Getting it wrong


I went to see Malcolm Gladwell talk the other night. He was speaking about themes he covers in his new book, David and Goliath, a study of ‘underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants’. He talked us brilliantly through a number of diverse stories and anecdotes, each one offering a different angle on the conundrum of what drives certain people to rise up against opposing forces of seemingly far greater strength/numbers/resources. Each of them backed up Gladwell’s theory – in a surprising way – that “as much can be learned or gained from adversity as from advantage…you can succeed because of your shortcomings”.

But for me, the most interesting part of the evening was Gladwell’s look at a key incident in Northern Ireland that exacerbated The Troubles. The Falls Curfew, also known as ‘The Rape of Lower Falls’ took place in July 1970 in an area along the Falls Road in Belfast. The operation started with a weapons search but quickly developed into gun battles between British soldiers and the IRA. Shortly after the violence began, the British commanding officer in Northern Ireland, General Ian Freeland, imposed a curfew, which lasted 36 hours. During the curfew, over 3,000 British Army troops went into the area with tanks and trucks. No-one was allowed in or out of their home and every house in the area was searched from top to bottom. Four civilians were killed by the British Army, at least 75 people were wounded (including 15 soldiers) and 300 republicans were arrested. On the morning of 5th July, an eerie calm came over the area and General Freeland lifted the curfew. He then triumphantly drove groups of politicians and journalists around the silent, deserted streets proudly announcing that he’d stopped the violence and solved all of the problems. At that moment, he believed it was a case of ‘job done’ and the British Army would be returning home shortly. In fact, what he’d actually done was fan the flames of alienation and ignite a violent rebellion which would see the British Army remain in Northern Ireland for a further 30 years with thousands of casualties on all sides.

In a strange way this story reminded me of an incident Russell Brand recounted in his second autobiography. At a Morrissey concert in the Camden Roundhouse, Brand was sitting alongside Jonathan Ross, David Walliams and an attractive young ladyfriend. The gig started but Morrissey wasn’t well and, after a couple of songs, he had to go off stage unable to continue. The crowd got restless and chanted loudly for Morrissey to come back. Brand, Ross and Walliams decided to help smooth out the situation by going onstage to let the audience know what was going on and doing a bit of stand up comedy to cheer everyone up. As you can see from the video above, this didn’t go down well. The crowd turned on them, booing loudly, chanting for them to piss off and throwing stuff. Something hit Walliams in the face and all three of them had to slip off, tails between their legs, utterly humiliated. As Brand tells it in his book, to this day his soul shudders with shame and embarrassment when he recalls the screams of ‘Fuck Off!’ and the thought of his ladyfriend witnessing his complete humiliation.

Both stories reminded me that often we are most wrong at the point at which we mistakenly believe we are most right. Gladwell argued that the British were plagued by a simple error: the belief that their superior resources meant “it did not matter what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them.” Brand, off the back of several successes, thought he could work his magic in front of any crowd. And because self-induced cock-ups like this can be awful, embarrassing, difficult to live down, I think they’re excellent – if extremely sobering – reminders to, as Ice Cube put it, “Check yo self before you wreck yo self”. To try to keep an objective eye on ourselves – especially in our supposed moments of glory – and remember that it’s when confidence tips over into arrogance that disaster strikes.


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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