Saturday, November 15, 2014

Everyone Loves an Underdog

Everyone loves an underdog, right? Well, maybe not if you're the favourite. But otherwise, we like to root for the little guy going up against the corporate machine, the rebel sticking up two fingers at the forces of the all-powerful state, the woman raising her metaphorical fists against the chauvinistic establishment. 

But what exactly is an 'underdog'? The dictionary will tell us that he or she is a person who is expected to lose in a conflict or contest; or a victim of social or political injustice. Someone, in other words, against whom the cards are stacked.

The classic 'top dog' vs. 'underdog' contest from antiquity is David vs. Goliath. The shepherd boy vs. the gigantic armoured warrior. David was the underdog, yes? Well, no.

In Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating treatise on underdogs and misfits, 'David & Goliath', the ever-intriguing Mr. Gladwell challenges some common assumptions - and in so doing, produces a provocative and inspirational piece of work.

But first, that famous duel in the valley of Elah. To understand why actually Goliath was the underdog, we have to know a little about ancient armies. They contained three types of combatants: cavalry, infantry, and projectile warriors - artillery, in modern parlance. The projectile warriors included 'slingers', who had a leather pouch attached on two sides by a strand of rope. The slinger would put a lead ball or rock into the pouch, swing it, then release with devastating force. The Romans even had a special set of tongs to remove rocks and balls that had become embedded in some poor soldier's body by a sling.

So there is Goliath, a heavy infantryman, weighed down by over a hundred pounds of armour, expecting a battle at close quarters (which he must surely win). Enter David who, sans armour, can run rings around the giant from a safe distance until one of his slingshots hits his opponent's vulnerable head. And so it proves. David has changed the rules of single combat.

"Goliath had as much chance against David," writes the historian Robert Dohrenwend, "as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol." FYI, a typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five metres would have the stopping power equivalent to a fair-size modern handgun - a velocity of around thirty-four metres per second.

So... underdogs. Want to rethink your definitions?

Gladwell's book is packed with interesting examples of how strengths can beget weaknesses, and vice versa - and some canny observations on the limits of power.

It is well worth an afternoon of anyone's time.

Anyone for single combat?


  1. Well, that's settled! My day is made! :-)

    1. Well, if I've made your day, BR, then my own day has not been entirely wasted ;)

  2. "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." It works on all battlefronts, not just military. I feel that David read his Sun Tzu.

    1. Indeed. The Art of War with Rocks, eh, Tony? Or perhaps, The Art of War that Rocks :)

  3. It's said by some historians that Napoleon most probably had a copy. General Ngo Nguyen Giap made no secret of it. It also helps scoring ladies; they say. I shall purchase this book, John it looks good. I thank you for that. Cheers, lad.

  4. You're welcome, Tony. It's a pity we don't live nearer - you could have borrowed my copy :)