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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.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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A common failing of reviews is to take the author to task for not addressing the issues the reviewer would have. Preziosi wishes that Malcolm Gladwell had more directly addressed the problem of the "obnoxiously different", rather than just sidling up to it in his enlightening account of the Waco massacre of the Branch Davidians.

The issue Preziosi is interested in is an important one; perhaps he has written (or will write) something more about it. However, it seems unfair to criticize Gladwell for what he didn't write.

This article was fascinating.  The weakness in my view was that so much of what we know is hindsight.  But I guess that Gladwell's point was that there was virtually no analysis of the group as it was at the time to determine the likelihood that anyone was in true danger (Jonestown style) or whethere it would have been possible (not to say far preferable) to arrest Koresh in a way that would have avoided the conflict.  The FBI assumed that the group was a cult, and further, that all cults were at high risk of suicidal behavior.  The FBI had a typology of cults and cult criminal behavior that was based on a universe of one (Jonestown).  They were fighting the last war.

I'm only halfway through the piece, but what struck me as I read last night was that Gladwell kept insisting that the Branch Davidians weren't a "cult" and Koresh wasn't a cult leader, and then illustrating his point with what sounded to me like standard features of cults and their leaders. When he got around to describing how Koresh had invented a religious reason he had to claim lots of young women as his "wives" -- I've heard that one a few times before, and it wasn't in a story about religious communities that are not cults. Anyway, my impression is that it's (clearly) correct to say the FBI misjudged the situation, but Gladwellian overreaching to say their errors were due to a complete mischaracterization of what kind of group the Branch Davidians were and then generalize from that conclusion.

If there are insufficient reasons to be convinced the Branch Dividians were a cult and David Koresh was a sociopath, perhaps someone would be helpful enough to explain what behavior constitutes sufficient reasons.  A true religion is identified by its usefulness as much as it is by its passion.  Cults and sociopaths have plenty of passion and precious little usefulness.  Based on my assumption they were a cult and he was a sociopath, it seems to me Gladwell has once again danced off into the world of hyperintellectualism in a seemingly unending journey tighly bound to the goal of convincing himself he is the most clever fellow in the room.  It is quite simply not possible to explain legal lunacy with largely predictable logic and expect useful understanding to occur.

As for the FBI misjudging the situation, lunacy and sociopathy are identified by a pervasive lack of good judgement.  Bring all the good judgement you can to the situation but the fact is you will be flying by the seat of your pants and praying alot.

The things Gladwell focused on were the continuity of the enterprise (it had been around for 30 years) and the fact that people came and left voluntarily, and that many worked in Waco in secular jobs. 

Even if they were a cult, why does that justify improvident and ill-informed law enforcement tactics resulting in the deaths of dozens of children?  Doesn't it seem ironic that in an effort to avoid another Jonestown the FBI ended up inflicting so much carnage? 

"Molehills are made precociously out of slightly larger molehills"--that's just about the best description of Gladwell's style of thinking I've ever heard. 

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