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Intransigent Minorities

The first time I ever heard of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he was accusing me of spreading bull**** on Twitter. With hindsight, he may well have been right. Prior to that exchange I had never heard of him, but I was quickly fascinated by his mind, his range, his combative style and his provocative and often counterintuitive conclusions, on subjects as varied as ancient philosophy, demography, financial markets, virtue ethics and religion. His recent Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life is a case in point: by turns it is quirky, intriguing, funny, thought-provoking, skittish, absorbing and full of wisdom.

The insight in the book that most struck me came in a chapter intriguingly entitled “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority.” The point he is making here, on “intransigent minorities”, is strikingly relevant both for changes in the contemporary West on issues like sexuality and religious accommodation (where Christians might generally be seen as losing out), and for the history of the early church (where Christians undoubtedly benefited from it):

The rule we discuss in this chapter is the minority rule, the mother of all asymmetries. 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% of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences.

We’re not talking about the famous “tipping point” of 17% here. If a minority is sufficiently intransigent, it is as low as 3%. Why? Because of the aforementioned mother of all asymmetries:

A kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food, but a nonkosher eater isn’t banned from eating kosher. Or, rephrased in another domain: A disabled person will not use the regular bathroom, but a nondisabled person will use the bathroom for disabled people.

Taleb suggests a hypothetical family of four in which the daughter refuses to eat any genetically modified food. Because of the preference of 25% of the family, the other 75% will go non-GM just to make life easier. When the family goes to a barbecue with a group of friends, if the preference is held (and communicated) with sufficient conviction, everyone at the barbecue will eat non-GM too. Gradually the practice spreads, to the local shop, to the wholesaler, and so on. This is the principle which explains why 70% of New Zealand lamb imports are halal, in a country with a Muslim population of only 3 or 4%.

Similarly, if a business meeting takes place between nineteen Germans and one Japanese person, the entire meeting will be conducted in English. This is a classic expression of the minority rule, and it is all the more interesting because you might assume, if you were a visiting alien, that the language being spoken was the preference of the majority. Flexible majorities, however, are much less influential than intransigent minorities. That’s why revolutions happen. It’s why Islam spreads through marriage, while secularism doesn’t. It’s why Roger Scruton got fired recently. It’s why the church grew so rapidly under the Roman empire, and—more controversially—why it hasn’t been growing so rapidly (at least in the West) for a long time now. It’s why a tiny group that cares a great deal about blasphemy shapes public discourse far more than a very large group who don’t feel that strongly about it. We could go on.

I’m supposed to use this space to think about theology (or at least to look like that’s what I’m doing), so here’s my thought: what if the Corinthian letters comprised an appeal to a flexible church to become a more intransigent minority? What would that mean for our exegesis? For Pauline ethics? For life in the twenty-first century?

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