Tipping Point within a Tipping Point within a Tipping Point

Right now in 2020, there are three epidemics co-existing in the United States.

In the poignant non-fiction The Tipping Point written by Malcom Gladwell, you can understand how epidemics ignite through “Tipping Points”: The point at which a series of small changes become significant enough to cause a larger, more important change.

The first was Coronavirus, which swept across the world in December and reached mainstream media by March of 2020. The entire world quickly went on hold.

But more important than the cause of COVID-19, is the result of COVID-19.

By isolating us in our homes for a long period of time, by instilling fear in us, and with unemployment levels sky rocketing — it has caused a social and political climate in the U.S where people feel unrest. 

This has given way for a second epidemic, a second Tipping Point. It has fueled and facilitated mass protests never before seen. It has given the Black Lives Matter movement the ability for people, like never before, to fill the streets and protest against racial police brutality.

This response was simply not possible at protests like in Ferguson, Missouri that erupted in August of 2014 after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, when the BLM movement was still in its infancy.

This movement has gotten so much traction across the U.S that it has spilled over into other countries like the U.K.

This Tipping Point was only made possible due to the first Tipping Point: Coronavirus.

Thus, one ignited another.

It also gave rise for a third epidemic that we as a country will continue to see, which is the alt-right’s response to the BLM protests.

These Tipping Points are all correlated. You could never have one without the other.

You could say that it’s a Tipping Point within a Tipping Point within a Tipping Point.

Another strong reason for the ability of these Tipping Points to co-exist comes down to the media, which thrives on sensationalism. The media cannot help themselves but to exploit individual cases of vigilantism/anarchism/terrorism, such as Kyle Rittenhouse, to help line their dwindling pockets and feed the 24-hour news cycle.

The increased cognitive dissonance in society and preference to divulge in news through echo chambers has finally reached its bubbling point. Caused by our media, it has further allowed us to become radicalized as well as desensitized, thus permitting a violent epidemic.

By exploiting 17-year-old Rittenhouse and his perceived obligation to “protect and serve” in response to the protests, it only further heightens tensions. This is due to the perceived threat towards the police, that echoes through city avenues as protesters chant “Defund the police”. This perceived threat would imply a perceived absence of police.

Rittenhouse, thus, assumed the role that he believed was now left void. An immature, impassioned, violent mistake that will now cost him his freedom. 

“Mama, just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead
Mama, life had just begun
But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away”

-Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”

The idea of violence as a contagion is eloquently described in Gladwell’s novel.

He also points at the idea that we are all permeable to outside influence. Is anyone truly all good or all evil? Or is it dependent on things outside our control? Is anything really black or white?

“How much influence does immediate environment have on the way people behave?” Gladwell wrote.

A lot Gladwell implies, by using the example of the Stanford University mock prison experiment in the early 1970s led by Philip Zimbardo, where he divided sound-minded individuals into two groups, guards and prisoners, to examine their behavioral changes to the new environment.

When given the authoritative role of prison guards, seemingly level-headed men turned sadistic with power. When given the role of prisoner, seemingly level-headed men turned rebellious.

“What we were unprepared for was the intensity of the change and the speed at which it happened,” Zimbardo recalled of the experiment.

Gladwell said that “behavior is a function of social context”. Well, what context does our country’s current unrest have on the behaviors of alt-left and alt-right extremists?

So now, what we are seeing in this nation is the increased “anarchy” of BLM protesters, in response to police brutality against minorities, especially Black men. And in turn, people like Kyle Rittenhouse will further inspire more to feel obligated to “protect their country”.

And again, in turn, we will continue to see a “vigilante-type” response from the alt-right.

Now what we are seeing is blurred lines of whom is a vigilante and whom is an anarchist. So who is the anarchist and who is the vigilante? Can the lines even be clearly drawn anymore? Our nation has shifted away from living in the gray area. We are now living in a black and white horror movie where no one sees the other’s side.

Now what we are seeing is two separate realities, the alt-left and the alt-right.

Social contagiousness has made our country ill. It is as pervasive as the contagiousness of suicide and school shooting epidemics, which Gladwell also discusses in his book:

“The people who die in highly publicized suicides — whose death gives others “permission” to die — serve as the Tipping Points in suicide epidemics… Thus as suicide grows more frequent in these communities the idea itself acquires a certain familiarity if not fascination…and the lethality of the act seems trivialized”.

We will see more and more of this battle of two opposing forces as time goes on, potentially as we near the upcoming election. It is contagious as long as the media and politicians permit it.

Since there is no end in sight for any of these three epidemics, the level of hopelessness has burdened Americans to “pick a side”.

  1. Does a mask work? Is it all a conspiracy?
  2. Is police brutality as rampant and widespread as the media reports or is BLM a deep-funded attempt by George Soros to bring Marshall law and communism to America?
  3. Are buildings collapsing in flames and is civilization at a brink of collapse or are the alt-right only looking at isolated cases like in Portland and Kenosha?

