I was forwarded this fantastic and lengthy essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It is way too long to reproduce here but I will try to shorten it to make the point:
The best example I know that gives insights into the functioning of a complex system is with the following situation. 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. If it seems absurd, it is because our scientific intuitions aren’t calibrated for that .
The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in way not predicted by the components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. Studying individual ants will never (one can safely say never for most such situations), never give us an idea on how the ant colony operates. For that, one needs to understand an ant colony as an ant colony, no less, no more, not a collection of ants. This is called an “emergent” property of the whole, by which parts and whole differ because what matters is the interactions between such parts. And interactions can obey very simple rules. The rule we discuss in this chapter is the minority rule.
The minority rule will show us how it 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.
…A strange idea hit me. The Kosher population represents less than three tenth 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. And the simple rule that changes the total is as follows:
A Kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food , but a nonkosher eater isn’t banned from eating kosher.
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 flexible one. And the rule is an asymmetry in choices.
Another example: do not think that the spread of automatic shifting cars is necessarily due to the majority of drivers initially preferring automatic; it can just be because those who can drive manual shifts can always drive automatic, but the reciprocal is not true.
The method of analysis employed here is called renormalization group, a powerful apparatus in mathematical physics that allows us to see how things scale up (or down). Let us examine it next –without mathematics.
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”.
…In the same manner, the spread of Islam in the Near East where Christianity was heavily entrenched (it was born there) can be attributed to two simple asymmetries. The original Islamic rulers weren’t particularly interested in converting Christians as these provided them with tax revenues –the proselytism of Islam did not address those called “people of the book”, i.e. individuals of Abrahamic faith. 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 two asymmetric rules were are as follows. 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. An even stronger asymmetry than that of Judaism explains the depletion in the Near East of three Gnostic faiths: the Druze, the Ezidi, and the Mandeans . Unlike Islam that requires either parents to be Muslim, and Judaism that asks for at least the mother to have the faith, these three religions require both parents to be of the faith, otherwise the person says toodaloo to the community.
…This idea of one-sidedness can help us debunk a few more misconceptions. 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. 
The same seems to apply to prohibitions –at least the prohibition of alcohol in the United States which led to interesting Mafia stories.
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.
An insight as to how the mechanisms of religion and transmission of morals obey the same renormalization dynamics as dietary laws –and how we can show that morality is more likely to be something enforced by a minority. We saw earlier in the chapter the asymmetry between obeying and breaking rules: a law-abiding (or rule abiding) fellow always follows the rules, but a felon or someone with looser sets of principles will not always break the rules. Likewise we discussed the strong asymmetric effects of the halal dietary laws. Let us merge the two. It turns out that, in classical Arabic, the term halal has one opposite: haram. Violating legal and moral rules –any rule — is called haram. It is the exact same interdict that governs food intake and all other human behaviors, like sleeping with the wife of the neighbor, lending with interest (without partaking of downside of the borrower) or killing one’s landlord for pleasure. Haram is haram and is asymmetric.
From that we can see that once a moral rule is established, it would suffice to have a small intransigent minority of geographically distributed followers to dictate the norm in society.
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. Indeed, given the total lack of separation between church and state, and between the holy and the profane, to him Haram (the opposite of Halal) means literally illegal. The entire room was committing a legal violation.
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.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.
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