Schism Begets Schism

Re­lated: On the im­por­tance of Less Wrong, or an­other sin­gle con­ver­sa­tional locus

One thing that seems to be a pat­tern across the his­tory of hu­man or­ga­ni­za­tions, pro­jects, and even so­cial scenes is that schism begets schism. In other words, if there is a large and cen­tral space, once peo­ple start split­ting off from it this can of­ten lead to the “floodgates open­ing” and lots and lots of new groups form­ing—of­ten in a way that even those who ini­tially wanted to change things dis­like!

Per­haps the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of this is Protes­tantism. Martin Luther did not want to start his own church, told peo­ple not to call them­selves “Luther­ans”, and dis­agreed quite ag­gres­sively with many of those who are now lumped in with him as “Protes­tant Re­form­ers”. How­ever, once challenges to the au­thor­ity and unity of the Church got started, they were hard to stop, and Luther soon found that those around him had at times gone in di­rec­tions he did not want—and now there are over 40 differ­ent Lutheran de­nom­i­na­tions in North Amer­ica alone, to say noth­ing of all the other Protes­tant groups!

How­ever, such a trend is not only limited to re­li­gious groups. Poli­ti­cal move­ments some­times have a similar sce­nario be­fall them—for in­stance, the Repub­li­can side of the Span­ish Civil War was sub­stan­tially harmed by in­ter­nal schisms, sub­fac­tions, and dis­putes. To use a less con­se­quen­tial ex­am­ple, I’ve been a part of on­line com­mu­ni­ties that have been hurt by re­peated schisms over mod­er­a­tion policy—once peo­ple get fed up with the mod­er­a­tion in one place, they start an­other with much the same purview but differ­ent mod­er­a­tors.

Once schism gets go­ing, it can be hard to stop—and once things get split, much of the benefit of a sin­gle con­ver­sa­tion lo­cus be­gins to de­grade. In­deed, the “LessWrong di­as­pora” quite harmed this pro­ject—we still haven’t fully re­cov­ered from hav­ing the com­mu­nity split as much as it did, even though things have been im­prov­ing a bit on that front more re­cently.

Now, some will say that per­haps splits are good—per­haps one space isn’t right for ev­ery­one, and it would be bet­ter to have a di­verse range of norms that can ap­peal to differ­ent in­ter­ests. Hence we see things like the archipelago model of com­mu­nity stan­dards, which aim to set up a situ­a­tion where one broader com­mu­nity con­tains many sub­groups with their own rules and sys­tems.

In prac­tice, though, I claim this doesn’t work, be­cause schism begets schism. Peo­ple say “if you don’t like it, go make your own space”—but they say that be­cause it’s an easy dis­mis­sal, not be­cause it would ac­tu­ally be bet­ter! In point of fact, if ev­ery­one who was told such did go and make their own space, the cen­tral body would not sur­vive—“if you don’t like it, go make your own” works as a dis­mis­sal pre­cisely be­cause it won’t be fol­lowed! The world where ev­ery­one “goes and makes their own” at the drop of a hat is sub­stan­tially worse and it is sub­stan­tially harder to form a pro­duc­tive coal­i­tion and get things done un­der those norms.

In point of fact, do­ing im­por­tant things of­ten re­quires co­or­di­na­tion, team­work, and agree­ing to com­pro­mises. If you in­sist on ev­ery­thing be­ing ex­actly your way, you’ll have a harder time find­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors, and in many cases that will be fatal to a pro­ject—I do not say all, but many. Now, it’s pos­si­ble to get around that by throw­ing a lot money at the prob­lem—peo­ple will agree to a lot of ec­cen­tric­i­ties if you pay them enough, as they did with Howard Hughes—and it’s pos­si­ble to get around that by throw­ing a lot of charisma at the prob­lem—Steve Jobs was able to be ex­tremely perfec­tion­ist thanks to his per­sonal charisma and (in?)fa­mous “re­al­ity dis­tor­tion field”—but if those op­tions aren’t available, you’re go­ing to have to make some com­pro­mises, and if the norm is “if the way things are lo­cally doesn’t work for you, leave and make a new space!” that’s go­ing to be very difficult.

In­deed, once you start al­low­ing this sort of “take my ball and go home” be­hav­ior, where does it stop? First you have one per­son who thinks they are be­ing mis­treated, and they go and start their own group to work with their rules. Then they try to en­force their rules, and now they drive some­one else off, and so on and so on. Pretty soon you have lots and lots of petty lit­tle fief­doms, each com­posed of just a few peo­ple and none of which are get­ting all that much done. It is bet­ter in my view to try to pre­vent even the first schism and keep things unified.

Yes, this means you’ll have to work with peo­ple who don’t fully agree with you at times, and yes, this means that there will have to be some agree­ments on how best to use shared in­sti­tu­tions and spaces—but the way I see it, the his­tory of schisms in­di­cates that that is far bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive!