from Gladwell’s theory and do even the smallest thing to change our context, we wouldn’t be quite so concerned about the future.http://news.yahoo.com/page/election-2008-political-pulse-voters-mood;_ylt=AlPW8vIG8EiRnTldIQoEZnbq188FMy best,Whitneywww.whitneyjohnson.com

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