Lessons from David and Goliath and 12-year-old Basketball Players

Malcolm Gladwell is a great story-teller. His latest piece in the New Yorker, How David Beats Goliath, explores the process through which underdogs defeat giants by changing the rules and employing unconventional tactics. The heroes of the article are 12-year-old girls on a basketball team, coached by TIBCO founder Vivek Ranadivé, who — despite being fairly unskilled basketball players — advanced to the national championships by employing the unconventional strategy of using a full court-press all the time. By changing the way the game was played, the team’s opponents, though often better basketball players, were confused and unable to respond effectively to the unique style of play.

Gladwell brings in a couple other stories, but the underlying point is the same — David topples Goliath when he stops playing by Goliath’s rules. The numbers presented are quite staggering:

The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time…

What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

How might this apply to the pro-life movement? Many pro-choicers like to discount us as religious fanatics, old, white puritanal men who care more about moral rules than about caring for woman. We know this isn’t true, but organizations like ProWomanProLife and Aid To Women provide manifest evidence that the stereotypes and preconceived notions are false. The pro-choice mantra, “my body, my choice,” insists that there is only one life in question, but biology and photographs prove this false. Many pro-choicers try to paint abortion as a women’s rights issue (claiming a monopoly on what’s right for women), but abortion is a human rights issue. Those in favour of embryonic stem cell research pretend that opponents don’t want to find cures, but adult stem cells are an ethical solution. The “death with dignity” movement claims that euthanasia is a compassionate response to suffering, but we know that killing is a different sort of thing than caring.

David didn’t play by Goliath’s rules, and, though we should be able to respond to opposing views, we are not limited to the terms in which other’s seek to frame a debate. We are not limited to discussing the issues in the ways in which opponents seek to define them, but we have the ability to set the record straight and redefine the terms of the debate.

How else might we rethink our strategy to avoid playing into the strengths of those who seek to discredit us?

It’s an entertaining read, at any rate, whether or not there are any concrete lessons to be derived from the article (and whether or not my ramble here makes any sense).

4 Comments on “Lessons from David and Goliath and 12-year-old Basketball Players

  1. For one thing, the argument shouldn’t ultimately be about abortion, but about the equality of the unborn child. It’s a human rights issue, not a morality issue.

  2. Yes, great point. It’s a human rights issue.

    Though, I disagree that it’s not a morality issue… human rights issues are issues of morality. The human rights aspect just shows how ridiculous it is for people to say, “don’t legislate morality!” When it’s a matter of human rights, we legislate morality.

  3. Let me backtrack.

    We’re not here to “impose morality” as in– make everyone walk lockstep on everything we agree with.

    I happen to think tubal ligations are wrong, but I’m not going to mount a campaign against them. That would be “moralizing”.

    I guess I’m not trying to get Parliament to legislate morality so that people can be moral; I’m trying to get them to respect human beings.

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