The Challenge of the 20%

“One fifth of people are against everything all the time.”

-Robert Kennedy

I was reading somewhere that communities evolve away from reason to affirmation. In the initial stages of community formation, there are many elements that serve as a kernel that the community can form around. Sometimes it is an idea. Sometimes it is a person. Sometimes it is an activity or process. In the beginning, there is a choice. You want to be part of the community for some reason.

But, at some point, the community itself becomes the draw. If you think of the lifecycle of churches, for instance, it may initially serve as a gathering place of a town, drawn together by the ideas of the religion. But, at some point, the ideas of the religion becomes less important than the community that has formed around those ideas. Then, this serves as the focal point for joining the group. It’s no longer a means of serving some other reason beyond the group itself. The community becomes the reason, and when that transition happens, what is important is affirmation. You pledge allegiance to the community in exchange for the benefits of the community. There may still be a kernel. Key people that run or support the church and enable its continuation. But, they are no longer central to why people join.

Communities can continue long after they are viable. Or, they can transform further, into something that bears little resemblance to their original shape. Eventually, it will reach a point that it needs to be revitalized, to either return to its roots or find new development pathways. You see this in major movements like the Reformation in response to the decadence of the Catholic Church during feudal times, and it’s inability to adapt to the changes of the world around it.

Some don’t have meaningful pathways for renewal. Their purpose has been served and members of the community fade away, to drift off to join other communities and lend their vitality to them.

When I think about this process, I think about the value that the 20% play, the people that are against everything, particularly the community itself. In A Rebel Without a Cause, it’s interesting to think about this dynamic. On one level, a motorcycle club or gang is another type of community, one that undermines existing social structures. But, in another way of looking at it, they are calls for revitalization, the first signs that a community has entered on the pathway toward stagnation.

I think it is this dissatisfied 20% that plays an important role as first mover, that highlights the problems in the communities they are absorbing members from and create reactions that lead to revitalization. Or, they can affirm the health of the existing system, who can marginalize and maintain community cohesion in the face of the chaotic forces this group can bring to bear.

But, in some ways, the 20%, even when they have their own communities, will always be outside them. They are against everything, even on some level the communities they are part of. They play a valuable function for the other 80%. However, it’s a more difficult way of being in the world.

The Star Chamber, Cancel Culture and Living for the Bench

“By all accounts intense and single-minded, Dr. Kariko lives for “the bench” — the spot in the lab where she works. She cares little for fame. “The bench is there, the science is good,” she shrugged in a recent interview. “Who cares?” …

…Dr. Kariko’s struggles to stay afloat in academia have a familiar ring to scientists. She needed grants to pursue ideas that seemed wild and fanciful. She did not get them, even as more mundane research was rewarded.

“When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

-Gina Kolata, “Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus.” The New York Times. April 8, 2021.

The Star Chamber was an English court that was “originally established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people so powerful that ordinary courts might hesitate to convict them of their crimes. However, it became synonymous with social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of the power it wielded,” according to Wikipedia. It strikes me as an apt phrase to indicate received opinion and how power is used to enforce conformity, where there is often an inverse relationship between how much deviation and the power applied to deviants.

When I read about The Star Chamber, the analogy to Twitter was obvious. Of course, there are relevant differences too. For example, while both serve as a kind of extra-legal enforcement mechanism, the Star Chamber was a sanctioned institution populated by legal professionals, whereas Twitter is closer to a mob.

There’s a tension. On one hand, society needs some kind of mechanism to hold the powerful into account. On the other, this mechanism tends to get out of control and used arbitrarily.

A think one way of thinking about how it should be used is the same rule that makes for comedy. You need to punch up, at the rich, the powerful, or the famous. But, if your comedy is targeting the weak or defenseless, then it isn’t really comedy.

Same goes for the checks on the powerful. If it’s moving in to act on the weak, then it’s not really doing its job, and the critiques of “cancel culture” are on point.

But, I think the real nuance comes in with people that are different. People can be different, and not necessarily weak. Perhaps they have a different focus, like Dr. Kariko living for “the bench”. A think a real sign of a strength of a culture is how well variance is tolerated within niche communities of the larger culture. Among scientists doing bench top research, is there an effort to be inclusive of interests that lie outside of the mainstream?

All of which is academic. The people who are rich and powerful will make these decisions. What the general population thinks they “should” be doing is largely irrelevant to them. So, the question for each of us is what should we be doing? I think Dr. Kariko is one good answer. Focus on the things you care about and get by. Don’t get involved in the larger culture wars that sap your time and energy away from what you’d rather be doing.

On a slightly more broader level, I think it is a call for each of us to try to see where we can support people of divergent views, backgrounds, etc. because it is by fostering an environment where different perspectives can be expressed and supported that we create conditions better for human flourishing, which in turn helps for more flourishing communities – a virtuous circle.

A Community is Defined By Its Center and Not Its Periphery

“My sense is that you need to build up a nucleus of people who know each other and who can network and support each other [in developing a proficiency in a technology with the complexity of R.]”

—Hadley Wickham in an interview with Dan Kopf, “What’s next for the popular programming language R?Quartz. August 17, 2019.

Made me think of a Larry Wall Slashdot interview, question 7, from back in the day.