The 40-year-old dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi fell during the "Arab Spring" of 2011. That same year, a bunch of researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic tried to figure out how extreme ideas tip from "weird" to "normal" so suddenly. Being responsible scientists, they didn't do this by fomenting an insurrection of their own and riding into power on the bloody confirmation of their hypothesis. Instead, they set up a network to model the spread of ideas in human society.
Most of the people in the model, like most people in society, were willing to change their beliefs to avoid conflict with the people around them. The scientists then "sprinkled" extremists into the model -- people who could not be convinced of anything themselves, but could convince others. You know, the Captain America types. They found that when the number of extremists was below 10 percent, those fringe ideas couldn't make much progress. Professor Boleslaw Szymanski even said, "It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority."
But, he added, "Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame."
Now, 11 percent of people believing in an idea and thus being able to completely overthrow a mustache-twirling tyrant sounds pretty fucking great right now. But it cuts both ways. An idea can seem too awful to even speak one day and be shouted by mainstream news anchors the next. Extreme ideas are exciting, they draw attention, they dominate the conversation.
If we want to end on a positive note, here's the best I can offer:
That model was not meant to replicate a polarized society like ours. Maybe having a ton of extremists all trying to sell different ideas actually makes our society immune to any one type of extremism. Kinda like how in that one episode of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns has every disease known to man, but can't die because his diseases are all in perfect balance.
20th Century Fox
That's a stable foundation upon which to build a peaceful future, right?
Robert Evans is the host of the Behind The Bastards podcast.
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