The Principle of Legitimacy

January-February 2015By Michael S. Rose

Michael S. Rose is Associate Editor of the NOR.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.  By Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown and Company. 305 pages. $29.



In the wake of the exploding violence of the late 1960s, Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf Jr. wrote “Rebellion and Authority,” a seminal report about how to deal with insurgencies, terrorism, and civil unrest. The authors worked for the RAND Corporation, a Pentagon think tank founded after World War II, with the mandate to craft a blueprint for how police departments should deal with civil unrest and how governments might best cope with terrorism. Considering the escalating tensions over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the free-speech movement during these years, the RAND project seemed apropos. Leites and Wolf concluded that influencing popular behavior requires an understanding of the costs and benefits that motivate a particular group. In other words, one needs to understand what actions or punitive consequences will effectively act as a deterrent to particular behaviors, like rioting and other forms of violent protest against the state.

Intuitively we assume that a stronger show of force results in more cooperation from the people: The direr the consequences, the more obedient people will be. After all, the threat of arrest and punishment seems a proven deterrent. In 1969, for example, the Montreal police department went on strike for sixteen hours. During that brief time, one of the most stable cities in the world — remember, this is Canada we’re talking about — descended into chaos. Looters smashed shop windows downtown, banks were robbed, and a dispute between taxicab drivers and a limo service erupted into gun violence — all in broad daylight. As soon as the strike ended, order was restored. The threat of arrest and punishment worked.

Malcolm Gladwell is fond of exploring the counterintuitive. In his previous books such as Outliers, The Tipping Point, and Blink, the New Yorker staff writer has explored subjects and ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell shows how perceived disadvantages often work to one’s advantage and result in unlikely successes. Having dyslexia or being counted among a discriminated minority might actually make a person stronger, more resourceful, and ultimately successful, just as the classic underdog David slew the great armor-clad warrior Goliath with one smooth stone and a slingshot.

Gladwell also explores the shortcomings of those who, like Goliath, fail due to their own complacency and false assumptions. He shows that the threat of consequences and a show of force — however tough — are not always sufficient to quell rebellions, no matter how many resources one might have at one’s disposal.

Just a few months after the Montreal police strike, around the time Leites and Wolf published their report, trouble was escalating in Northern Ireland. This was the genesis of what would come to be known euphemistically as “The Troubles.”

Throughout the country’s history, Catholics and Protestants have lived an uneasy coexistence in cities such as Belfast — with Catholics being the minority. Each year, the country’s Protestant Loyalists organize parades to commemorate the 1690 victory by William of Orange in the Battle of the Boyne, when Protestants established control over this part of the Emerald Isle once and for all. On July 12 these “blood and thunder” and “kick the pope” flute-band parades wend their way through Catholic neighborhoods and past Catholic churches, taunting the Catholic minority, burning effigies of the pope in celebration of that long-ago Catholic defeat. Gladwell accurately describes these Belfast neighborhoods as places where “the houses of Catholics back directly onto the backyards of Protestants, in such close proximity that each house has a giant metal grate over its backyard to protect the inhabitants against debris or petrol bombs thrown by neighbors.”

As you might imagine, the Catholics have never been too happy with this triumphalistic parading. During marching season, violence always erupts in Northern Ireland. On July 12 of last year, eight men were arrested and three stabbed during “sectarian disputes” — and this was considered a peaceful marching season. If that seems odd, consider that in 1969 riots broke out for two days after the Orange parade passed through a Catholic neighborhood. “When the marchers went home,” Gladwell writes, “they went on a rampage through the streets of West Belfast, burning down scores of homes.” The next day, a Protestant mob burned to the ground the Catholic neighborhood along Belfast’s Bombay Street.

Gladwell focuses on the gun battles that took place in 1970, when the sectarian violence got so bad that the British army had to be brought in to try to keep the peace. But since Britain is an overwhelmingly Protestant country, the British soldiers were far from impartial referees. Case in point: When a Loyalist group paraded through the Catholic neighborhood of Ballymurphy, the British soldiers stood between the Protestant marchers and the Catholic residents — facing the residents, as if they saw it as their job to protect the marchers rather than the residents.

