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.

Science is The Foundation of The Walls We Build

“Science, at its best, also espouses such cosmopolitan ideals. That data is neutral, and science is apolitical, makes for an alluring narrative. By clinging to it, the scientist appears assured, almost noble, rising above the messy and the mundane by sheer force of intellect.

But reality does not conform to such convenient self-delusion. Pretending to be above and beyond politics is by itself a political position; in adopting it, one has aligned with the state and sided with the powerful…

…A scientist can journey to the end of Earth and the edge of time, but never leave the narrow corridors of prejudice…

…In the eyes of the settler, the border is no man’s land; the natives are part of the wilderness, waiting to be claimed. From charting night skies to splitting the atom, the advancement of science at both ends of the physical scale accompany a story of exploitation and conquest. The applications of science guard the border, capturing bodies and confining the imagination. To realize science’s liberatory potential, the work must start with reimagining the architecture of society, where walls are no more…

…Diversity threatens absolute power. What deviates from the center must be destroyed…

…We all inhabit an unjust system and make our compromises in order to live. When confronted with our complicity, the instinctive response is to deny and look away. This is why the border and the frontier have such strong holds on our collective consciousness. Both come in various forms. The prison, as Angela Davis and Gina Dent explained, is also a border. As long as the criminal, the foreigner, the other, are kept behind walls, we can hold on to the world as we know it and recognize our place in it.”

-Yangyang Cheng, “The edge of our existence: A particle physicist examines the architecture of society.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. December 7, 2020.

The Market of Truth & Faction

“Fooling people only requires telling them what they want to hear, over and over again. People love to hear how right they are.”

—Stan Beeman, in The Americans.

The market for truth is a small one. On the scale of the universe, it is true that we are insignificant. On that level, we don’t factor into truth at all.

But, this is true of truth more generally. The truth is that on every level above the personal, the immediate environments of our day-to-day existence, our lives are of no consequence.

But, we want to believe we matter. We want to be powerful, famous and wealthy. We want agency in a world where most of what we think or do is irrelevant and worthless.

The only way to achieve that goal of relevance and worth is to believe in anything other than the truth. Our ego wants to place itself as the center of the universe, like the earth in Medieval times, and believe that the music of the spheres is playing for us. But, it’s a lullaby, lulling us into a sleep of self.

Fractions of the truth, leads to fragmented minds and to faction. The Other becomes a defining factor in maintaining significance, despite the truth. Faction is integral to dissatisfaction. But, it’s all an illusion built on the desire for significance, which is built on someone else’s insignificance.

All of it is a temple of suffering, the cornerstone of which is our rejection of our own insignificance. What would happen if we were able to accept this truth?

Conquering Evil

“Evil can not be conquered within this world. It can only be resisted in oneself.”

Kung Fu (television series), Master Po

The world is full of people that look at the world they live in and see evil all around them. It’s easy to point to outliers, such as Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, to illustrate the point. But, looking at individuals is a good way to only look at trees and miss the forest.

The fundamental problem is that every human being has evil tendencies, and they live with other human beings that use those tendencies to increase the group’s chances of survival in a world with limited resources. Hunter-gatherer groups protect sources of water for their groups exclusive use from other hunter-gathers. With the advent of agriculture, surpluses allowed a larger population, which could then take control over the sources of water in their area from hunter-gatherers. Larger societies took from smaller ones, and killed and consolidated with outside groups. Human history is simply a chronicle of the rise and fall of these groups, whether it be tribe, city or modern nation.

How then can these tendencies be eradicated? How can evil be fought?

The first step is to transcend the notion that our group is somehow special, whether this idea is talked about as “The Chosen People”, the “twice-born” of Hinduism, the “Elect”, or any of the other many permutations of this idea of a special group that is above others. This kind of thinking allows for a double standard of morality, where the in-group is treated one way and the out-group is treated in another.

The second step is to realize that all human beings are the same, with capacities for both good and evil. Evil is the product of desires to get the things we want or need. We need to turn and face this tendency in ourselves and make a choice. That’s the only evil we have any hope of eradicating, and realistically, most people can only hope to reign in their evil tendencies, particularly in a cultural environment that promotes them.

Other 9/11s

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean government was overthrown by a CIA-backed military coup d’état that killed or disappeared a few thousand people. Over the years, the government of General Pinochet arrested, imprisoned and tortured more than 28,000 people and over 200,000 people (2% of the population) were forced into exile because of this coup.

There are other 9/11s. We would do well to remember these others, where the United States were the perpetrators and not the victims. I try to do this by playing a song by Victor Jara, who was tortured and found dead in the streets of Chile on September 16, 1973.

It might also be worthwhile to think about today. There is a 9/11 being created in Yemen by Saudi Arabia using weapons made in the United States and with the support of the United States government.