A Conflict of Principle

In the ninth episode of his podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell explores the intriguing and contradictory concept of “generous orthodoxy”. It is contradictory in the sense that the words are polar opposites, yet Gladwell uses them together; explaining that to be generous is to be open to change, while to be orthodox is to be committed to tradition. Gladwell begins by describing his upbringing in southern Ontario, specifically in Waterloo county, an area which listeners are told is a central hub for the Mennonite community. Going into greater detail, he expounds upon the general aspects of Mennonite life and outlines the three pillars of the Mennonite faith; Jesus, community, and reconciliation. Of these three anchors, Gladwell says that community is the backbone of Mennonite life; however, it is not the same kind of community we, as outsiders to the Mennonite faith, might understand. While depicting the Mennonite sense of community, Malcolm Gladwell recounts several stories that were told to him by his Mennonite friend, which illustrate the level of dedication the Mennonites hold for their ideology that “we are all in this together, no matter what”.

One upstanding member of the Mennonite society, or rather former member, is a man by the name of Chester Wenger. This 98 year old Mennonite minister was an integral part of the faith, establishing churches and spreading its influence as far as Ethiopia, until he was altogether removed from the Mennonite community. During Gladwell’s interview, Chester Wenger divulges the circumstances leading up to his expulsion from from the community and from his very own church as well. Chester Wenger explains that his son had openly confessed to him that he was gay, and was going to start dating men. Knowing that his decision would create turmoil within his community, Wenger still chose to accept his son’s choice.

As gay marriage in Pennsylvania becomes legal, Chester Wenger officiates the wedding between his son and his boyfriend, an action that defies his strict Mennonite beliefs, while at the same time demonstrates his generosity. The wedding was done privately, but Wenger, as a dutiful and orthodoxical Mennonite pastor, reports his violation to his church. Rather than rallying around him in support, his church failed to uphold the idea of “we are all in this together”, abandoning him and later revoking his pastoral credentials. Malcolm Gladwell uses this example to illuminate the concept of “generous orthodoxy”; Chester Wenger openly displayed his generosity by going against the regimented belief system of the Mennonite church, while also exhibiting his orthodoxy by reporting his own misbehavior. Ultimately, this resulted in the loss of his occupation, role in the community, and his identity.

Another example Gladwell addresses in his podcast is the case of the Princeton graduate school, the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The school is named after former President Woodrow Wilson, who, for a short period, also doubled as the President of Princeton. Recently, there has been outrage demonstrated amongst the minority students who attend Princeton, most noticeably amongst the African American students. Historically, it is known that Woodrow Wilson was a rather vulgar racist, especially against people of African descent. Thus, the fact that a whole graduate school is named after Wilson, bringing honor to such an intolerable bigot, offended many students at Princeton. In fact, thirty-some African American students were so outraged by the name that they staged a sit-in at the President of the University’s office. Wilglory Tanjong, one of the students who was at the sit-in, claims that “[She] owes Princeton nothing. Princeton owes [her] everything.”; a quote that Gladwell feels she will ultimately regret uttering.

While, Gladwell agrees with the students’ emotional ideology for wanting to change the name of the school, he does not however, agree with the means by which they are trying to accomplish it. He states that the students’ approach proves their generosity through their willingness to bring about change, but it lacks orthodoxy. Rather than staging a sit-in at the President’s office, Gladwell suggests that a more advantageous move would have been to withdrawal and stop attending Princeton altogether while at the same time discouraging future Princeton prospects from attending as well, at least until the name has been changed. He states that this type of action demonstrates the students’ generosity by being willing to give up their place at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, yet it also exhibits their orthodoxy by showing respect for the existing authority.

In his conclusion, Gladwell offers his own idea of generous orthodoxy. He admits that practicing generous orthodoxy takes skill, and almost always requires the user to make some sort of sacrifice. Chester Wenger’s sacrifice was giving up his position in the church in order to carry out an action that he deemed was necessary. In the case of Wilglory Tanjong and the other Princeton students, Gladwell recognizes that they possessed a greater capacity for generosity rather than orthodoxy and that is where, in his opinion, that their justifiable protests went astray. Closing his podcast, Gladwell makes the point, that in order to bring about desired change, the ones doing the change must demonstrate reverence for the pre-existing authorities; generous orthodoxy at its core.