Nassim Taleb has presented a straightforward model of how a zealous minority can impose its will over a gigantic scale.
The zealous minority insists on getting its way in some domain of life, while the remaining majority is neutral -- whether it's done this way, that way, or the other way, who cares? That allows the minority's preference to take over the whole group. Then, as that group acts as one piece of an even larger-scale group, and still assuming the majority is neutral at this higher scale, the minority's preference will take over that even larger group. And so on, through larger and larger scales of social interaction, until the entire society is following the ways of a zealous minority.
The example he gives are food taboos, where a minority strictly adheres to some taboo, while the rest of the people don't care one way or the other. If one individual within a family insists on eating Kosher food, and assuming the rest of the family doesn't mind, then that whole family will be eating Kosher because it's too costly to prepare two separate sets of meals all the time. When that family joins a larger group of families -- like at a weekend barbeque -- assuming the other families don't mind eating Kosher hot dogs and drinking Kosher lemonade, then the whole gathering of families will be eating Kosher, because it's too costly to prepare two separate sets of meals.
That could continue to scale up to the level of neighborhood, town, state, region, country, and even world. And all from just one person zealously insisting on Kosher. Here is a visual showing this spread from a single pink unit at the lowest level to the next level in a nested hierarchy, and the next level above that, until the whole hierarchy is taken over:
But somehow we don't see zealous minorities hijacking entire societies in every domain of life, and Taleb emphasizes that this process only goes as far as it does due to the majority being neutral, or where zealousness is asymmetric. Once the majority feels a high-enough cost from going along with the preferences of the zealous minority, they will refuse to adopt the minority preference, and it will be stopped from scaling to higher and higher levels.
For example, most non-Kosher eaters would not notice the difference between Kosher hot dogs and non-Kosher hot dogs. But what about vegan "hot dogs" and real-meat hot dogs? Suddenly the majority is going to squash the demands of the zealous minority, and there will never be a take-over by vegans of any larger-scale group where non-vegans are in the majority.
That is an example where the majority's intrinsic or natural preferences prevent the take-over by the minority. But the majority could also have those costs imposed on them from the outside. That is, the majority's natural feelings may be neutral, but some outside force imposes costs on them for remaining neutral. That will also have the effect of checking the spread of the zealous minority's take-over.
Perhaps the greatest example of this process is assigning collective blame, or guilt by association. In that family with one zealous Kosher eater, the rest of the family may feel neutral -- but suppose that in the larger gathering of families for the barbeque, there is a hostility toward Kosher food. They don't want any superstitious taboos to complicate the easy-breezy atmosphere of a weekend barbeque.
The other families will ostracize the family with the one Kosher member, in effect blaming the neutral members of that family as though they were all zealous Kosher partisans. The other families do not treat them as "that family with the one Kosher member" (blaming the individual) but as "that Kosher family" (blaming the whole group). And that makes sense, since the other families can only observe the final behavior of the family in question -- all members of that family are requesting Kosher food. The other families cannot see that it's only one member of the family that zealously insists on Kosher, while the rest are just going along because they feel neutral deep down. Outside groups can only see final behavior, not deep-down feelings.
Faced with that ostracism, the family in question cracks down on the zealous demands coming from its sole Kosher member. The members of that family tell the Kosher eater to bring their own separate Kosher food or go on a fast. "We do not want to get punished for your personal demands!"
Collective blame also scales up the social levels. Suppose that two schools are going to gather together for a party, and in one of those schools, a single individual has caused the entire school to eat Kosher food, spreading the preference from the individual to their family to the other families with kids at the school.
Suppose that the other school doesn't want any weird taboos getting in the way of a party atmosphere. That school will shame, ridicule, and ostracize the other school for being "that Kosher school" rather than "that school with the Kosher family" or "that school with the Kosher individual". Now the collective blame has been applied two layers above the original individual -- to their family, and then up to the school that encompasses all families who send their kids there.
Faced with being shut out of a gigantic party that would have brought together two schools, the families who share the school with the Kosher family will tell that family to knock it off with their Kosher demands. "We don't want our families to get punished for your family's demands!" That will in turn make the members of that family turn against the sole Kosher member: "We don't want the rest of us in this family to get punished for your personal demands!"
Notice that the outside group will assign collective blame at the highest level of organization that does not include the blamers themselves, or in other words the highest level to which the preference has risen. Those from the anti-Kosher school can only see that the other school has been taken over by the Kosher preference -- they cannot see the path that history took to get there. Maybe everyone there is a deep-down Kosher partisan, maybe only some families are, and maybe it's only one single individual.
If everyone else at the school felt neutral deep down, and only adopted the preference because they didn't care, they have made it impossible for outsiders to discern where the preference originated. Outsiders cannot localize the blame to "who started it," so they blame everyone who has allowed it to spread. Only the insiders can trace the path back to who started it, and put the pressure on them to knock it off, so that the whole group can get relief from the outside costs being "unfairly" imposed on them.
Outsiders can only tell that they themselves are not to blame, since they have the opposite preference. So they will assign collective blame to the next level down in the nested hierarchy.
Finally, it is possible that this practice of collective blame could itself be a take-over of a neutral-feeling majority by a zealous minority. At the anti-Kosher school, perhaps most people and most families feel neutral about Kosher vs. non-Kosher, but there is one zealous crusader against Kosher food. That preference scales up to his family, who will never eat Kosher food, and from that family up to the entire school, which will never serve Kosher food at school functions.
Just as we saw before, outsiders cannot tell how this whole school became anti-Kosher -- only the insiders can trace the history. Therefore the pro-Kosher school will blame the entire other school for being anti-Kosher. As it turns out, collective blame can be applied from either side, and zealous minorities can take over either side.
There would be a battle between two zealous minorities -- pro-Kosher and anti-Kosher -- with most people feeling neutral deep down, but who would receive collective blame from one side or the other. Then the winning side would be the one that imposes higher costs on the neutral majority. If the cost of not serving Kosher food is having a minority wag their finger in your face, while the cost of serving Kosher food is having a minority punch you in the face, then guess what -- no Kosher food will be served.
Our little investigation has shown some of the balancing forces that have prevented zealous minorities from taking over everything, and it has revealed the rationality behind collective blame or guilt by association, which "Intellectual Yet Idiot" types (in Taleb's phrase) tend to poo-poo as an irrational fallacy of primitives.
This rationality has two aspects. First, cognitive -- outsiders cannot see the other group's history in order to localize blame to whoever started the take-over. And second, strategically adaptive -- outsiders set off a chain reaction that roots out the original offenders on the other side, as the collectively-blamed group bores down into its own layers to localize punishment (since they do know who started it and how it spread within their own group), in order to free itself of the collective costs imposed by outsiders.
Naturally, readers will have been thinking about the political climate we are living in these days, and how partisan and polarized it has become. That will be taken up in a following post. But for now, suffice it to say that the most adaptive strategy is to assign collective blame at the highest level of a nested hierarchy that you do not yourself belong to.
After the attempted mass murder yesterday, Republicans ought to blame Democrats as a whole and impose costs collectively until the problem stops. At the next level down, the shooter was a Bernie Democrat rather than a Hillary Democrat, so the Hillary supporters will collectively blame the Bernie supporters. At the next level down, the shooter was obsessed with the Russia conspiracy theory, so the Bernie supporters who don't believe in it will collectively blame the Bernie supporters who do buy into it. Ultimately, what began as Republicans collectively blaming Democrats will get to the localized root of the problem.