Monday, August 15, 2016

How small minorities can make much larger groups dance to their tune.

I have been reading an interesting article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called

"The most intolerant wins: the dictatorship of the small minority."

It is a fairly substantial and wide-ranging examination of the ways in which in both a free market, and an open society, a very small but courageous and highly determined minority can survive, grow, and indeed cause much larger groups to dance to their tune.

The basic mechanism described in the article is that if a highly committed group insists on making one particular choice - only eating Kosher food for instance - while the rest of society does not mind which way they chose - for example. very few non-Jews mind whether their food is Kosher or not - it may be simpler for suppliers and administrators or governments to provide everyone with what the highly committed group wants (It's not worth the bother of producing the non-Kosher version of some drinks or foodstuffs.)

Sometimes the impacts of this can be good, sometimes then can be worrying.

It is an interesting article which deserves a lot of thought, and makes a stronger case than I like for the view that "The West is currently in the process of committing suicide."

This point relates to the paradox of to what extent tolerant society can afford to tolerate those who are intolerant.

Let me quote the relevant passage.

"Popper’s Paradox

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 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."

I'm going to have to think very hard about ...the implications of this. You cannot establish a tolerant society in the first place without being willing to extend the hand of tolerance to those who may not previously have shown tolerance.

But what happened to the Weimar Republic proves that tolerance for the intolerant cannot be unlimited. The author of the article suggests that we need to be more than intolerant with some intolerant minorities. While I do not think we have yet reached the point where the destruction of democracy and tolerance by the intolerant minority is inevitable or even probable, the danger needs to be addressed.

Incidentally one thing that I appreciate about this article is that the author manages to recognise the elephant in the room - the problem with particularly intolerant groups such as SOME forms of Islamist - without falling into the trap of oversimplifying and blaming all Muslims, all Christians, or all atheists for the actions of the most extreme factions or individuals within those groups.

He also has a wonderful sense of humour and does not care who he teases, hence the article includes the line,

"Purely monotheistic religious such as Protestant Christianity, Salafi Islam, or fundamentalist atheism accommodate literalist and mediocre minds that cannot handle ambiguity."

(Incidentally, his own principle of asymmetric effects provides the riposte to that point - it is also possible for great minds and those which can handle ambiguity to accommodate themselves to all three of those positions and many others.)

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