The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Stubborn Minority

The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Stubborn Minority. By Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

It suffices for an intransigent minority … to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences. …

The minority rule will [also] show us how all it takes is a small number of intolerant virtuous people with skin in the game, in the form of courage, for society to function properly. …

Simple examples:

The Kosher population represents less than three tenths of a percent of the residents of the United States. Yet, it appears that almost all drinks are Kosher. Why? Simply because going full Kosher allows the producer, grocer, restaurant, to not have to distinguish between Kosher and nonkosher for liquids, with special markers, separate aisles, separate inventories, different stocking sub-facilities. …

Or, rephrased in another domain: A disabled person will not use the regular bathroom but a nondisabled person will use the bathroom for disabled people. …

Someone with a peanut allergy will not eat products that touch peanuts but a person without such allergy can eat items without peanut traces in them. Which explains why it is so hard to find peanuts on airplanes and why schools are peanut-free ….

Food choices:

In the United Kingdom, where the (practicing) Muslim population is only three to four percent, a very high percentage of the meat we find is halal. Close to seventy percent of lamb imports from New Zealand are halal. Close to ten percent of the chain Subway carry halal-only stores (meaning no pork), in spite of the high costs from the loss of business of nonpork stores. …

Some fast-food chains, such as McDonalds, thrive, not because they offer a great product, but because they are not vetoed in a certain socio-economic group … When there are few choices, McDonald’s appears to be a safe bet. … I am writing these lines in Milan’s central train station and as offensive as it can be to a visitor from far away, McDonald’s is one of the few restaurants there. Shockingly, one sees Italians there seeking refuge from a risky meal.

Pizza is the same story: it is commonly accepted food and outside a fancy party nobody will be blamed for ordering it. …

Once you have ten percent or more women at a party, you cannot serve only beer. But most men will drink wine. So you only need one set of glasses if you serve only wine …

Lingua franca:

If a meeting is taking place in Germany in the Teutonic-looking conference room of a corporation that is sufficiently international or European, and one of the persons in the room doesn’t speak German, the entire meeting will be run in… English, the brand of inelegant English used in corporations across the world. That way they can equally offend their Teuronic ancestors and the English language.

It all started with the asymmetric rule that those who are nonnative in English know (bad) English, but the reverse (English speakers knowing other languages) is less likely.

French was supposed to be the language of diplomacy as civil servants coming from aristocratic background used it — while their more vulgar compatriots involved in commerce relied on English. In the rivalry between the two languages, English won as commerce grew to dominate modern life; the victory it has nothing to do with the prestige of France or the efforts of their civil servants in promoting their more or less beautiful Latinized and logically spelled language over the orthographically confusing one of trans-Channel meat-pie eaters. …

The most stubborn and intolerant religion wins:

The original Islamic rulers weren’t particularly interested in converting Christians as these provided them with tax revenues … In fact, my ancestors who survived thirteen centuries under Muslim rule saw advantages in not being Muslim: mostly in the avoidance of military conscription. …

The spread of Islam in the Near East where Christianity was heavily entrenched (it was born there) can be attributed to two simple asymmetries. …

First, if a non Muslim man under the rule of Islam marries a Muslim woman, he needs to convert to Islam — and if either parents of a child happens to be Muslim, the child will be Muslim.

Second, becoming Muslim is irreversible, as apostasy is the heaviest crime under the religion, sanctioned by the death penalty.

Under these two asymmetric rules, one can do simple simulations and see how a small Islamic group occupying Christian (Coptic) Egypt can lead, over the centuries, to the Copts becoming a tiny minority. All one needs is a small rate of interfaith marriages.

Likewise, one can see how Judaism doesn’t spread and tends to stay in the minority, as the religion has opposite rules: the mother is required to be Jewish, causing interfaith marriages to leave the community. …

Egypt’s Copts suffered from another problem: the irreversibility of Islamic conversions. Many Copts during Islamic rule converted to Islam when it was merely an administrative procedure, something that helps one land a job or handle a problem that requires Islamic jurisprudence. One does not have to really believe in it since Islam doesn’t conflict markedly with Orthodox Christianity. Little by little a Christian or Jewish family bearing the marrano-style conversion becomes truly converted, as, a couple of generations later, the descendants forget the arrangement of their ancestors.