These trends start slow which is why they are so insidious. But they can also happen very quickly right under our nose. Kind of like the Australian bush fires that sweep the forest floor. 

From an aerial view you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly where it starts, because it isn’t as obvious as wildfires that burn in trees. They are insidious in their nature because they can still cause long term damage as well as ignite into full blown wild fires.

These seasonal fires purpose is to clean the forest floor of fallen leaves and residue from the previous season. Trying to burn all this “underneath stuff” is very similar to how the alt-left and alt-right feel; they both feel that they are cleaning the forest floor, i.e the “bad” people out; that they are doing the seasonal work that needs to be done to help this forest, i.e our country, thrive again. 

But this country has always had violence at the core of its history which is why I think this problem will continue to happen again and again long after all of us are gone. This is excellently depicted by the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, which I have been listening to a lot this summer. 

See, the fire has always been burning in this country. In fact, across the whole world since the beginning of human kind’s existence. Violence is a necessary evil for both humans and all living things.

Though it started in an inconsequential way the results are unfathomable and intrinsically connected. 

The polarization of the media only further amplifies the urgency that both the alt-left and alt-right feel to do something about “it”; each having a different “it” that they are worried about.

Many Americans feel that police brutality is escalating in this country and has been apart of the fabric of this nation since the slave patrols in the 1700s.

On the flip side, others feel that the constant rioting and looting not only dilutes the true message of BLM, but also shows that the BLM protest may be some cover for a larger event at hand, like an attempt to shift the U.S into a communist nation.

I believe that the Cold War never really went away. The fear of communism has taken hold of our country again. In fact, it probably never went away, it has been spreading on the forest floor of our country since the end of the first Cold War in 1991. 

It has now fully ignited due to the Tipping Point of Coronavirus, or perhaps predates that to the epidemic of distrust in President Donald J. Trump due to Russia’s meddling in our election (potentially the first Tipping Point to all of this madness).

It has ignited into a blazing hot wildfire that is sweeping our nation. 

I don’t know what the answer is to end this, but Gladwell shows us that it is small, subtle changes that can make or break a Tipping Point. 

A great example of how small changes can create large outcomes can be seen in the example of the way NYC ended the crime wave in the 1980s. Gladwell divulges in The Broken Window Theory, created by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling.

The two criminologists argued that: 

“Crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left un-repaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread… sending a signal that anything goes”.

So to end the most violent crimes in NYC, they started small by cleaning graffiti. But how could cleaning graffiti end murder and armed robbery? 

“An epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment,” Gladswell wrote. 

“Worrying about graffiti at a time when the entire system was close to collapse seems as pointless as scrubbing the decks of the Titanic as it headed towards the icebergs,” David Gunn, the subway director in charge of rebuilding the subway system at the time, said. “The graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system”.

Another reason this novel is so prevalent to what is happening in our society today is because it highlighted “The Bystander Effect”, which was studied after 28-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was murdered in Queens in 1964 in front of 38 witnesses. Despite the large crowd, no one called the police. Everyone assumed someone else would. 

This phenomenon was quickly studied by two psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley, that same year. These experiments proved that while in the presence of others, we are all less inclined to help.

Pair that with the outcries for defunding the police and people worry that they will no longer have the person, that is responsible for taking care of the problem, taking care of the problem.

When the NYPD disbanded its anti-crime unit July 4th weekend, crime erupted. 

Gunshot injuries soared, with a 238 percent increase compared to the same time period in 2019. It was the bloodiest time period seen in New York City since 1996, which is around the same time that the crime wave was finally ceasing.

Across our nation today, we are seeing something very similar to how crime erupted in NYC in the 70s and 80s. 

Something as simple as graffiti permitted misbehavior.

Now, in 2020, the increased force by police has permitted more violence.

The same way police brutality permitted riots, arson and looting.

The same way riots, arson and looting permitted Kyle Rittenhouse to murder two protestors and injure another.

A Tipping Point within a Tipping Point within a Tipping Point.

When you assume someone else will do it for you; one of the many others in our country, like the 38 other people that watched Kitty get murdered; nothing gets done.

But when the people who are supposed to take care of it — the police — are no longer trusted, the alt-left take it upon themselves to solve the problem through rioting, looting and violence.

The alt-right perceive that police are leaving autonomous zones alone, like in Portland, so they swoop in to “take care of the problem”.

Now we have two sides fighting a battle without understanding the problem in its entirety. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum: Black and White.

You cannot have one issue without having the other first — a Tipping Point within a Tipping Point within a Tipping Point. 

We didn’t start the fire. But who did? Or was it always here, as an undeniable reality of Earth and mankind? Can we ever truly put it out?

Katherine Hoey

Stony Brook University journalism student. I’ve always felt a drive to try to change the world and what better way to be apart of the historical conversation of our time than through journalism.