How a stubborn minority can determine the course?

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.

Gender empancipation

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? 

Moral rule

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!

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.

Con Amor,

Eva

Also on Medium:

All I want for Christmas

‘War Is Over! If you want it. Happy Christmas, John & Yoko.’  Billboards in eleven world cities showed these words. It was 15 December 1969 and The Beatles singer John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono launched the peace campaign War is Over (if you want it). The peace message appeared on buildings and walls in the streets of London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, Toronto, Athens, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Berlin and Tokyo. At that time the Vietnam War was raging on with no end in sight. 

Not just advertising, the couple must have thought. John and Yoko’s message was accompanied by a Peace For Christmas concert in London to which famous musician friends, such as George Harrison and Eric Clapton, contributed.

Ukraine

Fifty-three years and some wars later, not much has changed. We may disagree on an aweful number of political issues, no one wants war. In the last month of the year, there is no prospect of an end to the war in Ukraine, which was unleashed by Russia’s invasion at the end of February this year.

After two difficult and uncertain ‘pandemic years’ for many, 2022 has also by no means been a jubilant year. First, the outbreak of war on the European continent, not even that far from our safe havens. Second, all sorts of crises, such as the energy and Dutch nitrogen crisis, which have created chaos and uncertainty among countless (Dutch) citizens. And leaders don’t seem to know the way out of the chaos and noise. 

Disunity

As facts have become opinions and opinions have become facts, the social climate is unstable with ever-increasing strife. What is truth? For instance, climate change, besides natural climate change also at the hands of humans, is for some a leftist ideology, a belief. And a belief, of course, only serves to instil fear. If it isn’t the earthly sacrifices for a place in heaven instead of hell, it is the hell and damnation hanging over us if we do not act now. Fear as a driving force, in other words. Don’t fall for it, say the deniers. As if the unprecedented, apocalyptic floods that hit Pakistan this year and the ongoing drought and water shortages in southern Europe in particular, were not clear signals that we must start living differently.

Culture war

Rather, we war – between the believers and non-believers, the liberals and conservatives. Not bombs and grenades as war language, but rather moral superiority for instance in the battle over climate, one of the main subjects of the culture war which blew over from the United States. According to the non-believers, we can sit back, nothing is wrong. With Christmas just around the corner, the steaks and pork tenderloin are served in large numbers because “they won’t take that away from us”. Some think we will soon find ourselves in such an unlivable world that freedom no longer has much value and others think our freedom is being taken away under the guise of climate change. 

‘War is over! If you want it’  fifty-three years later is not just about the war in Ukraine. It is also about the culture wars that divide countries and families and friends to the bone. Verbal violence may one day no longer be the only weapon.

Awareness

John Lennon said the following about the campaign at the time: “When we stick posters around saying, ‘War Is Over – If you want it’, we’re trying to promote an awareness in people of how much power they have, and not to rely on the government, or leaders, or teachers so much that they’re all passive or automatons. They have to have new hope.”

For hope and confidence in the future, we do not depend on governments and leaders.  A universal and timeless message. A billboard can’t change that wars will always be there, I hear you thinking. By the way, the campaign is still running – after all, the desired result is still lacking – and posters can be printed from a website to stick on your windows. I once saw such a poster on a window in Amsterdam and I had to take a picture of it. It may be just a seed, a pebble that ripples in the river as soon as it hits the surface of the water. But that seed grows and the ripple effect reaches further than you think. If enough people want something, it happens. The idea of the billboards was to make people aware of this power. Enough people actively wishing for peace can make war stop, John and Yoko thought. Naive? Maybe, yet we all know what King and Ghandi set in motion.

Anti-war Christmas song

Two years later, the War is Over slogan turned into a Christmas song with an anti-war message, Happy Christmas (War is Over), and – it took a while – eventually became a worldwide Christmas classic. And every time, the images of the music video give me goosebumps. 

‘So this is Christmas and what have you done.’

