Most people would believe that we are shaped and defined by our values and moral character. However, Malcolm Gladwell argues, in the chapter “The Power of Context, Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime”, that “the features of our immediate social and physical world, the streets we walk down, the people we encounter – play a huge role in shaping who we are and how we act” (160). Gladwell points out that people are shaped by their “external environment” (160).
Gladwerll’s theory, the importance of immediate physical environments, can also be found in Azar Nafisi’s passage, Reading Lolita in Tehran, showing us how she created an outlet for herself and a selected number of former students to study the works of literature in an extremely difficult environment. Both "The Power of Context" and "Reading Lolita in Tehran" emphasize the role that physical place plays in human behavior, however, how does the "immediate physical and social world" (165) affect the behavior of the women in Nafisi’s reading group?
Throughout The Power of Context, Malcolm Gladwell describes the effects that the certain environments cause. Gladwell says that, “…our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances” and so that people are highly sensitive to their environments and behave accordingly (160). To illustrate the power of context, Gladwell takes on the strangely rapid decline in violent crime rates that occurred in the 1990s in New York City.
Although Gladwell acknowledges that a wide variety of complex factors and variables likely played a role in sparking the decline, he argues convincingly that it was a few small but influential changes in the environment of the city that allowed these factors to tip into a major reduction in crime. For instance, “Children are powerfully shaped by their external environment … the features of our immediate social and physical world, the streets we walk down, the people we encounter – play a huge role in shaping who we are and how we act”(165).
This can support Gladwell’s claim because it shows the direct effect that a person’s environment has during his growth period. Gladwell provides an account of the steps leading to the recovery of the city, supporting his general theory that the environment exerts greater influence over a person’s mentality and actions than previously realized, as it behaves as a mechanism that triggers abnormal emotions and personalities. Through Gladwell’s lens, the surroundings of Azar Nafisi help to shape her identity clearly.
Modern day Iran is a example of the “certain kinds of environments” (160) that Gladwell mentions in his text because the government had a high restriction of right in exploring in literature. In Azar Nafisi’s life, her environment was the controlling factor that led her to make drastic changes in a world in which she felt trapped. As Nafisi's group changed their context-- from the streets of Tehran, racked with the eyes of the regime, to the private world of Nafisi's living room-- their behavior changed greatly and arguably even their character.
In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi writes, “That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression. What a wonderland it was! Sitting around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers, we moved in and out of the novels we read. Looking back, I am amazed at how much we learned without even noticing it. We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction “(252).
This is an exact evidence to explain how the behavior of the women in Nafisi's reading group affected by their "immediate physical and social world" (165), mentioned by Gladwell. Duo to the limitation of Iranian government, Nafisi came up with the idea of creating an outlet for herself and a selected number of former students to study the works of literature that were banned by the government. “She was coerced into doing so because “an absurd fictionality ruled [their] lives. We tried to live in the open spaces, in the chinks created between that room . . . and the censor’s world of witches and goblins outside” (264).
The physical world in which Nafisi lives caused her personal revolution that was against the federal government. Nafisi and her reading group’s changes, as supported by Gladwell’s theory, highlights the influence of the physical and social environment. Otherwise, if Nafisi did not live in such a strict situation, she might not have the brave or the idea of founding a reading group and explored the inner herself. A reverse of Gladwell's Power of Context seems to take place in Tehran, and happened on Nafisi, where the lack of presence in the context leads individuals to act.
It is easy to find some connections between “the Power of Context” and Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the Gladwell’s theory can fit part of what happened of Nafisi’s life because the changes in these women is still a result of the environment, however, it is only a partial fit. Recall what Gladwell says, “the impetus to engage in a certain kind of behavior is not coming from a certain kind of person but from a feature of the environment” (155). But Nafisi is exactly the certain kind of person who has an academic background, thinking about her personal life and value and beginning change her life.
At this point, we can not ignore the influence of the environment she was living, but the environment is not only the reason leading her behavior. “There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom” (264). Here, not the "immediate physical and social world" (165) affecting the behavior, the group of women wanted to create their own small dream world.
Author Malcolm Gladwell describes the significance that an individual’s environment has on his/her overall character development. Through his theory we can understand the meaning of Nafisi’s group behavior. Though the repressive and arrogant Iranian government disregarded their citizen’s rights to freedom, they inadvertently gave Nafisi the power and strength to revolt against their demands, we cannot say that Without the influence of her environment, Nafisi’s life would be entirely different, because the women’s behavior was affected by the immediate physical and social world, but not only the result of the environment.