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The U.S. Constitution was intended, among other things, to avoid a hazard common to purely democratic systems: a tyranny of the majority. Now, however, we’re threatened by a phenomenon that might have sounded absurd to the founding fathers: a tyranny of the minority. Hassan Nicholas Taleb describes how small, intolerant minorities can dominate the terms under which the rest of a society plays. Taleb discusses a few cases in point from the historical record. Some of these are fairly benign, like the evolution of certain dietary conventions, but the larger implications for a free society are grim. His discussion appears here, but it is actually a chapter of his book, “Skin In the Game”.

In a way, these phenomena are often “squeaky-wheel-gets-oiled” situations, but there’s more to it. Much depends on the cost of allowing an uncompromising minority to have its way. So, for example, the food and beverages we consume are usually kosher, but not many people notice the circled “U” on the label, and they don’t know the difference. That’s relatively low cost. In other cases, people are cowed into believing they’ve been insufficiently sensitive to the grievances of small groups, but they do not fully appreciate the cost (and futility) of proving their compassion. From Taleb:

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.

Taleb’s point runs counter to the theory that most forms of governance, either legal or cultural, work best when they reflect broad, prior consensus. He insists, however, that people are often willing to placate the most uncompromising parties. In a tolerant, liberal society, there is a certain willingness to give ground when grievances have a whiff of legitimacy. That’s well and good, but a liberal society may be plagued by the existence of enough saps who just want to get along with more poisonous elements. And those poor saps will find a way to defend their position and become useful idiots.

The intolerant and intransigent minorities get the ball rolling with various grievances. Right or wrong, there are many disparate groups with perceived social or economic grievances. Their determination plays out in agitation of various kinds, sometimes rhetorical and sometimes violent. One way or another, and with the assistance of certain institutions, the grievances (and potential policies to deal with them) may be integrated into the political views of a larger set of sympathetic listeners. To the extent the aggrieved can find common ground with other aggrieved groups, the movement grows.

Some institutions are likely to be more naturally sympathetic to claims of victimhood, such as academia and the press. These institutions are, in a real sense, “grievance aggregators”, along with community organizers of various kinds, and they are capable of accelerating the fire. Then, grievances have a way of becoming enshrined as permanent talking points, all earnest efforts at mitigation aside. Appeasement seems only to invite more demands.

Today, there is a special intransigence on social media that is difficult for many if not most well-meaning individuals to stand up against. You must be “woke” or face social and economic repercussions. The intolerant minority can adopt a number of tactics to gain cooperation. These are often intimations of bad faith including racism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or “bad-think” and “denialism” of any sort. Apparently these are all ripe targets. This potential ostracization gives rise to fear on the part of those who might otherwise think and speak independently.

All this goes for businesses as well, which are only too eager to avoid litigation or offending any and all “stakeholders”, an ever-growing class increasingly unrelated to the firm’s trade. As institutions, many large corporations have fallen well into the fold of wokeness. They attempt to virtue signal to consumers, workers, government, and the “community” in a bid to stay out front. That sets the stage for repercussions in the lives and careers of workers who might fear doxing by an intransigent minority. Just go along with the demands and you’ll be fine. In a version of Stockholm Syndrome, some of the intimidated will convince themselves to adopt the cloak of woke righteousness and signal their virtue! Be a hero! More useful idiots.

And so the intolerant minority wins. Or, a coalition of intolerant minorities and their sympathizers win. Taleb again:

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?’

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.

This article by Steve McCann struck a chord with me because it describes a culmination of the forces of intolerance: McCann draws a tight comparison between the tactics of the Left, who attempt to represent themselves as champions of the aggrieved, and German National Socialists in the 1920s and 30s. Here is the shared playbook:

  • Exploit racial division;
  • Censor your enemies;
  • Unleash a flood of propaganda and fake news;
  • Exploit class envy;
  • Incite street riots;
  • Exploit events (the Reichstag fire vs. the Capitol “riot”) to legislate one-party rule (the Enabling Act of 1934 vs. HR 1).

This has very much to do with the acceptance of pseudo-realities and outright lies about the state of social affairs, some of which become institutionalized (e.g., “systemic racism”, “follow the science”, “sustainability”, “fair trade”, “disparate impact”, “infrastructure plan”, Modern Monetary Theory, and the meaning of “liberalism”). Individuals frame their lot in relation to a “perfect” society, a utopianism that can’t ever be fully satisfied. “Failure” will always be blamed on elements of the status quo, like capitalism and anyone perceived to benefit from it (except perhaps for those “privileged” agitating against it).

Taleb’s observation that intolerant minorities tend to “win” might be easier to swallow now than it might have been a few years ago. It’s certainly a warning to anyone who might take comfort in thinking our present dysfunction will be fixed when a sensible majority gets good and fed up. They might be unhappy, but most tend to lack sufficient determination to avoid getting cowed by intolerant minorities. Suicide of the West indeed!