The power of intolerant minorities

Item the first:

Insty linked an article called All The Lovely People by a blogger who was new to me. In a nutshell, it describes the situation in various school, nonprofit, and corporate boards — populated by nice, ‘clubbable’ [i.e., whom you want to admit to your club] people with vaguely middle-of-the-road worldviews, who allow their organizations to be hijacked by a few fanatic radicals. Nobody would stand up to the latter, lest they be known as “intolerant” or “not nice”.

[This is actually one situation where being ‘on the spectrum’ can be an asset — aspies typically don’t care much about being considered nice, while they often have a very well-developed sense of right and wrong.]

Item the second:

During a lecture (in Hebrew) on Islamism in Israel, Dr. Mordechai Kedar — a professor of Arabic who spent 25 years as a senior military intelligence analyst — was asked whether Israeli Muslims are violent.

“Oh no, not at all,” he immediately responded. “The vast, vast majority are peaceful. The trouble is that whenever, wherever you have a peaceful majority and a violent minority, the violent minority will end up setting the public agenda.”

Both are actually special cases of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as “The Most Intolerant Wins” — also the title of a chapter [freely available on Medium] in his book “Skin in the Game”.

It suffices for an intransigent minority –a certain type of intransigent minorities –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. Further, an optical illusion comes with the dominance of the minority: a naive observer would be under the impression that the choices and preferences are those of the majority.

He uses “intransigent” in two meanings here, which I will call “won’t” and “can’t”. People with severe food allergies are “can’t” — some people can be in very serious trouble after eating peanuts, while the peanut-free food they require can be eaten by everybody else just fine.[*] Strict Muslims who eat Halal, and Orthodox Jews who keep strictly kosher [in practice, many traditional Jews like myself have a repertoire of workarounds if no certified-kosher food is available] are “won’t”.

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 (which, in a way, increases the number of persons with peanut allergies as reduced exposure is one of the causes behind such allergies).

Let us apply the rule to domains where it can get entertaining:

An honest person will never commit criminal acts but a criminal will readily engage in legal acts.

Let us call such minority an intransigent group, and the majority a flexibleone. And the rule is an asymmetry in choices.

He goes on to explain that in a situation where the minority lives in a “ghetto” of the like-minded, this effect cannot apply — it has to be living among the majority. Second, the size of the minority that can force an accommodation on the majority is proportional to the costs it imposes on the majority. If having a certain food item certified ‘kosher’ (or ‘halal’ or ‘organic’) requires no changes to the recipe and nothing much beyond paying the inspection fee, then it takes just a small minority of customers to achieve this. (The company saves itself the logistical headache of dealing with two separate supply chains, or of an upstart offering a competing product targeting the niche market.)

Consider that transgenic-GMO eaters will eat nonGMOs, but not the reverse. So it may suffice to have a tiny, say no more than five percent of evenly spatially distributed population of non-genetically modified eaters for the entire population to have to eat non-GMO food. 

There is, of course, a difference between intransigent minorities who just want to be able to observe their particular religious [or other] restriction and do not care what anybody else not part of their “club” does (I do not know any Orthodox Jews who seek to make non-Jews observe kashrut[**]), versus intransigent minorities who seek to impose their preferences on everybody else.

Figure 2 shows four boxes exhibiting what is called fractal self-similarity. Each box contains four smaller boxes. Each one of the four boxes will contain four boxes, and so all the way down, and all the way up until we reach a certain level. There are two colors: yellow for the majority choice, and pink for the minority one.

Assume the smaller unit contains four people, a family of four. One of them is in the intransigent minority and eats only nonGMO food (which includes organic). The color of the box is pink and the others yellow . We “renormalize once” as we move up: the stubborn daughter manages to impose her rule on the four and the unit is now all pink, i.e. will opt for nonGMO. Now, step three, you have the family going to a barbecue party attended by three other families. As they are known to only eat nonGMO, the guests will cook only organic. The local grocery store realizing the neighborhood is only nonGMO switches to nonGMO to simplify life, which impacts the local wholesaler, and the stories continues and “renormalizes”.

