Tipping Point

Today, I’d like to riff on a comment made by Valtin in Buhdy’s essay this week about fear:

All fears are conquered, ultimately, by facing them, and by accepting the fear that is felt, and acting anyway.

The trick is to face the fear. For that, one needs social support. This is how soldiers go into battle: solidarity with their comrades, and with leadership they believe in.

The same will be true for the legions who must be mobilized to change things. Once people perceive that others are willing to take the risk, things can begin to move quickly.

It is my assessment that the political elites, both Democratic and Republican, are sitting on a social volcano.

And when it blows…

(emphasis mine)

His statement reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference . I’m not one to give total credence to any one theory as the sole explanation for human behavior, least of all social behavior. But I think Gladwell has some interesting ideas that we might explore a bit in our thinking about how large-scale change happens.

By way of background, Gladwell says the idea of the tipping point came from his investigation of the AIDS epidemic:

The word “Tipping Point”, for example, comes from the world of epidemiology. It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards.

Tipping points then, are the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable. What Gladwell does then, is help “unpack” the process by which change becomes unstoppable.

Robert Paterson has a nice summary of The Tipping Point on his blog. Here’s one of the things he says:

There are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. With an epidemic, a tiny majority of the people do the work.

So how is it that Gladwell defines these “special people?” He puts them into three categories that he calls “The Law of the Few”:

1. Connectors are the people who “link us up with the world … people with a special gift for bringing the world together.” (page 38)

2. Mavens are “information specialists”, or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.” (page 19) They accumulate knowledge and know how to share it with others.

3. Salesmen are “persuaders”, charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills.

Gladwell also spends time talking about the importance of the message, which he calls the “stickiness factor,” and the power of context. But the process of the spread of epidemics involves:

1. Clear examples of contagious behavior.

2. Little changes that make big effects.

3. In order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.

All of this makes me think we’re on to something here with our talk about ripples. And I know we could all probably identify the connectors, mavens, and sales(wo)men among us. So I agree with Valtin…it won’t be too long before this baby blows!!!


Skip to comment form

  1. Sorry, no youtube today. My internet connections are definitely funky this morning.

    But Happy Father’s Day to all you great Dads out there!!!

    • Robyn on June 15, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    In order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.

    I seem to have seen this

    We live in an occupied country, misunderstood;

    justice will take us millions of intricate moves.

    –William Stafford, from Thinking for Berky

    and this

    Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it.

    –Mahatma Gandhi


    • kj on June 15, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    out the door, NL.  just wanted to say “thanks” for the Sunday Morning essay.  🙂

  2. And at the risk of being repetitive because I post it so often since Edger introduced me to it, here’s the song that I wanted to post with this essay.

    • robodd on June 15, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    to wit:

    The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in a certain location. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different. Of course the butterfly cannot literally cause a tornado. The kinetic energy in a tornado is enormously larger than the energy in the turbulence of a butterfly. The kinetic energy of a tornado is ultimately provided by the sun and the butterfly can only influence certain details of weather events in a chaotic manner.

    So this is sometimes presented as esoteric behavior, but can be exhibited by very simple systems: for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in initial position.

    Get busy, Butterflies.


  3. And a good reminder!

    I am in an impatient phase, and feel like beating people over the head with clubs to get them to wake up…..even though it has been amply demonstrated that sharp blows to the head with blunt objects don’t seem to work to get people to wake up.

    But I think a lot of that is just from feeling the all the potential for change right now…and wanting to tap into it and channel it and spread it over the land, lol.

    Perseverance furthers!! !

  4. we have hit the tipping point, the Bushies pushed it by going too far. Our job it would seem to me is to help this collective rejection not be motivated by fear to counteract the wall of fear and propaganda that the status quo is going to ‘catapult’ at us because they are fully aware of fact they are losing their grip. Fear and crisis is what enables most authoritarian societies to gain power and maintain it.

    Contagious behavior seems evident in my community and probably most if Bushes poll numbers are any indication. What I’m finding however is a lot of pessimism about the ability of  our society and government to change. The task as I see it is to somehow remind people that they actually do have power.  Leaving the comfort zone of feeling ‘ Nothing I can do’ is hard for a lot.

    To pump a pol or the government as a savior or one who can ‘fix’ everything only adds to this pessimism. One of the reasons I like Obama isn’t because I think he can fix it, I think he has the ability to reconnect people with their own power, the bottom up concepts of democracy. while campaigning for him the most resistance I got to his candidacy was not distrust but fear about our society/ culture being incapable of accepting the responsibility and work that comes with change. Better the devil you know. We can individually by helping other to overcome this.

    “If he gets up, we’ll all get up, it’ll be anarchy…” John Bender  The Breakfast Club          

  5. theme that also emerges from your discussion is a  step away from the whole “great men of history” theme of change in which it is largely mediated by a patriarchal or elite figure who acts on the presumed best interest of others and change is a linear thing rather than a spider web/interactive thing.

    Small movements presume that people can and should try to control their destinies and that they do not in fact have to wait for a “Great White Father” to rescue them from themselves.

    Oops…. nothing personal there boss :)…. Some “great white fathers” can be democratically and progressively  (is that a word ?) inclined as well!

  6. but if you want some inspiration from folks who are definitely contributing to the tipping point, here’s the latest installment from This Brave Nation featuring Ava Lowery and Anthony Romero.

    It’s hard to call someone younger than 18 years old a “legend,” but Ava Lowery is just that in progressive circles. She created a website at fourteen where she made videos railing against the war. Today, her site, peacetakescourage.com, gets nearly two million hits per month. And she doesn’t live in a liberal hotbed like San Francisco or New York, rather in a small town in Alabama. Anthony Romero is the son of a proud Puerto Rican who worked hard to support his family while waiting tables. Anthony grew up to not only be the first in his family to go to college, but to become the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and someone we thought Ava should have on her cell phone speed dial. Just in case. Together they discuss the legal quagmire the country has become since 9/11, among other quagmires created by George W. Bush and his Administration.

Comments have been disabled.