02 March 2022
The phrase tipping point was first used in physics. It refers to the point at which a phenomenon that has been developing in a smooth, straight line suddenly stops, changes direction, or greatly accelerates as a result of feedback. Sociologists, economists, environmentalists, epidemiologists, and others have adopted the term because it accurately describes phenomena in their fields of research too. The coronavirus pandemic has familiarised all of us with calculations that aim to determine the point at which the spread of an infectious virus in society can no longer be controlled by conventional means such as care and prevention.
Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell has postulated that ideas and types of behaviour spread through society like an infectious disease. His book The Tipping Point – How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000) brought the term to the attention of a larger audience. Gladwell wasn’t just interested in how to recognise a trend or how to steer it before it reaches its tipping point; he also wanted to know how to prevent a thing from tipping to the wrong side and how to actively contribute to positive group behaviour.
At what point does migration become a crisis?
Taking this idea and applying it to the current time, we could ask a number of questions: Why do random bits of fake news suddenly become widely accepted as truth? How do people stir up fierce controversy in social media? At what point does migration become a crisis? When do people get tired enough of corruption and tyranny to take to the streets and demand democratic reforms? At what point did a 15-year-old girl striking school in Stockholm turn into a worldwide protest movement? We would like to hear and read more about these types of questions in this magazine. We hope you do too.
Good stories always have something that hangs in the balance, whether they are about crimes, corruption, the environment, democracy, art, revolutions, tragedies or victories. Writers and journalists hunt for these turning points. They want to know when and why a society or a family loses its footing. (Incidentally, Malcolm Gladwell has a wonderful podcast called Revisionist History. Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, the first collector of historical tipping points with his book Decisive Moments in History, would have loved it.)
American political scientist Morton Grodzins was the first person to borrow the idea of a tipping point from physics and use it in sociology. Grodzins examined integration in American residential areas, and the study he released in the late 1950s could hardly be more relevant today. It found that most white families remained in an area as long as the number of black families remained low. As soon as there was “one black family too many”, the remaining white families moved away en masse. He referred to the moment when this “white flight” began as a tipping point.
You can call the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the protests against racism and structural discrimination that followed all around the United States and the world a tipping point for the Black Lives Matter movement that was founded in 2013. The movement condemns the disproportionately frequent and often lethal violence that police inflict on Black people, a phenomenon that has become almost an everyday occurrence in racist societies. George Floyd’s death was therefore not an extraordinary event, but it was outrageous nonetheless. The real scandal is how common that type of violent act is and how little attention it receives. The difference between it and similar cases was only that this one was caught on video and the government responded with so little empathy. It was the “one murder too many”.
So tipping points don’t necessarily need to be spectacular events. They are often the famous last straw that breaks the camel’s back. This shows that the people chronicling current events shouldn’t just focus on the moment when things get out of hand or on the dawn of a new normal, or on the most sensational story. It’s just as important for them to focus on all of the little straws that were placed on the camel’s back before – all those personal stories and fates that go unnoticed day after day. Because each one of those straws is just as significant as the last straw, and we can never know which one of them just might be the last one that pushes things over the edge.
If you can’t fly, run.
Straws can do more than break a camel’s back. It’s also an essential material for making bricks, or at least it used to be. Recall the saying, “You can’t make bricks without straw”, which means that you can’t start a project without the most important materials. For the people and topics in our magazine, the necessary ingredients for bringing about sustainable, positive change include patience, clear goals, and enthusiasm. Persistence and the power of small steps are important components too. After all, it takes a lot of bricks to build something new.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches express this idea far more elegantly. The following lines come from one of his most famous addresses, the one he gave on success in life to the youth at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on 26 October 1967:
If you can’t fly, run.
If you can’t run, walk.
If you can’t walk, crawl,
but by all means, keep moving.
We would like to take this appeal to heart and regularly remind our readers of it too. We are living in unstable times, times that deserve our close attention. Critical moments in time demand a critical public and the courage to help shape the future of liberalism and democracy in Europe. Tipping Point will report on the people who keep their eyes on the ball and don’t give up. Because they are doing the right thing.
By all means, keep moving!
This text is protected by copyright: © Maribel Königer / tippingpoint.net. Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Workers dismantle the Soviet monument to Ukraine-Russia friendship in Kyiv on 26 April 2022, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Genya Savilov / AFP / picturedesk.com