Consensus has never brought about impactful, societal change. No, it is a headstrong, motivated, courageous group of people that creates societal shifts. A steadfast minority can turn the tide. Depending on how much you appreciate the prevailing norm, this is to be applauded or reason to fight back.
Two months ago, I wrote an article about living a conscious and green lifestyle and the reasons for doing so.
For some readers, the crux of the story must have been disappointing. Because I concluded that despite all our green ideals and pursuits, such as cycling or travelling by train more often, cooking and eating only plant-based food, and flying less or not at all, we make little to no headway in actually making the world more green and sustainable. In fact, reducing the ecological “costs” of our actions actually drives the price of petrol, animal products and airline tickets down. This paradox, named after the 19th-century British economist, Jevons, throws a spanner in the works.
Minority rule gives hope
The Jevons paradox gets in our way in the context of an economic system based on continuous growth since the Industrial Revolution. It causes the exact opposite of what we want to achieve. But carrying on the current, polluting way, I don’t think, is an option either. After publishing this article, I came accross the minority rule in the book Skin in the Game, by Lebanese-American essayist, mathematical statistician and former option trader, Nassim Taleb (2018). It renewed my optimism that sustainable lifestyle choices can help mitigate climate change.
The inflexible minority decides
He argues that a stubborn, inflexible minority can impose its will on the relatively uninterested majority. It is enough for an inflexible minority to reach a minimum of three or four percent to subject the entire population to their preferences. While it often seems that the majority is the deciding factor, it is the dominance of the minority that decides.
Taleb describes how the minority rule plays out using the example of organic vs genetically modified (GMO) food. While the BigAg lobby mistakenly presumes it enough to convince the mayority through large-scale propaganda and scientific reports, organic food companies in the US and Europe, are selling more and more products.
It is enough to have just under five per cent of exclusively organic eaters, evenly distributed among the population, to get the entire population to eat organic, i.e. non-GMO food. How?
A grand anniversary celebration of an academic hospital takes place, for instance. To satisfy the small number of intransigent organic eaters, the event organisers choose to serve only organically grown food, since the price difference is negligible. As demand for organic food increases in this way, distribution costs decrease and the effect of the minority rule accelerates. In the long run, a flexible majority will only eat organic. The crucial fact is, GMO-eaters can also eat organic, but organic eaters refuse GMO-food.
So there are a few conditions for the minority rule. The intransigent people must be spread throughout the population. And the cost of agreeing with the minority must be small.
Halal chicken meat
When I lived in Amsterdam and sometimes didn’t feel like cooking, it was really easy to order any kind of food delivered straight to your home. A heartwarming meal just a few clicks away. And in recent years the ordering culture has only increased in popularity.
I noticed that several Indian restaurants mention that, for instance, the Chicken Madras is halal – as are other meat dishes on their menus. To be halal, the food must comply with Islamic laws. For instance, the animal must have been ritually slaughtered.
About 5 per cent of the Dutch population consider themselves Muslim, according to a 2017 survey. A small minority, in other words. And yet they caused the flexible majority, myself included, to eat halal chicken. The rule is: as a non-believing non-halal eater, you can eat halal, but definitely not the other way around. Apparently restaurants take that into account. After all, in this way they can increase their customer base, provided there is little cost difference.
‘Let us suppose that the formation of moral values in society does not come from the evolution of consensus,’ Taleb said. Rather, it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtue on others precisely because of that intolerance. The same can apply to civil rights, as well as the animal rights I strive for.
We see the minority rule in full force four years after publication of Taleb’s book Skin in the Game in gender politics. Consider the demands by the transgender community, advocates of LGBTQ+ rights, for for example: gender-neutral toilets, gender-neutral language and new forms of address. Besides ‘he/his’ and ‘she/her’, there now excists a third form of address ‘they/them’ for those who identify as neither man nor woman.
On social media and the business-platform LinkedIn, I see the desired, personal pronouns mentioned in numerous profiles. I see many women who have ‘she/her’ after their name. To a lesser extent, men with ‘he/him’. Apparently, in the current era of gender emancipation a large group finds it important enough to publicly announce how they wish to be addressed. So it seems, or is it because it costs relatively little effort to show respect for the non-binary minority and/or possibly avoid insulting them?
Once a moral rule is established (‘Black Peter is racism’), it suffices for a small intransigent minority of geographically dispersed followers to dictate the norm in society. The annual debates and protests surrounding Black Peter (an old Dutch celebration along with Saint Nicholas on 5 December), driven by a small minority, have resulted in the replacement of Black Pete by Petes that don’t have their faces painted pitch black, but with brownish stripes.
So the minority rule can work on several fronts.
Could it also apply, for instance, to demands by a motivated and persistent minority for vegan canteens at all government organisations? For European travel only by train? For Amsterdam to be the first car-free capital? For this to happen, stubborn vegans, pushy climate activists and obsessive bicycle freaks are a must.
Moreover, these intransigents must be spread across the population. It also has to be right cost-wise: plant-based food, European train tickets, and public transport or bike rental should not be much more expensive than the standard (undesirable) product or service (meat and dairy, airplaneticket within Europe and car ownership/rental).
Is this what the American anthropologist Margaret Mead had in mind, when she famously expressed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” as is often cited within activist groups?
Dictatorship of the intolerant minority
For many a critic however, this will be the start of a dictatorship: that of the intolerant minority. They foresee a danger of a moral superiority and virtue imposed by such a minority as ‘the left-wing climate church’ , a label mainly used in conservative and (radical) right-wing media.
Climate activists, brace yourself! Vegans be ready for scathing remarks on social media by outspoken carnists. You don’t even have to be an angry vegan to suffer insulting reactions, preferably with an enclosed bloody steak pic to firmly rub in the prevailing norm, carnism. Eat that!
Of course, stubborn minorities don’t always have socially just intentions. Think of a terrorist group trying to impose its will on a society. The only way to counter a dictatorship of such an intolerant minority is to fight it with at least as much intolerance.
You don’t even have to be an angry vegan to suffer insulting reactions, preferably with an enclosed bloody steak pic to firmly rub in the prevailing norm, carnism. Eat that!Tweet
Welcome social changes
Even when social change is demanded non-violently, we see outspoken conservative and radical-right voices that abhor stubborn, virtuous minorities.
The top three being: anti-racists, climate activists and vegans.
After all, it is at the expense of the status quo, of freedom, of what we are used to, of our tradition or culture.
But the suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century, only deserve respect for their intransigence and intolerance towards the prevailing norm. It was they who caused a social turnaround. And we are all reaping the benefits of that. As did those who went to the barricades to abolish the widely accepted slave trade. These very examples give hope for the pressing issues of our time. The minority rules.
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