Saturday, May 12, 2018

When Tolerance Runs Amok

The conventional wisdom is there is always a fear of mob rule (or tyranny of the majority). But in truth, it doesn’t take much to tip the scales. Yes, we’ve all heard about the tipping point, but why is this so and where can it become a bigger issue in our tribal ethos?

Taleb’s book is all about nonlinear dynamics and the asymmetries that can shake things up from an uncompromising minority. He remarks, “Let us conjecture that the formation of moral values in society doesn’t come from the evolution of the consensus. No, it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtue on others precisely because of intolerance.” 

Case in point, Taleb notes that if there's one Orthodox Jew or Sunni Salafi in a community, they will require the local market to carry kosher/halal foods. In some cases, it's just easier for companies to meet this criteria for all its products assuming costs are reasonable. As such, most soft drinks are kosher. The tolerant are just fine with drinking kosher.

At times, these asymmetric dynamics can tip the scales for more significant change. In the case of the civil rights movement, it was a minority group of people who would be peacefully intolerant of injustice toward Black Americans. Yet, the “sad news is that one person looking at mankind as an aggregate may mistakenly believe that humans are spontaneously becoming more moral, better, and more gentle, with better breath, when this applies to only a small proportion of mankind.” It would seem it's always more challenging to tip the scales toward goodness than the inverse.

In most situations, it is the intolerant person with crappy values who can more successfully take things down many notches even if not supported by the majority. That’s why it’s good to stay away from toxic people. They’ll always suck the air out of a room faster than the healthy folks can keep things inflated. In our current cultural climate, where we see a sort of dug-in tribalism with intolerance toward each other side, it would seem things can get fairly dicey in our “open” system. 

The underlying premise of democracy in the civil sense is to tolerate the freedom individuals have to manifest their essence (as long as it doesn’t impede on other people to manifest their essence and as long as it doesn’t allow such manifestations to run amok into utter chaos). So in other words, we need an ordered freedom where such ideas and activities are tolerated in such a way that it doesn’t negate freedom.

This is harder than it looks. The Founding Fathers sided on liberty, but knew that religion was a critical piece in keeping things in place. But not just any religion, but one that was legally tolerant of other practices of religion while offering a coherent organizing principle that freedom could hang off of.

In a time when a secular, tribal ethos leads the way, what standards do we use to measure good or bad values that could emerge from freedom? In D. C. Schindler’s Freedom from Reality, he mentions several criteria as to what he would consider to be diabolical values (or values that divide) that should be avoided if…
  1. the diabolical presents a deceptive image that substitutes for reality;
  2. it is characterized by an essential negativity;
  3. it renders appearance more decisive than reality, and indeed, better than reality according to the measure of convenience and efficiency;
  4. it has a supra-individual dimension that is nevertheless impersonal: that is, it tends to take the form of an essentially self-referential system;
  5. it is "soulless" in the sense of lacking an animating principle of unity; and
  6. it is essentially self-destructive.
We will never have liberalism perfected; so maybe the best we can hope for is pluralism with a unifying center that tolerates the least diabolical values for a society. And I'd add that unifying center ideally offer some depth (soul) to the span (diversity of people and ideas).  

Otherwise, the self-destructive nature of diabolical tolerance will undermine freedom itself. And when you throw nonlinear dynamics into the mix, it makes it clear that we can screw things up all too easily.

Earth will never be a paradise, but it could perhaps be prevented from approaching closer and closer to being a cheap imitation of Hell. — Dávila