The all-Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast looked like occupied war zones in 1970. Armored cars with barbed wire on their bumpers patrolled the streets. Catholic gunmen shot at soldiers and Protestant bystanders. The Protestants continued to burn down Catholic homes and even tried to burn down a Catholic church. Deadly gun battles raged. After the British army, led by General Ian Freeland, placed a curfew on the residents of the Catholic neighborhood of Lower Falls in West Belfast, soldiers went from house to house ostensibly to search for weapons caches (which certainly existed, thanks to the IRA), but the soldiers proceeded to ransack every home. Freeland was acting on orders from the prime minister: The British army, he was instructed, “should deal toughly, and be seen to deal toughly, with thugs and gunmen.”

When another riot broke out during a search of homes in Lower Falls, Gen. Freeland followed the Leites and Wolf blueprint for dealing with insurgencies. He demanded that all residents stay in their homes or face arrest. He warned that anyone caught throwing gasoline bombs was “liable to be shot.” He made it clear that disobedience would be met with firm and immediate punishment.

Several incidents, however, compounded the problem for Freeland and his men. When the local parish priest tried to reason with the British army, he was attacked with tear gas; when hundreds of young mothers from Ballymurphy pushed their baby strollers into Lower Falls to deliver bread to the residents, who were locked in their houses because of the curfew, they were beaten senseless by the British soldiers; when an old man went out for a stroll in his bathrobe and slippers because he didn’t understand the curfew, he was shot dead by soldiers who then slept in the dead man’s house.

The British army “had resources and weapons and soldiers and experience that dwarfed those of the insurgent elements that they were trying to contain,” Gladwell writes. Goliath was taking on little David, and what should have been a rough few months for the British army instead turned into thirty years of bloodshed for the people of Northern Ireland. The British had fallen into the trap of believing that since they so overpowered the Catholic insurgents they could do anything they wanted to contain them. They didn’t believe it mattered what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them. But Goliath could not slay David. The insurgency was never really quelled — not until decades later.

Gladwell uses this example to illustrate what he calls the “principle of legitimacy,” a principle that is essential to maintaining law and order, whether it’s in a war zone or in a classroom. The people who are being asked to obey, he says, must feel like they have a voice, that they’ll be listened to if they speak up. Second, he adds, the law has to be predictable: “There has to be some reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.” In Northern Ireland, the Catholics had no idea what to expect from their British “protectors” from day to day. And third, the authority has to be fair. One group can’t be treated differently from another. How one punishes is as important as the act of punishment. In the case of Gen. Freeland, he was trying to enforce the law without having the legitimacy of enforcing the law. He was the leader of a group that Catholics of Northern Ireland believed was sympathetic to those who had burned down the homes of their friends and relatives the year before. “When the law is applied in the absence of legitimacy, it does not produce obedience,” writes Gladwell. “It produces the opposite. It leads to backlash.”

Gladwell provides a number of other compelling vignettes that demonstrate why and how underdogs come out on top. In addition to the principle of legitimacy, he also explicates a “theory of desirable difficulty,” positing that disadvantages can often be advantages, and that sometimes less is more. He tells us how David Boies’s great successes in law were due to his dyslexia; how Caroline Sacks would have been more successful had she attended a less prestigious university; and how Vivek Ranadive, who had never played basketball, led a team of unskilled 12-year-old girls to a state basketball championship. In each case, Gladwell ties the situation back to David facing Goliath, with the underdog overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and ultimately prevailing.

Though it is debatable how successful Catholics have been in their fight for equality in Northern Ireland, no one can claim that they were defeated. Gladwell’s point is not so much that the Catholics were a victimized minority. Rather, he calls attention to the failure of the British to keep the peace. In so doing, he provides a valuable cautionary tale to those who think they can manage others through threats and force alone. One ignores the principle of legitimacy at one’s peril.



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