[…] .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 Salafi fundamentalists.

Clearly can democracy –by definition the majority — tolerate enemies? The question is as follows: “ Would you agree to deny the freedom of speech to every political party that has in its charter the banning the freedom of speech?” Let’s go one step further, “Should a society that has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?”

This is in fact the incoherence that Kurt Gödel (the grandmaster of logical rigor) detected in the constitution while taking the naturalization exam. Legend has it that Gödel started arguing with the judge and Einstein, who was his witness during the process, saved him.

I wrote about people with logical flaws asking me if one should be “skeptical about skepticism”; I used a similar answer as Popper when was asked if “ one could falsify falsification”.

We can answer these points using the minority rule. Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, as we saw, it willeventually destroy our world.

[*] As a footnote: a wildly popular Israeli children’s snack called “Bamba” is peanut butter-based. Not coincidentally, peanut allergies are basically unheard of in Israel, presumably through desensitization.

[**] the special case of Israel, where in some very religious cities explicitly nonkosher food can be difficult to obtain, is not relevant to this discussion since Jews are not a minority in the Jewish state.

7 thoughts on “The power of intolerant minorities

  1. With humans, this is another case where the theory seems pretty robust where the assumptions are correct, but may in practice be a lot more fragile.

    Problem with using the soft power of an intolerant minority, the extent to which one is heavy handed with it is the extent to which opposition is radicalized. Radicalize enough opposition, and you can find yourself in the pre preference cascade position where everyone secretly hates you, and is afraid to admit it.

    My feeling is that some of the folks using this strategy in the US may find that they have managed to generate this last scenario.

  2. For the food example, we have had to deal with it (repeatedly!) in my family– it was done by having whatever-stupid-thing-they’re-on-this-month type food as a very small, limited option, and a much wider selection of the stuff everyone else wanted.

    So, at the BBQ, we have a pack of turkey dogs and the boneless, skinless, tasteless white meat, the person who doesn’t eat X brings their tofu potato salad, and for folks with allergies we make sure to CLEARLY MARK the stuff that’s safe for them.

    Every five to ten years we have the “but you can’t offer that, I don’t eat it” (or more commonly, “you can’t bring that, OTHER PERSON might feel bad they can’t eat it”) fight, and it gets noisy, and the bullies get smacked down again.

    • And thus is the “Paradox of Tolerance” refuted. It requires only the presence of a few who can be tolerant of the intolerant minority and simultaneously not be bullied by them.

      • The implicit assumption of the original is, sadly, pretty sound– that throwing enough of a fit will get your way.

        It took a few years of Foxfier ‘causing trouble’ by not rolling over when pushed before people realized it had been a very long time since the pushers had made their usual trouble, and that I wasn’t pushing unless pushed.

        If the only folks resisting are the ones who are the flip side of the coin, as far as not tolerating what they disapprove of, it’s going to be constant conflict and nasty to boot.

  3. I’m beginning to see the Covid situation in this light. Covid has caused many deaths but perhaps not THAT many. The incredible demands of an intolerant minority about how to fight it grab your attention though.

    JAIL for Any doctor in Australia prescribing HCQ or Ivermectin
    https://mobile.twitter.com/TanyaRo58329998/status/1409029497052139520

    Children urged to ignore their parents, despite the miniscule danger of Covid to young people.

    Why should teens be allowed the Covid vaccine without their parents’ okay?
    And why are the New York Times and the New Yorker telling them they should?
    Alex Berenson
    In the last 48 hours, the two most powerful voices in American journalism have both written what are essentially advocacy pieces encouraging teenagers to take Covid vaccines – even if their parents do not approve.
    https://alexberenson.substack.com/p/why-should-teens-be-allowed-the-covid

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