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How the most intolerant wins – Nassim Taleb’s latest book has an important lesson for India

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been one of the most influential writers of our times. He is a scholar, statistician, former trader, and an alumnus of Wharton Business School. His books ‘Black Swan’, ‘Fooled by Randomness’, ‘Antifragile‘ have addressed fundamental issues plaguing the world.

Taleb takes on self-proclaimed experts and the ‘intellectual-yet-idiots’ in academia, public policy, economics and media in his books and articles. His latest book ‘Skin In The Game‘ is yet another addition to his collection of books which reveal some interesting insights into the way the world functions.

The author, in his preface, tells us what his latest book is about. Skin In The Game is about four major topics in one, he says. They are:

  • Uncertainty and reliability of knowledge (bullshit detection in simpler words)
  • Symmetry in human affairs (fairness, justice, responsibility, reciprocity)
  • Information sharing in transactions
  • Rationality in complex systems and in the real world

These four cannot be separated when one has his/her skin in the game as per Taleb. The central concept of the book is what Taleb calls ‘skin in the game’ which coincides with the name of the book. The author defines the concept as below :

Skin in the game definition of a commons: a space in which you are treated by others the way you treat them, where everyone exercises the silver rule (Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you)”

The author has explained the same concept simpler words as below:

“Beware of the person who gives advice, telling you that a certain action on your part is “good for you” while it is also good for him, while the harm to you doesn’t directly affect him.”

‘What is the utility of this concept?’, one may ask. The world is filled with intellectuals and gurus who will tell you what is good for a country or society. The recent incident of so-called human rights activists criticising India for not accepting Rohingya refugees is one of the best examples. These activists will continue to live happily in their own countries while lecturing down to others who will face problems in real time. The ‘idea of India’ brigade in our own country is also filled with such individuals. They preach secularism and vehemently defend conversions, inter-faith marriages even though they are aware that this is a one-way road.

Apart from the introduction, the book has six main parts which largely deal with topics of uncertainty, the dominance of a stubborn minority, freedom, scientism, fake news and religion.

Taleb’s writing is not rigidly compartmentalised. He is not a difficult writer to understand, though he often invokes math, philosophy and Greek mythology in his writing. The book is an eye-opener on almost all topics it deals with and is therefore worth a read.

However, the most relevant concept in the book for an Indian audience is dealt with hereafter.

The Most Intolerant Wins

However, the most important lesson from this book for a reader in the Indian scenario would be his second chapter ‘The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority’. In this chapter, he talks about how a minute community of Jews/Muslims in the USA is able to influence the availability (Kosher/Halal meat) in entire America. He talks of ‘one-way street of religions’ and explains how the Muslim majority was achieved in a largely Christian West Asia and Egypt. Taleb lists two asymmetric rules that enabled this to happen:

“First, under Islamic law, if a non-Muslim man marries a Muslim woman, he needs to convert to Islam- and if either parent of a child happens to be Muslim, the child will be Muslim*. Second, becoming Muslim is irreversible, as apostasy is the heaviest crime under the religion, sanctioned by the death penalty.

*There are some minor variations across regions and Islamic sects. The original rule is that if a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim man, he needs to convert. But practice, in many countries, both need to do so.”

The author says that under these two asymmetric rules a small minority of Muslims can reduce an existing majority into a minority over a period of time. All one needs is a small rate of inter-faith marriages, he says.

This reminded me of the latest verdict by the Supreme Court in the Hadiya case. Several studies on the demographic change in Kerala confirm Taleb’s analysis. The same phenomenon is happening at a slower pace in entire India as well. One might wonder as to what is the solution for Hindus to resist such a possibility. Taleb has an answer, albeit in another unrelated part of the same chapter. He says:

“Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, it will destroy our world. So, we need to be more intolerant with some intolerant minorities. Simply they violate the silver rule (Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you). It is not permissible to use ‘American values’ or ‘Western values’ in treating intolerant Salafism (which denies other people’s right to have their own religion). The west is currently in the process of committing suicide.”

This fact is relevant to India as much as it is to the West. Therefore, Hinduism and Hindus must drop a significant part of their pride in being ‘tolerant’ all the time and adopt some ‘intolerance’ to merely survive. For that, we have to first stop being politically correct in our discourse.

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