Revisionist History

Revisionist History is a podcast by Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell. Currently in its second season, each episode analyzes a historical event or person that Gladwell thinks has been “overlooked or misunderstood.” The aim of the series is to educate. The bonus is that this aim is achieved through an entertaining well-crafted story.

The topics covered aren’t meant to be sensational: “One week, I’m going to talk about a car crash just outside of San Diego. Another week, I’m going to take you back to a secret Pentagon project in Saigon. The tagline of this show? ‘Sometimes, the past deserves a second chance,’” said Gladwell in the opening of the first episode. The importance of re-evaluating these past events, according to Gladwell, is to question whether we understood them in the first attempt.

In the first episode, Gladwell presents the political implications of the artwork Roll Call. Roll Call was painted by Elizabeth Thompson, a woman. During its public reception at the Fine Art Society, attention was given just as much to the artwork as to Thompson’s gender. Women were not welcomed in the art world at the time. When she underwent an election to gain access into the Royal Academy of Arts, an exclusively male society by precedence, Thompson lost by two votes. The Academy later emphasized that membership to the society was to be for “men of fair moral character.” In effect, this was an implicit disparagement of Thompson’s gender.

Following Thompson’s near election, will her trailblazing history of stepping into the old boys’ club of the Royal Academy of Arts improve its accessibility for other women painters? According to Gladwell, not necessarily. Here, he introduces the social psychology term called ‘moral licensing.’

“The idea is that past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic,” Gladwell said in explanation of the term.

Gladwell further explained that the Academy felt entitled to disregard the next generation of women painters trying to gain artistic recognition in the society. The Academy proved that they were progressive by considering Thompson, a woman, into the society. By virtue of moral licensing, this entitled them to perpetuate gender discrimination for future membership.

Apart from the podcast itself, I should first note that Gladwell truly embodies what it means to be a natural-born storyteller. His works cover dense academic theories. In his published works, such as in Outliers, he attempts to explain why hockey players born in the early months of a year are more likely to be successful, or, more generally, how individuals master a craft. When telling these cases, Malcolm’s sentences are crisp and organic. His style effectively transforms a seemingly monotonous case study into a story.

His enticing written style, I think, carries over equally as well in his speaking. He knows how to time his dramatic pauses—just enough so that the listener waits with bated breath, but not too much that the silence drags on awkwardly.

At the time of this article’s publication, the series sits among Apple’s top 50 most popular podcasts. If anything, this series’ popularity seems to suggest that Gladwell is doing something right.