In spring 1969, John and Yoko proclaimed their peace message at the Amsterdam Hilton from their hotel bed. For a week between white hotel sheets, the famous hippie couple called for world peace. For this, they invited photographers and journalists to spread their message. “It didn’t smell to fresh in there,” said Henk van der Meijden, a tabloid reporter at Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, and John’s hair remained unwashed. A crazy idea, but the bed-in got a lot of publicity and worldpeace became a mantra – without, incidentally, the desired result.

Band Aid

Flowerpower may be decades past, but wouldn’t it be nice to hear a similar message from contemporary musicians? The time is now I tell you! Just like Band Aid at the time. Musicians coming together to record a song with a (political) statement? As happened in 1984 with Do they know it’s Christmas to raise money to fight famine in Ethiopia. Later in 1985, USA for Africa followed with the legendary song We are the world

Music connects and makes hope come alive. I can only think of old(er) rockstars, like Bob Dylan, Bob Geldof and Bono, who remind us – through music – of the power of the individual to start a movement that can make a difference. Is the power of the individual perhaps weakening in individualistic times we live in? Are today’s famous artists too busy with themselves?

Concert for freedom

U2’s singer and guitarist Bono and The Edge played at a Kiev metro station in May this year, at the invitation of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, in solidarity with the citizens of Ukraine. A concert for freedom.

John & Yoko’s War is Over, Band Aid, USA for Africa, U2 for freedom, that is what I want for Christmas. Europe for Climate maybe. Who will lead the way? You don’t have to be a floating hippie or a sentimental old geezer to know that music is the catalyst for change and connection. It is a primal feeling and I dare say it’s what we all crave so much. 

Merry Christmas! 🌟❤️🥂🎄

Con Amor,

Eva

How true stories of real heroines put nationality, freedom and humanity in perspective

The fact that I, as a Dutch woman, can travel (almost) anywhere with ease, a quick look at my passport and everything is ok, has always amazed me. Your place of birth largely determines your chances in life: health, education, work, happiness. Your nationality can even be a matter of life or death. If you are born in Afghanistan your chances of an early death are more realistic and all the more if you happen to be female.

An Afghan woman forced to marry a Taliban fighter and lead a life kept out of sight and practically invisible, can escape only by death, whereas the most pressing matter for a Dutch woman is that she earn the same as a man in her position.

Selective women’s rights

After watching the Netflix documentary In Her Hands about the fearless youngest mayor in Afghanistan, Zarifa Ghafari (26), who fights for the education of girls, forbidden by the merciless Taliban under whose terror girls and women must fear for their lives, western feminists suddenly become irrelevantly self-obsessed. The fact that women’s rights only seem to exist selectively, is every time a painful realisation in itself and the silence of western feminists concerning the terrible predicament of women under strict Islamic regimes even more so. Consider the deadly repression playing out in Iran at the moment.

As a husband and father you don’t want to reside in a country in which your wife awaits an existence without rights, and your daughters who wish to learn, run the risk every day to be murdered in cold blood by extremists.  The images at Kabul airport of thousands of desperate Afghans trying to flee, clinging to an aircraft, women and children trying to catch the last flight away from a home which will become a prison, leave you gasping for air. The mayor Zarifa narrowly escapes with her husband, mother and younger brother in a plane heading for Germany, where they are received as refugees.

Continuing the fight

Shortly before the Taliban had executed her father in front of his home and young son due to Zarifa’s public role, which she had refused to give up. Despite the threat to her own life, she travels back to Afghanistan on her own a few months later to continue the fight for the right of women and girls in her homeland. In Germany she no longer held a high office, she was an asylum seeker with a life on hold, and the control, again, out of her hands. All be it without the constant mortal danger, but for Zarifa not important enough to stay for.

When the bombs drop

Another such true story which burst into your safe life and rages on long after, is The Swimmers, a biographical movie about two Syrian sisters who are also talented swimmers, Yusra and Sara Mardini.  On the horizon you see the bombs exploding on the edge of town while the sisters let themselves go on the dance-floor at a party.  The start of the civil war in Syria.  The situation escalates and the sisters lives are in danger.  Their father grudgingly supports their decision to flee to Germany along with a cousin. A harrowing life-threatening journey awaits them. On their way they quickly fall into the hands of unreliable people smugglers.

The hellish journey, especially the chilling crossing the sisters make in an overloaded rubber dingy from Turkey to Lesbos is made by countless people every year.

Thousands never set foot in Europe but end namelessly in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Since 2014 more than 29.000 deaths have been registered along the flightpaths to Europe, including this crossing to Lesbos, most of the victims are from Syria. All the antics the sisters perform and the dangers they brave to reach this island where the inhabitants can’t wait to see the backs of them, seem surreal but are at the same time very real.

Salvation

The viewer gets a feel for the years-long beaurocratic process, waiting on stamps and signatures.  It feels like you are in a Kafka novel.  The endless waiting that slowly extinguishes the last remaining bit of life-force, but not so for the sisters.  Their crib stood in Syria and then going to Europe to establish yourself, away from the bombs and bloodshed, is far from matter of course.  The combination of their courage and daring with a clear goal is their salvation.  These make the difference in the end.  Although the goal for each of the sisters turns out to be different, it is what enables them to regain control over their lives in a foreign country.  The movie slung me back and forth between hope and despair, but more the first than the latter.  The Syrian sisters got me thinking. 

Fort Europe

I never had to supply stacks of documents to get government clearance to come and live in Spain.  My partner, cat and I just went, now some 8 years ago.  We can come and go as we please.  No-one ever asked us for all sorts of information, our Dutch passports were enough.  We did not have to wait eons on permission from the authorities to reside within the Spanish borders, because there is free movement of people within the European Union.  We are what you call “fortune seekers”.  And we were not even unfortunate in our country of birth.  And yet, that is what we are, because we wanted more.

Second-rate citizenship

The right to come and go as you please, in your own country and outside it, (freedom of movement) as determined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is beautiful on paper, but in practice far from reality. Especially for those with less desirable passports; those who have a high chance of becoming second rate citizens. Those men and women who will never feel equal to their compatriots who were born there.

For now, I really recommend watching In her Hands and The Swimmers, just like that they might awaken a humanity which I often find sorely missing when it concerns refugees and migrants.  A little more compassion won’t kill us.

It is too proud to think that the bombs will never fall here or that the water will never rise so high or dry up, making flight our only chance at survival. When it is us rattling at the gates or embarking on harrowing journeys to escape war or natural disasters, we will hope for some humanity instead of a lifetime as a second-rate citizen.  

As it was written some 2000 years ago: ‘Pride comes before the fall.’

Timeless wisdom which reaches far beyond all borders.

In her Hands and The Swimmers are now screening on Netflix.

Previously published in Dutch on Reporters Online.

Why live a green & conscious life?

Cycling into a head wind on your way to the local farmer to buy organic fruit and vegetables, you wonder why you didn’t just buy them from the supermarket around the corner. That would have saved you a long chilly bike ride.  Instead of fussing with your recycling, you could just dump it all in one bag and be done with it, couldn’t you? One garbage bag doesn’t make any difference, does it? Twenty-four hours into an over-land bus journey you are annoyed at the smells and recurring, often loud, phone calls from fellow passengers and you wonder why you didn’t just take that damn plane, you would have been sitting in the sun with a nice glas of wine by now, AND it would have been cheaper!

Why make your life so complicated? For whom or what are you actually decreasing your energy consumption (other than to save money), conserving water, buying as little plastic as possible, installing solar panels and banning animal products from your life? And all this while being made out to be a hypocrite or gutmensch by people living with ‘after us the deluge’ as their motto. 

Maybe you wonder why on earth you’re doing these things, while polluters continue polluting and our governments keep helping them.

Pretty frustrating, right?

Click here if you’d like to read my story:

https://medium.com/@evalunes/why-bother-living-consciously-1e4d24280ae1

Many thanks!

First story on MEDIUM. Let’s connect! I keep on writing here as well.

Con Amor,

Eva

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