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August 01, 2018

The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority

More wisdom from Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

This rule has been hiding in plain sight; but Taleb drags it out in the open as the most important asymmetry affecting our daily lives and perhaps the future of civilization. The title of this post is a chapter head from his latest book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, from which many of the examples below are taken.

We like to think that, in our democracy, the majority rules: usually that’s not the case. Many airlines don’t serve peanuts or any snack which has touched a peanut because some people (a small minority) are greatly allergic to peanuts. The non-allergic can survive without peanuts; the allergic can’t tolerate them. That’s an asymmetry and the “intolerant” minority rules. This particular outcome is beneficial on the whole.

Similarly, when Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Friday, the school lunches in my public school, in which Catholics were a minority, were always fish on Friday. Didn’t hurt the rest of us to eat fish once a week (except it was even more revolting than the other dishes on the school menu); but observing Catholics couldn’t eat anything else. Minority rule because of the asymmetry but no big deal.

Sometime the minority veto can be beneficial, according to Taleb. For reasons I won’t go into here, he is against genetically modified foods (GMOs). He knows that he is part of a minority which benefits from an asymmetry: they won’t eat GMOs but the majority has no aversion to non-GMOs. Hence the growing shelves of “organic” food in grocery stores which crowds out the non-organic food. I’m not at all convinced that I want to pay more for “organic” food without knowing a lot more about why; but that’s for a different post.

But now things get more sinister. Taleb, a Coptic Christian from Lebanon, says that Christians used to be a majority in Egypt. But there’s an asymmetry:

“First, under Islamic law, if a non-Muslim man marries a Muslim woman, he needs to convert to Islam – and if either parent of a child happens to be Muslim, the child will be Muslim. Second, becoming Muslim is irreversible, as apostasy [nb. in this case, converting away from Islam] 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 the minority. All one needs is a small rate of interfaith marriage….

“Egypt’s Copts suffered from an additional problem: the irreversibility of Islamic conversions. Many Copts during Islamic rule converted to the dominant religion when it was merely an administrative procedure, something that helps one land a job or handle a problem which requires Islamic jurisprudence.”

According to Taleb who is partial to the Shia Muslims he grew up with in Beirut and fiercely opposed to Sunni Salafism (and Saudi Arabia which is its main sponsor). He cites this asymmetry: Jews and Muslim minorities like Shiites, are content if they are allowed to follow their own laws; Salafis say everyone must follow their law and feel they have an obligation to Jihad against those who don’t.

Taleb asks: “Should a society which has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?”

He answers his own question:

“Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, 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.”

Although I agree with Taleb that Salafi extremism is an existential danger given both the asymmetries he cites and enormous funding and support for this extremism from Saudi Arabia and can even agree that we can’t tie our hands behind our backs with our own rules while fighting back, I don’t agree that we can deny free speech to anyone who denies free speech to us nor withhold Constitutional protections to anyone who disagrees with “American Values.” Who would get to decide when someone who wants to change a law – or even amend the Constitution – is actually attacking our values or just trying to make the country better? Should the student radicals who shout down speakers they are afraid to listen to be denied free speech themselves? I don’t think so (as much as I wish they’d shut up).

Taleb makes valid and interesting points on how and why decisions in a democracy are often made by minorities and about asymmetries. He raises the crucial question of how we can fight Salafi extremism given the asymmetries that advantage it. But he doesn’t answer the question of how we preserve our civilization both against those who would destroy it and the means we may have to use to defend it. There is certainly no pretty answer not can the question be avoided on at least a case by case basis.

For more on tolerating intolerance see:

Don’t Panic!

For more on the thoughts of Nassim Taleb see also:

The Wisdom of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A Turkey Connects the Wrong Dots and Finds a Black Swan

Causes of Global Warming – Are We Fooled By Hubris?

Lesson for Next Time: Small is Beautiful

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