So all Islam did was out-stubborn Christianity, which itself won thanks to its own stubbornness. For, before Islam, the original spread of Christianity in the Roman empire can be largely seen due to… the blinding intolerance of Christians, their unconditional, aggressive and proselyting recalcitrance. Roman pagans were initially tolerant of Christians, as the tradition was to share gods with other members of the empire. But they wondered why these Nazarenes didn’t want to give and take gods and offer that Jesus fellow to the Roman pantheon in exchange for some other gods. What, our gods aren’t good enough for them? But Christians were intolerant of Roman paganism. The “persecutions” of the Christians had vastly more to do with the intolerance of the Christians for the pantheon and local gods, than the reverse. What we read is history written by the Christian side, not the Greco-Roman one. …

And it was not because the majority was pagan as historians mistakenly think: it was because the Christian side was too unyielding. …

For Islam itself is ending up being taken over (in the Sunni branch) by the purists simply because these were more intolerant than the rest: the Wahhabis, founders of Saudi Arabia, were the ones who destroyed the shrines, and to impose the maximally intolerant rule, in a manner that was later imitated by “ISIS” (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant). Every single accretion of Sunni Islam seems to be there to accommodate the most intolerant of its branches.

Book banning is by stubborn activists:

How do books get banned? Certainly not because they offend the average person — most persons are passive and don’t really care, or don’t care enough to request the banning. It looks like, from past episodes, that all it takes is a few (motivated) activists for the banning of some books, or the black-listing of some people.

The great philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell lost his job at the City University of New York owing to a letter by an angry — and stubborn — mother who did not wish to have her daughter in the same room as the fellow with dissolute lifestyle and unruly ideas. …

Moral values of the stubborn:

Let us conjecture that the formation of moral values in society doesn’t come from the evolution of the consensus. No, it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtue on others precisely because of that intolerance. The same can apply to civil rights. …

Morality is more likely to be something enforced by a minority. …

Why the world cannot afford to tolerate the intolerant:

I was at a large multi-table dinner party, the kind of situation where you have to choose between the vegetarian risotto and the non-vegetarian option when I noticed that my neighbor had his food catered (including silverware) on a tray reminiscent of airplane fare. The dishes were sealed with aluminum foil. He was evidently ultra-Kosher. It did not bother him to be seated with prosciutto eaters who, in addition, mix butter and meat in the same dishes. He just wanted to be left alone to follow his own preferences.

For Jews and Muslim minorities such as Shiites, Sufis, and associated religions such as Druze and Alawis, the aim is for people to leave them alone so they can satisfy their own dietary preferences — largely, with historical exceptions here and there.

But had my neighbor been a Sunni Salafi, he would have required the entire room to be eating Halal. Perhaps the entire building. Perhaps the entire town. Hopefully the entire country. Hopefully the entire planet. …

As I am writing these lines, people are disputing whether the freedom of the enlightened West can be undermined by the intrusive policies that would be needed to fight fundamentalists. … People are disputing whether the freedom of the enlightened West can be undermined by the intrusive policies that would be needed to fight Salafi fundamentalists.

Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, as we saw, it will eventually destroy our world.

So, we need to be more than intolerant with some intolerant minorities. It is not permissible to use “American values” or “Western principles” in treating intolerant Salafism (which denies other peoples’ right to have their own religion). The West is currently in the process of committing suicide.

Conclusion:

This large payoff from stubborn courage is not just in the military. The entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people.

Society doesn’t evolve by consensus, voting, majority, committees, verbose meeting, academic conferences, and polling; only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle. All one needs is an asymmetric rule somewhere. And asymmetry is present in about everything.

The stubborn rule the world.