Americans and the ‘obnoxiously different’

Writing in the current New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell offers a reliably pat pronouncement in his assessment of the conflict at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, which culminated in the deaths of seventy-four people on April 19, 1993. He says the lesson of “the battle of [Waco]… is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.” He goes on to write that “many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing,” and then as supporting evidence provides a tidy, three-sentence recap of the death of Joseph Smith at the hands of an armed mob while awaiting trial in Illinois in 1844.
It’s not really the words “obnoxiously different” that are the problem; Gladwell notes the construct comes from historian R. Laurence Moore, who about the Mormons wrote: “[They] said they were different and their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree….” The problem is that the spirit of lazy assertion (“the lesson of Waco is that Americans aren’t good at respecting…” and “many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing”) undermines the larger if perhaps equally tossed-off observations Gladwell makes in the piece.
That is, that FBI negotiators at the scene fatally misjudged both the solidity of the Davidians as a community of worship and the strength of their religious beliefs. What followed, in Gladwell’s retelling, was not just an instance of two parties talking past each other, but instead what should now be seen as an object lesson in “how not to negotiate with believers.” That phrase, in fact, is the subheading of the piece, which is presented under the main heading “Annals of Religion” and bears an unhelpful title that’s also too easily resorted to: “Sacred and Profane.”
Granted, dishing up delightfully unexpected if semi-plausible interpretations of phenomena he deems insufficiently understood is Gladwell’s stock in trade, and he’s likely not responsible for how the story is titled and packaged. And fortunately, the piece doesn’t focus on lurid, cult-y details or rehash events in a way that invites readers simply to blame Janet Reno or demonize David Koresh. What’s frustrating is that it uses an extreme case to sidle up to a big question—what is a proper response to unshakeable and “different” belief?—while implicitly posing other questions about the limits and extensibility of religious expression, without actually engaging the issue explicitly.
Gladwell treats the Davidians and their beliefs with careful respect, even if it means citing sociologist Max Weber’s typology of such a group as “value-rational” (not organized around short-term goals, say, like bank robbers), and he keeps the fact of so many pointless deaths in the foreground. But it’s ultimately an unsatisfying exploration: The catchy hook and provocative marshalling of quotes and conceits have that familiar intuitive appeal but amount to little more than another Malcolm Gladwell special; molehills are made precociously out of slightly larger molehills. That the mistakes of the FBI twenty-one years ago offer a promising starting point for a discussion on responses to “obnoxiously different” expressions of belief is fine. What would have been better is if such a discussion actually followed in a meaningful way.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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