To Question the Power is to ‘Cancel’ It

On Arjun Appadurai’s ‘Fear of Small Numbers’

Tucker Lieberman
3 min readNov 29, 2022

Armor by Uwe Baumann from Pixabay

You’re a minority whenever you raise your hand in a meeting to disagree with the way the group is leaning. In that one political sense, as Arjun Appadurai explains in Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (2006), a “minority” is “not an ethical or cultural idea but a procedural one” that surrounds the expression of dissent “in deliberative or legislative contexts in a democratic framework.”

But in another political sense, Appadurai also notes, minorities can be “social,” “cultural,” and “permanent,” aka “substantive.” An ethnic majority tends to consider itself a “whole and uncontested ethnos,” and it uses this belief to justify the sovereignty of the political nation—that is, it imagines itself as heading an ethnostate. The very existence of minoritized groups inherently challenge this national self-conception. The minority’s “small numbers,” Appadurai writes, expose the falsehood of the majority’s “total purity.” And “the smaller the number and the weaker the minority, the deeper the [majority’s] rage” at them. I think the reason for the heightened rage is that the existence of any outsider at all would present an equal conceptual challenge to the majority’s perception of their right to rule; so, the smaller the minority, the more disproportionately powerful it seems to the majority.

In the majority’s imagination, a lone terrorist symbolizes an entire minority army. The terrorist threatens violence but realistically cannot exterminate or overthrow the majority. Although the majority’s ethnic identity itself is not at risk in a concrete way (they can’t possibly lose a battle by attrition), they feel profoundly threatened because part of their identity assumes that they must never be challenged nor questioned. That’s the dogma of their identity. They use it to ground their right to national sovereignty, and they want it to remain impenetrable.

In such an us/them dynamic, Appadurai says, an identity group “often turns predatory by mobilizing an understanding of itself as a threatened majority.” It’s predatory when it defines the “other, proximate social categories” as existential threats and consequently demands their elimination.