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Postcards from Scotland

Carol Craig on Scotland's Tipping Point

Published in:

Kenny MacAskill (ed.), Agenda for A New Scotland: Visions of Scotland, Luath Press, Edinburgh 2005.

On the 2nd December 2004 over three hundred people crowded into Oran Mor, a renovated kirk now functioning as an arts centre in Glasgow’s west end. They were there to listen to what many later declared as the best speech they had ever heard. Most went away inspired to take action that could be the beginnings of a massive transformation of Scottish culture. The source of the inspiration? Malcolm Gladwell, author of the international best-seller The Tipping Point.

Gladwell’s book has been on Businessweek’s best-sellers list ever since it appeared in 2000. He is a staff writer on The New Yorker magazine.  Given these facts it is reasonable for anyone privy to this information to expect a groomed, ultra-confident American with a gleaming smile. But no. The man who appeared on the platform and charmed and inspired his Scottish audience was different from the stereotype of the American motivational speaker.

Malcolm Gladwell grew up in Canada to English and Jamaican parents, hence the light brown Affro. He is a slightly built, self-deprecating man who left to his own devices would prefer to spend time alone. He is an extremely articulate man but his particular gift as a speaker comes from his ability tell stories. Stories which anyone can understand: the fall of the Berlin wall, the rise of radio as a mass medium in the US, the runaway success of the Atkins diet or the tale of Paul Revere who rode out to warn fellow Bostonians that the English were coming. But the power of Gladwell’s stories is not that they entertained and held his audience’s attention but that they encouraged them to see the world in a new way and inspired them to take action.

Gladwell argues that we tend to see change as something which is not only difficult to achieve but slow and incremental when in fact not only does change often happen much more quickly than we anticipate but also in one decisive action – the tipping point.  The fall of the Berlin Wall is a good example of this. Before it was dismantled if anyone had been asked how such an event would come about, they would have predicted that it would have taken years, if not decades, of intricate political negotiations. In reality, it came down rapidly after a mere three months of political protests.

At the heart of Gladwell’s analysis is the belief that people are not as independent-minded as we often think and are much more subject to the influence of other people – particularly other people in their social circle. Gladwell also argues that people’s attitudes and behaviour are conditioned by their surroundings. The best example of this is how the New York crime wave was turned round by dealing with such apparently trivial things as graffiti and litter. When an area becomes physically run down it sends out the message ‘nobody here gives a damn, so just do what you like’, hence crime rates soar.

Gladwell’s analysis mainly focuses on the spread of what he calls ‘social epidemics’. In other words, he is interested in why some ideas take hold and catch on, changing people’s behaviour and attitudes, while others don’t. He concludes that ‘social power’ – the influence of others we know – is much more effective in bringing about transformational change than political or economic power. In other words, change is much more likely to be ‘bottom up’ than ‘top down’ as people are more open to the influence of friends or colleagues than those in authority. So now you can begin to see why this was such an inspiring message to those gathered at Oran Mor

Gladwell argues that often what needs to happen for transformational change to take place is what he calls ‘reframing’. In other words we need to start seeing something differently. One good example of a social epidemic caused by reframing is the Atkins diet. It reframed dieting by diverting people’s attention from the daunting task of counting calories to the much more simple elimination of a whole category of food. And it is precisely this ‘reframing’ we need if Scotland is to undergo transformational change. So what is the change in perception we need to bring about.

Until the past year or so the vast majority of Scots keen to see a transformation in Scotland perceived the change they sought as largely political. For many a new, better Scotland would only be brought about by constitutional change. Thus so much energy in Scotland over the past century has been devoted to the home rule/devolution/ independence debate.

Party politics has also been the conduit for those seeking other types of changes in Scottish society such as the redistribution of wealth, the regulation of markets or solutions to problems such as landownership. Politics has also been the medium for people involved in the Conservative Party, for example, to resist such changes through the maintenance of the traditional order.

Now there is nothing particularly Scottish about the belief that transformational change is brought about by politicians. Gladwell himself made this point in his speech when he said that people generally overvalue the importance of political and economic power and undervalue the importance of social power. But for a variety of reasons the Scots’ view of the world is likely to intensify this overemphasis on politics. First, since we didn’t have our own parliament and political institutions, pre-devolution it was all too easy for us to overvalue the importance of politics and see such political change as a panacea. What’s more, although we realised the limitations of politics and politicians there was also a tendency to believe that the political structures we would create would somehow be different from what pertained elsewhere – hence much of the Utopian daydreaming about the brave new politics of post-devolution Scotland.  There is also a proclivity in Scotland to emphasise the collective rather than the individual and this too has made it all too easy for us to assume that transformational change would be brought about from changes in national structures, rather than from changes in our own personal lives.

The confidence issue itself is a good example of this tendency to see everything through the lens of politics. Until the recent opening up of the debate on confidence, if confidence was perceived to be an issue at all for Scots, it was portrayed as a national issue. In other words, it was seen as a by-product of Scotland’s relationship with England. The argument being that it was damaging to Scottish self-esteem to be in the shadow of a bigger more powerful, and controlling country, and that only more self-determination could rectify the problem.

This obsession with the importance of power structures seeps into other areas of life. For example, in my own work as a training consultant in education I have found that every tier I have worked with has declined responsibility and passed the issue up to their superiors. So even in a communication or assertiveness skills course, which is essentially about how we express ourselves, pupils will say that they are not ‘allowed’ to express themselves in an open, assertive way and that I need to do the course with teachers. Teachers tell me that I must do the course with head teachers and head teachers tell me that I must put this case to the education authority. Needless to say the people in the education authority say that this is really an issue for the Scottish Executive as they are ultimately responsible for the culture in education. Interestingly the current Education Minister has been heard wondering why teachers as professionals don’t show more initiative and responsibility to sort out problems and stop waiting for something to happen from the top.

It would be stupid of me to argue that there is no merit in the arguments about the importance of politics and power structures. Sometimes change needs to be supported and carried through at a political level – a change in landownership is a case in point. Political will and resources can sometimes affect big changes. Often in organisations, people are not ‘allowed’ to do certain things.

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the political or top-down approach to change is that it disempowers people and saps them of the drive to take action. For example, if I believe that Scotland will only change as a result of changes in politics or the actions of politicians then the window of opportunity is only open once in five years at election time. What’s more, change can only come about if my side persuades a majority of voters. And given the nature of democratic politics this is unlikely if it is a big transformational change I seek. If at work or school I believe that I’m not allowed to do certain things, and that change has to come from the top, then all I can do is wait patiently until they decide to make the changes. As many psychologists will tell you thinking you cannot affect change in your life (poor locus of control) often leads not only to stress but also to depression.

So we need to begin reframing the solution to Scotland’s problems so that it is mainly within our individual sphere of influence or action. The political view of the world inevitably downplays the importance of we as individuals affect the quality of our lives.  What’s more we have much more capacity than often admit to perceive the world differently. 

But not only there is much more room for manoeuvre than we often allow but also the change we often seek is often more within the ‘personal’ than the political sphere.
                                                                                                                                                      copyright Carol Craig

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