The Victory of the Stubborn Minority

It’s now the second day of Hanukkah. We light only two candles out of eight. There’s still more darkness than light. But each day, another candle is added, and soon the lit candles are not a minority anymore. By the time the holiday is over, all the candles are lit.

Here’s the story of the holiday: around 200 B.C., Judea came under the control of Greeks who imposed their pagan culture on the Jewish population. Jewish religious practice was forbidden. Most Jews passively submitted to the new order and many gladly accepted it. However, a small rebel group known as the Maccabees refused to worship the Greek gods. They started the Maccabean Revolt, and eventually drove the oppressors out of Jerusalem and restored religious freedom in Judea.

This festival highlights the value of the active, intolerant, and courageous minority.

I’ve just read the draft chapter ”The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority” from my favorite philosopher Nassim Taleb’s upcoming book “Skin in the Game”. It describes how an unyielding minority that stays true to its principles can gradually come to tip the scale and to make the majority submit to its preferences. If a single American who doesn’t speak German comes to a meeting at a German company, the entire meeting will be held in English. If someone who only eats nonGMO food is invited to a block party, only nonGMO food will be served at the party to keep things simple, because GMO eaters will eat nonGMOs, but not the reverse. Then “the local grocery store realizing the neighborhood is only nonGMO switches to nonGMO to simplify life, which impacts the local wholesaler” (all quotes here and below are from Taleb’s book).

I once had a discussion with someone about religion. I insisted that religion gave us moral values, while my opponent argued that morality was the result of majority consensus, that the humankind gradually came to a conclusion that murder and theft were wrong because they disrupted peaceful and comfortable life. But this is not true. Murder and other immoral things were normal in the pagan culture until a minority introduced a novel idea: “Do Not Kill, Do Not Steal” and the rest of the Ten Commandments. That minority group was small but persistent, had strong moral values, and was intolerant of idolatry, and eventually they made the entire humankind adopt their moral code.

The same happens in science. How? “Science isn’t the sum of what scientists think, but.. a procedure that is highly skewed. Once you debunk something it is now wrong… Had science operated by majority consensus we would be still stuck in the Middle Ages and Einstein would have ended as he started, a patent clerk with fruitless side hobbies.” In science or medicine, the mainstream position becomes no longer true once you have legitimate counter-evidence debunking it. That’s why we should never trust those experts who stick to dogmas and ignore counter-evidence.

As Taleb further writes, “Alexander said that it was preferable to have  an army of sheep led by a lion to an army of lions led by a sheep. Alexander … understood the value of the   active, intolerant, and courageous minority… The large payoff from stubborn courage is not just in the military. The entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people…Society doesn’t evolve by consensus, voting, majority, committees, verbose meeting, academic conferences, and polling; only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle.”

The bottom line is that it may suffice to have a tiny percent of the population who hold strong principles and an inflexible attitude for the entire population to submit to their preferences and ideas. The minority comes to dominate over time. Of course, it happens slowly and gradually, but the implications of this rule are huge.

The implication

My husband and I have always been very strict about limiting our family’s diet to only nonGMOs, preferably organic food. After some tensions, our parents started looking at the labels before buying treats for their grandkids. Gradually, our parents have started introducing organic food into their own diet.

Another example on a larger scale: the medical community has traditionally held a hostile attitude towards home birth. This is now changing, even though the percentage of homebirthers in this country remains small. Our friend who is a homebirth midwife once told us that a major Boston hospital had “shaped up” and the doctors there had started to express sympathy and understanding towards mothers who attempted home birth but had to transfer to a hospital for medical reasons. Many hospitals, inspired by the trend for a more natural birth, have made their policies more flexible and accommodating. This all started with a small movement of midwives and natural birthers.

The implication here is, don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to be in a minority. If you believe in something, stick to your beliefs and be uncompromising and persistent when your values and principles are at stake. Who knows, some day you may inspire others to follow in your footsteps. Remember: the majority is always passive. Dramatic changes have always been brought about by individuals who are courageous, persistent, and intolerant of nonsense.