x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Power of persuasion: Tina Rosenberg's Join the Club

In Join the Club, Tina Rosenberg attempts to offer a comprehensive analysis of peer pressure but is it all just Gladwell lite?

Tina Rosenberg's brilliant, infuriating, all-consuming first two books were heavy presences: having begun reading them, readers were trapped in their airless worlds of disorder, political strife, and brutality until the very last page, and for some time after. Latin America under the grip of the military dictators, Eastern Europe emerging from under the thumb of Communism; Rosenberg's books Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America and The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism were heroic in their endeavour to record the history of societies given over to madness.

Rosenberg was a reporter and an oracle of memory, thrusting the vision of horror - prisoners dropped into the ocean from helicopters, children recruited by the secret police to inform on their parents - into our sight and demanding our recognition of the excesses of ideological rigidity run amok. Rosenberg received a MacArthur fellowship for her work, and The Haunted Land deservedly won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

After a 15-year gap, Rosenberg is back with her third book, having swapped out her reporter's fedora for something that might better accommodate a Malcolm Gladwell-style Afro. In a sharp turnabout from her earlier works, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World is pop sociology in the manner of The Tipping Point, puzzling over the question of how to mobilise the innate human tendency to value - and fear - the opinion of friends and acquaintances in order to effect change. Still moved by the fundamental question of how to right societies that have gone incontrovertibly wrong, Rosenberg twists the notion of "peer pressure" inside out, transforming a concept traditionally associated with conformity into an effect with the potential to yank societies toward the light. Part hidden history, part how-to manual, Join the Club is an inelegant hybrid of styles that nonetheless highlights Rosenberg's strongest suit: as a reporter and journalist.

Structured as a series of uplifting anecdotes about using groupthink, ju-jitsu-style, to overcome groupthink, Rosenberg deftly cherry-picks stories from around the world about the power of peer persuasion. Rosenberg offers a diverse array of examples of the "social cure", demonstrating the power of peer pressure to encourage societal and behavioural change. Teenagers in South Africa adopt safe-sex habits, American adolescent smoking drops to record lows, Dalit women in India assert their rights in the face of widely held social bias, and an obscure Serbian student group plays a major part in overthrowing the despotic regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The factor uniting these disparate events? Effectively manipulated peer pressure. (Rosenberg does her level best to spread the wealth, but the bulk of her stories - as one might expect in a book devoted to peer pressure - revolve around young people.)

Join the Club begins from the premise that people, and societies, often act in flagrantly illogical fashion, engaging in risky or counterproductive behaviour and proving maddeningly unable to change - often for structural or societal reasons. "Think for a moment about a cigarette," Rosenberg tells us, "an item that will be a significant lifelong expense, is designed to enslave you with its addictive power, and will likely kill you. It doesn't even get you high. Almost no one enjoys that first cigarette - you have to get used to it. It would be difficult to design a less attractive product. Yet 1.3 billion people - one-fifth of all the humans on the planet - smoke. Obviously, Big Tobacco's marketing force knows what it is doing." People are constantly being manipulated into engaging in behaviour that does not serve their interests, so why can't they be manipulated into improving their lot?

Adolescents the world over prefer to be flattered, not frightened. Rosenberg notes that the ceaseless public-health warnings about HIV infection from unprotected sex, or lung cancer from smoking, are not half as effective as being told they are much too smart to be manipulated by corporations, or predatory older men. The outlandish, daring "truth!" series of advertisements, in which savvy teenagers play Jackass-style pranks on tobacco companies, placed rebellion firmly on the anti-smoking side of the ledger. Refraining from smoking could be cooler than lighting up. "We re-triangulated the argument," observed Paul Keye, who had created the first truly successful anti-smoking campaign, in California. "It has always been parents vs children, teachers vs students, healthy vs risky. Suddenly, by putting tobacco companies out in the sunlight, it was tobacco companies vs the rest of us."

Teenagers mistakenly believed the "truth!" ads were created and paid for by other teenagers, not the government agency that had in fact footed the bill. The motto of a British organisation reaching out to disaffected, potentially extremist Muslim youth - "for you, from people like you" - could be extended to any of the groups profiled by Rosenberg, which make a complex or shopworn message more alluring by hand-selecting the messengers for maximal effect.

As it goes with cigarettes, so with everything else. At its core, Join the Club is an argument for the conjoining of cutting-edge marketing strategy with progressive ideals, invigorating drab political advocacy with Madison Avenue savvy. Neither as focused, or as moving, as her earlier books, Join the Club is Rosenberg's ventriloquistic play for the Gladwellian mainstream, turning a reporter into an amateur trendspotter.

Rosenberg is at her strongest when sticking with political reporting, as in her analysis of the astoundingly effective antics of the Milosevic-era Serbian student group Otpor. The group, whose name means "resistance," was modelled on the country's Second World War-era partisans, and yet their efforts often bore a closer resemblance to a Dada-inflected community theatre troupe than a political organisation. A team of Otpor members pretended to lug dozens of boxes of papers into their new headquarters. When the authorities arrested them, they discovered that the boxes were empty. Activists rolled a barrel painted with Milosevic's face down the street, charging people a fee to bash it with an iron bar. "In a sense," notes Rosenberg, "Otpor was one giant dilemma action: it forced Milosevic either to reveal his brutality by repressing it or to expand the scope of liberties in Serbia."

Armed with a playful spirit and an infectious desire for change, Otpor fanned the flames of disaffection with Milosevic's regime, transforming a moribund movement into a club that everyone wanted to join. It was a true rebellion of cool, in which supporting the status quo became dreadfully unhip. "If a policeman comes to someone's high school and takes him out of class, the next morning all the girls want his phone number and our office is mobbed," noted a veteran Otpor activist.

Rosenberg is a savvy and dogged reporter, and one can feel her digging beneath the surface of these uplifting stories. It is only when she proceeds from classification to prescription, offering potential ways in which the social cure might ease the threat of societal ills like Islamist terrorism and endemic corruption, that Join the Club falters. Arguing that the social cure is a flexible tool, capable of solving a dazzling variety of problems, she also indicates its limited suitability for the wealthy West.

"The social cure works best when the issue is of such overwhelming importance that people will put in a great deal of time - a very high bar in places where the norm is to solve problems by writing a check instead of going to meetings." In the West, we are no longer actors, but consumers, and we register our desire for change with our credit cards. We are cajoled to spend differently, or manipulated by the coded messages contained in our electric bills to use less energy. But is this truly what Rosenberg has in mind with the social cure? Having promised revolution, Rosenberg ends up delivering a vision of transformation that (at least for her mostly American readers) may feel less than transforming.

For all of Join the Club's notable strengths, its very existence begs the question: just why is Rosenberg, of all people, writing this book? Perhaps another, even more insidious form of peer pressure has convinced her that this Gladwellesque attempt at blinking her way to outlier success is her destiny - or her meal ticket. As good as Join the Club is (and it is, at its best, very good) one suspects that Rosenberg knows, deep down, that this just isn't her.

 

Saul Austerlitz's work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe.