The Minority Rule

And what it implies about being tolerant of intolerance

You and I should both be able to agree that society is better when everyone is a bit more tolerant. That is, the more people are accepting of those who are different from them, the better off we all are. This, however, begs the question: is it also better to be tolerant of those who are intolerant of either us or other people?

I found this question in the book Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb, and I thought that it was fascinating. I want to go on a journey to find out whether we can come up with some guideline for how we can answer that question using the minority rule which is defined in Chapter 2 of the book.

The Minority Rule

The minority rule is defined in the following way:

It suffices for an intransigent minority—a certain type of intransigent minority—with significant skin in the game (or better, soul in the game) to reach a minutely small level, say 3 or 4 percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences.

Let’s talk about the key parts to this definition which I have bolded.

“Intransigent minority”

An intransigent group is a group of people within society that have a certain view or behave a certain way such that they are not willing to change. This group is a minority by virtue of the fact that whatever it is that they do or believe is something that the majority of people don’t do or believe. This makes them an intransigent minority.

Here’s the thing, in most cases, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an intransigent minority. A simple example of such a group are people who always wake up before 5am no matter what happens—people like Jocko Willink. These people have made a rule that they will always wake up before 5m no matter what happens, which is something that most people don’t do. In addition, you are not going to convince them to sleep in because they are intransigent: they just won’t change! Still, there’s nothing wrong with that or them.

“Skin in the game” and “Soul in the game”

The way I think of it is that having skin in the game is being in a situation where both the risks and benefits of this “game” affects you. For instance, if you own a stock of Tesla, you have some skin in the game of the Tesla company being more successful.

There are different degrees of having skin in the game—it’s not a binary thing. If you own 10 shares of Tesla but another person owns 1000 shares of Tesla, that person has more skin in the game in Tesla than you. If the price of the Tesla share drops by $1, you only lose $10 whereas that person loses $1000. So, they care a lot more about how Tesla is doing.

Finally, soul in the game is when someone has skin in the game of other people. You could almost argue that Elon Musk has soul in the game of Tesla because he can singlehandedly influence the Tesla stock by what he says or does, which affects all the people that own the Tesla shares. You could say, the more shares of a company, the more soul in the game you have, because you gain more influence towards what the company does with more ownership. Of course, there are many other examples. I went to a boarding school, and I can safely say that I had skin in the game of my college applications and high school diploma. At the same time, you could also say that the cooks we had in our high school had soul in the game because whatever they made (or wether they made something at all) would influence the wellbeing of everyone at school—i.e., they have skin in the game of others.

“3 or 4 percent of the total population”

The question here is, where does this 3–4% come from?

This is the kind of question that I would ask because I don’t trust someone just throwing numbers out there. I need evidence. Nassim Taleb has provided ample data about various examples of the minority rule scenario happening—where that intransigent minority reaches around 3% of the population and then is able to cause the entire population to submit to their preferences.

One example I want to use here is that of most juices being kosher. This example is coming straight out of the book, and it is that Taleb was at a dinner party and discovered through talking with other guests that the lemonade juice was kosher. His friend at that part said, “around here, drinks are kosher,” and how do they know? Well, there’s a little (U) symbol on the juice container, which signifies that something is kosher. The interesting thing about that is that almost all juices in US are kosher. My simple, anecdotal evidence is that the orange juice that I got from Whole Foods is also kosher:

Do you see it? The little (U) symbol? Bottom, right corner? That’s kosher — My Own Picture

Based on pew research data, the Jewish population in the U.S. can go from about 1.8—3.3% (depending on how you define “Jewish”). In this case, the Jewish population, with respect to drinks, is an intransigent minority, and again in this case, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If anything, this point is to simply show an example of how the minority rule comes at play—me purchasing a drink from a grocery store, not knowing that it is kosher and it being kosher because a small intransigent group of people made the majority submit to their demands of making juices kosher.

Kosher or not, most people would not notice, and that is something that also plays a role in the minority rule: in most cases, the members of the majority part would either not notice, not care, or be unaffected by the demands of the intransigent minority. That is true of most cases, but of course there can be cases where the majority group may not care at first, but by the time they care, it will be too late. And that is a topic that I want to now dive into.

Different Types of Intransigent Minorities

NOTE: I am defining the following groups myself—i.e., these don’t come from the book.

The thing about intransigent minorities is that they are a minority with respect to some other group — that group which can also be part of a larger group as you scale things up. For instance, as a black man in the U. S., I am a minority with respect to my skin color; however, in Congo (which is where I am from), I am not a minority because most people there are black. However, if the group is taken to be the world population, I might be a minority (I wasn’t actually able to find data on the black population in the world so I therefore won’t draw conclusions here). I could also scale down to my direct or extended family, where everyone is pretty much black — thereby becoming a majority again. So, it looks like two things:

  • Change the overarching group, and the minority group may become part of a majority
  • Scale the overarching group up or down, and the minority group may also become part of a majority

In a way, we can say that a group is a minority if and only if group / overarching-group < 25%. Technical definition would use 50%, but at that point it’s like, really? So, we humans arbitrarily choose 25%. I chose it because that’s what the legal definition of minority-owned businesses use in the U.S.—but feel free to use an other arbitrary percentage that is ≤50%.

With that said, I believe there are different types of intransigent minorities.

Benign Intransigent Minorities

The medical definition of “benign” that I get from Google is “not harmful in effect”, and that’s really what this group is. To be more exact, no matter which overarching group we’re talking about or no matter how big or small the scale of the overarching group, there are no overarching groups that the demands of this intransigent group are harmful to.

The example of people who wake up before 5am is one. Absolutely no one should care whether some other random person wakes up before 5am. The example of juices is also a good one. Most people would never notice or care whether their juices are kosher, but those who want kosher food would care. In addition, it doesn’t cost businesses (another group) much to ensure that the drinks they manufacture are kosher, and in addition they gain access to another pool of customers.

Another group I would add (but that doesn’t really deserve its own section) are Mostly Benign Intransigent Minorities: this is the same exact definition except that may be some groups to which the demands of the intransigent group are a tiny bit harmful to. This is a blurry line, but a hypothetical example would be someone who is annoyed by the (U) symbol on their juices. To that person, I hope they realize it’s really not a big deal.

So, for this group in general, it’s always a (win)/(don’t care) situation. Finally, I believe that most intransigent minorities fall under these two groups (the Benign or Mostly Benign groups).

Unintentionally Harmful Intransigent Minorities

This group is one that, just like every other group, is intransigent with whatever they do or believe (i.e., not willing to change). However, this groups may end up hurting other groups as you scale it or change it. I always like examples to solidify concepts. Here’s a few groups that are unintentionally harmful intransigent minorities:

  • People who eat meat: If you scale the overarching group to include all living creatures, humans become a minority (which implies meat-eating humans become a minority as well), and by eating meat, these humans end up hurting those animals that they eat. While I don’t see this as an excuse, I believe most of the people who eat meat have no intention of actually hurting the animals or their ecosystem (full disclosure: I am part of this group).
  • People who cut trees to use it as lumber: By cutting trees, we reduce the number of trees in the world. This, in turn, may fuel up global warming (Simple proof: if all the trees are cut, then the CO2 won’t be converted to Oxygen at an adequate rate which will increase earth temperature and cause Global warming. Caveat: the effect of one tree might be insignificant). Global warming causes all sorts of negative things to Earth, which is the planet we humans live in. If this planet dies, we die. However, it’s not like the people who cut trees have the intention of hurting the planet or causing global warming (or the people that demand the lumber in the first place).
  • People who use cell phones: By using cell phones, they fuel up the industry that manufactures cell phones, which demands the use of coltan (short for columbite-tantalites) in its parts. It turns out that the D.R. Congo holds more than half of the global reserve of coltan. In order to mine this coltan, multiple independent operations in Congo make use of child labora practice that is considered mostly wrong and harmful to children and their families especially because many die while on the job in this case. However, it’s not like the people who use cell phones have the intention of hiring children to do that kind of work (full disclosure: I am also part of this group).

I could go on, but my point is that (1) if you think that you’re not part of an unintentionally harmful intransigent minority: think again, and (2) that unintentionally harmful intransigent minorities are everywhere and are not obvious by nature.

Because these groups are much less obvious, it’s hard to say what percentage of all minority groups fall under this group. I would say that it is a large and significant number and that it is important to be aware of them. On the positive side of things, there is almost always someone fighting for the issue that is causing harm to the harmed group—and all 3 groups I’ve listed above do have people fighting for them which is comforting.

Intentionally Harmful Intransigent Minorities

This group, again, is a minority, but now this group is fully aware that they are causing harm or if they are not, then it’s because they’re not trying because the harm is extremely obvious. That is, if you pull the thread like we did with the unintentionally harmful intransigent minorities, it won’t take too many steps to get to the harm done—and therefore it is fair that if a member of this group claims that they are not doing harm, that they are simply being a bad actor. Let’s go on with some examples like before:

  • People who don’t clean after themselves: While the harm done is relatively benign, it is a clear and obvious harm regardless. When someone doesn’t clean after themselves, they are harming the group or people who will have to spend their time, energy, and resources to clean after them.
  • People who think that “the ends justify the means”: There are many examples of this. The most recent one I saw is about these two papers claiming that housing moratorium has helped with preventing COVID deaths. The problem is not with the conclusion of the study (i.e., the ends); rather, the problem is with the methods (i.e., the means) which based on this video, shows that the research is deeply flawed. This type of research hurts people’s trust in science, and that is harmful to society as a whole because science is one of the primary drivers of improving the standards of living. How can we continue on that trend if we can’t trust the scientific process anymore (which happens when more and more flawed research papers are upheld)?
  • More examples in the next section.

Among intransigent minorities, intentionally harmful intransigent minorities are a minority.

Destructive Intransigent Minorities

Finally, the last group are the destructive ones. The actions or beliefs of the people who are part of the destructive intransigent minorities literally involves hurting someone else or another group. This group is different from the other group in the sense that its members often choose to act on their beliefs. In addition, it’s extremely difficult to change these people’s minds (but not impossible, as the musician Daryl Davis has shown in the past).

Here are some examples (all of which are sensitive topics):

  • People who are racist and actively act on this belief: The most obvious example would be people who are part of the KKK. Another example would be Hitler from Nazis Germany. Finally, another example that is often not seen in the West is the way non-binary people are treated in many non-western countries.
  • People who bully others: This can either be the classic school bully or it can be a boss who bullies their subordinates. It can also be a person who bully waiters and other people whose job is to serve that person by being rude and exigent towards them.
  • People who use their religions as a guide to social punishments: Many religions have strict rules around how one is supposed to behave in various situations. However, some of them either suggest or advocate harsh punishment towards some sins that non-members may commit, and some people in those religions extend their punishments to those non-members—which is wrong because those people don’t follow their religion in the first place.
  • People who physically or mentally hurt (i.e., abuse) others for any reasons: These are people who abuse other people. For instance, parents that mistreat their children. Bullies are kind of part of this group as well. This group is almost an exact recitation of the definition of the destructive intransigent group so it makes sense that they are here.

There are more examples to this, but I also wanted to give some examples of people who do not fall in this group to make a contrast (I would put these in the Intentionally Harmful Intransigent Groups instead):

  • Drug dealers: Drug dealers cause harm to those who eventually consume the drugs that they produce and sell. However, the harm that they cause is, at least in part, wanted by the consumer. That is, the consumer of drugs knows that the drug will hurt them in the long term (and in the short term too sometimes) but they still partake in the activity of consuming drugs. I would put drug dealers on the intentionally harmful intransigent group instead.
  • People who are just racist (i.e., closet racism): These are people who believe they are superior to some other race. The difference here is that the actions these people have doesn’t involve hurting the people in the other group. They often simply avoid being in places where members of the people they don’t like are. I consider this an intentionally harmful but not destructive intransigent group.

Such a contrast is necessary because these groups don’t really fit the definition of destructive intransigent groups. I.e., their actions or beliefs don’t really directly / imminently hurt other people in a physical way. What makes an intransigent group destructive is that the act on their beliefs and directly and imminently cause harm to other people.

Should Society Be Tolerant of the Intolerant?

Ok, now we’re coming in full circle to answer the question posed at the beginning. To this question, my answer would be that we almost always have to be tolerant of the intolerant, but we cannot be tolerant of the harmful actions of the destructive intransigent group (by definition, the members of the other intransigent groups don’t take any intentionally harmful actions because if they were, they would be in this destructive group).

Let’s take the obvious idea that it would be ok to be intolerant of the destructive intransigent minorities. My question then would be, who is to say that their beliefs are incorrect? If society decided to be intolerant of them—that is by somehow removing them from society (e.g., putting them in jail or preventing them from speaking), then society can easily create an echo-chamber in which people from these groups don’t get the opportunity to be converted out of their harmful beliefs and continue to grow in numbers. If society were intolerant of them, people like Daryl Davis would not be able to convert various KKK members out of their harmful beliefs. Another example where this stance fails: in many non-western countries, people who are accepting of non-binary people are actually part of the minority. If we apply this rule to them, then it would be to make society intolerant of people who are tolerant of non-binaries which would harm non-binary people. That is obviously not the right thing to do.

One might argue the following about allowing the ideas of the destructive group but not allowing them to have actions: The problem with intransigent minorities, especially with the destructive ones, is that if they manage to turn the society around and manage to normalize their harmful beliefs, then the society may become tolerant of their harmful actions as well. And, we know that based on the minority rule, it only takes this group to grow to about 3% of the population to be able to normalize their beliefs on society. If we were to let destructive intransigent minorities be given the power to influence society in such a way that their harmful beliefs are normalized (which consequently may normalize their actions), society would be destroyed because those actions are destructive by definition. To this argument, I say that society should take risk because, like Patrick Bet-David says, “in the end, bad ideas will always be exposed”. Essentially, the case I am making here is that of free speech, and the best argument I’ve seen for always promoting free speech are from Ira Glasser on a JRE podcast—so I’ll leave that as a link for anyone who thinks otherwise. Finally, I think another way to combat these bad ideas would be to expose society to them in schools and teach students why these ideas are wrong by following them to their logical ends (where the harm would be more obvious).

With that said, when a member of the destructive intransigent minority (or any group) takes an action that directly or imminently hurts other people, harsh penalties should happen and should happen fast. Actions that intentionally hurt others should not be tolerated in a society.

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Robert M. Vunabandi

Robert M. Vunabandi

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I’m a human, living on earth, and doing Software Engineering. I enjoy reading thoughtful posts, and I like to write! So, here we are.