The Slatest

There Are Several Things Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell’s Defense of Masturbating in Front of Co-Workers

Malcolm Gladwell pondering a question while holding a microphone.
Malcolm Gladwell at a 2016 event in New York City’s Central Park. Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Fusion Fest

Earlier this fall, longtime New Yorker legal writer Jeffrey Toobin lost his job at the magazine after co-workers saw him touching his penis in what appeared to be a sexual manner during a video meeting. (The description of the incident in the linked Vice.com story suggests that Toobin may have believed that he had switched to a different video call before exposing himself, but also makes clear that he was aware that the original, professional meeting wasn’t over.) He has also taken a leave of absence from CNN, where he appeared frequently.

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On Tuesday, the New York Times covered Toobin’s story, describing it confusingly as an example of a trend in which high-level figures at Condé Nast, the New Yorker’s parent company, are subject to “criticism of elitism and tardiness around diversity.” (The only other Condé Nast big name whom the piece identifies as having lost a job was Adam Rapoport, the former editor of Bon Appetit. Rapoport, who is white, resigned after a picture of him wearing “brownface” makeup on Halloween was circulated.) Several magazine-world personalities speak up in the piece on Toobin’s behalf, including the biggest magazine name of all, Malcolm Gladwell, whose contribution simply has to be read to be believed:

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Malcolm Gladwell, one of the magazine’s best known contributors, said in an interview: “I read the Condé Nast news release, and I was puzzled because I couldn’t find any intellectual justification for what they were doing. They just assumed he had done something terrible, but never told us what the terrible thing was. And my only feeling—the only way I could explain it—was that Condé Nast had taken an unexpected turn toward traditional Catholic teaching.” (Mr. Gladwell then took out his Bible and read to a reporter an allegory from Genesis 38 in which God strikes down a man for succumbing to the sin of self-gratification.)

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This is a classic example of the late Gladwell style, in which one delivers a dramatic, purportedly paradigm-shifting reexamination of a seemingly clear-cut situation by failing to responsibly convey crucial information that, when once again considered in its proper context, makes clear that the status quo, noncontrarian viewpoint was probably correct all along.

Is the culturally cutting-edge Condé Nast company actually encouraging the repressive values of pre–Vatican II Catholicism by firing Jeffrey Toobin? No, it isn’t! The issue at stake, and I’m sorry, but this is obvious, is not whether Condé Nast should punish employees solely for having masturbated, or whether the company is obligated to publish a detailed justification of its response to a sexual misconduct incident in which a number of its employees could be characterized as victims. (How would Jeffrey Toobin benefit from that, anyway?) The issue at stake is whether Condé Nast employees should be terminated for masturbating during the workday in a way that at best involves taking on significant risk that their co-workers will see them doing so.

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Toobin didn’t get fired because he was unlucky enough to be masturbating when the front wall of his house fell down, in the manner of a Buster Keaton movie, when the CEO of Condé Nast was walking by. He got fired, rather, because he did not take the precautions necessary to prevent his co-workers from seeing that he was masturbating during a meeting at which he knew he was appearing on video. And the case for Condé Nast’s right to maintain a working environment in which no one has to see anyone else touching a penis can be made without appealing to retrograde religious values.

Also, in Genesis 38, God actually kills Onan for spilling his seed after having intercourse with his brother’s widow, Tamar, not for masturbating. In the parlance, Onan “pulled out” because he didn’t want to impregnate Tamar with a child who would be considered his brother’s heir. (Who among us, etc.) (Update, Jan. 5, 2021: Gladwell writes in to say that he did not mean to suggest that Onan masturbated, and was instead “making reference to the traditional Catholic reading of that passage, which is far more focused on the permissibility of the act of masturbation itself,” the idea being that any non-procreative sex act is immoral. He continues: “In my conversation with the Times reporter, I made explicit reference to St. Augustine’s reading of Genesis 38, which informed lay Catholic interpretation for a very long time.” Our apologies for not making this update earlier; we were ignoring work email over the holidays.)

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