A huge portion of society’s problems stem from a failure to coordinate. Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a parable on this type of failure. In the story, a group of con men convince an emperor that they can make him a magical set of clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is stupid or unfit for their position. The emperor’s advisers all act as if they can see the clothes, fearing ridicule if they admit otherwise, as does the emperor himself. The emperor goes on parade naked, and each person pretends that they, too, can see the clothes. Almost no one is willing to stick their neck out and say what each person is privately thinking: “The emperor has no clothes.” They wanted some way to know that everyone else saw it too before agreeing. But this type of problem is not restricted to fairy tales. Imagine a fraternity with a long-standing tradition of brutally hazing new pledges. All current members are uncomfortable with the situation, but they believe that there is popular support, and no one is willing to speak out for fear of being ostracized. Imagine a cult whose members have privately come to realize that its practices are wrong. None of these people are willing to leave on their own because they fear the cult’s prescribed punishment for desertion. Or simply look at the history of racial segregation in the United States. A survey from 1968 found that while many white Americans privately rejected the need for segregation, almost all believed that the majority of whites were in favor. Had these silent dissenters been able to discover one another, the true, much smaller level of support could have been revealed and public opinion shifted, ending the cruel practice much sooner. The common theme in all these scenarios is fear. People fear losing status within their group or becoming an outsider when they object to the orthodoxy. Even when someone does speak out, those who privately agree are safest if they toe the line, publicly denouncing the dissenter lest they, too, be cast out. The status quo is maintained, and it remains stable even if each individual privately hates it. This problem can be solved. If it was possible to signal dissent in such a way that only fellow dissenters can possibly know, the fear of losing status is eliminated.
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