“Momentary Autism” & Knowing Who You Are

Fast Company has a piece about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book. I’ve read Tipping Point, but haven’t gotten Blink yet. Here’s how their article starts:

“I really like that term ‘momentary autism,’ ” a woman says softly into the mike. She is in the back of the Times Square Studios speaking to a room of some 200 people, and more important, Malcolm Gladwell, who’s standing solo onstage. It’s the second day of the fifth annual New Yorker Festival, and Gladwell has just finished a detailed reprise of the seven seconds that led to the infamous 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo. Minutes before, every eye in the room was locked on him as he unspooled the nanodecisions that misled four New York cops into thinking the innocent Guinean immigrant was an armed criminal, resulting in 41 shots, 19 to the chest.

As the woman repeats the phrase to the crowd, you can hear her digesting it as if it has just become a part of her. It is a term Gladwell introduced to the group only moments earlier when describing what happens when our ability to read people’s intentions is paralyzed in high-stress situations. Cocking his hands back in a gunlike position, he had explained in a tone that was part sociologist, part Shakespearean actor, how the cops misread a “terrified” black man for a “terrifying” black man. “They didn’t correctly understand his intentions in that moment, and as a result they completely misinterpreted what that social situation was all about,” he said. “I call this kind of failure ‘momentary autism.’ ” It’s only one of many neatly packaged catchphrases Gladwell sprinkles throughout his new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown, January 2005).

I want to focus on, “how the cops misread a ‘terrified’ black man for a ‘terrifying’ black man.” Having not read Blinkyet, I don’t know if Gladwell deals with this issue or not, but if all we see in this situation is a case of cops misreading a situation – of cops misreading the intentions of a man, then we’re missing an important part of situational awareness. Every situation we encounter is not just something “out there.” If we are there we are part of the situation. In this particular case, not only was Mr. Diallo a “terrified black man” rather than a “terrifying black man,” but the cops themselves turned out to be “terrified armed men” who became, through their lack of situational awareness, “terrifying armed men.”

Terror – perhaps it’s better to speak of “fear” – mixes horribly with guns. I’ve read too many stories of people shooting their friends and loved ones because in the moment (“Blink” as Gladwell would say) they interpreted the other as a threat. I’m glad I’m not a cop. I can’t imagine daily going into situation where you are afraid for your life and having to make split second decisions on whether to shoot someone. I can understand the need to project the image of “tough, armed, authority figure.” But this seems to be a dangerous identity to bear, dangerous not only for people like Mr. Diallo, but for the police themselves.

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