The Tenth Man Principle

When I was a boy, my mother would give me and two of my sisters a quarter to go to the movies at the Northern Lights Theater in Cordova, AK. We were a divorced family at the time and I had a stepdad in the home. I was unaware of the trauma we had gone through, alcoholism and domestic violence, that led to my dad’s absence. The trauma was building up in the three of us, and Saturday movies were a treat we could look forward to. A quarter bought us admission, popcorn and a soda. For a couple of hours we could escape into a world of cartoons, serials like Rin Tin Tin and The Lone Ranger, plus a fun movie that kids find exciting because of the fantasy worlds they create to escape into. I tell this story because over 50 years later, movies are still my escape. I see a lot of movies.

Some time ago, indulging this escapism habit, I was watching a Zombie apocalypse flick titled World War Z, with Brad Pitt seeking the source of the Zombie virus afflicting human beings, on behalf of the United Nations. Along the way, he visits Jerusalem, where the leaders had hurried the construction of a protective barrier to keep out Zombies. The reason Jerusalem protected itself? Apparently because of the application of a principle it had developed in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War sometimes referred to as the Tenth Man Principle [and other times as the “Devil’s Advocate”].

OK. Let me get to the point. The Tenth Man is a principle I understood immediately. Not only was I alive during the Yom Kippur War, I was an undergraduate at Princeton University. The year following the war, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir visited the campus and was awarded The James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service. She was the Israeli Prime Minister during the Yom Kippur War. Her government missed critical signs that war was imminent. They created The Tenth Man to prevent his from happening again.

The principle resonated with me because I have been a contrarian. Not always intentionally, but I realized some time ago that I ask a lot of questions, and I am not always satisfied with the answers I get. I remember, during a meeting of the American Indian/Alaska Native Task Force on Suicide Prevention, asking why one of our strategies was to educate the entire public about suicide prevention. Before I could even explain the reason for my question, I was “hooted down” by the rest of the task force. I felt like it wasn’t acceptable among that group to question what they believed. It made me dislike service on similar groups.

A prominent public official recently asked me about serving on a public body overseeing an area of public interest. Because of my experience with groups, I thought quickly about how to avoid serving, but still remain an adviser on issues within my expertise. Group-think and conformity are enemies generously welcomed in most groups. I am a Tenth Man in a world that rarely accepts us. In fact, seven of my colleagues in a poorly managed business recently voted in a manner calculated to remove me from their group because I refused to conform to their strategy.

The Tenth Man is designed to institutionalize contrarian thinking. Here is a quote describing what the purpose for the Tenth Man is. [LINK HERE]

“Following the recommendation of the Agranat Commission in 1973-1974, Military Intelligence established a Control Unit that was expected to play this role of the devil’s advocate. Its responsibility was to produce a range of explanations and assessments of events that avoided relying on a single concept, as happened in 1973. Brooks puts it a bit more dramatically: if ten people are in a room, and nine agree on how to interpret and respond to a situation, the tenth man must disagree. His duty is to find the best possible argument for why the decision of the group is flawed.”

I accept Irving Janus’ comments, from the same article, relating to general agreement in a meeting as “Group Think.” 

“The more amiability and esprit de corps among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by group think, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.”

Acceptance into the group generally relies on conformance, and usually the group is comprised of people who are politically oriented. That is, they react to occurrences, not processes. They view themselves as “Problem Solvers,” or “Fixers.” 

Tenth Men are essential (I include women in the definition). It is our duty to look for the flaws in every argument.

So if I sometimes appear disagreeable, it is because we are not served well by group-think. We are served well by a reasoned, factual and well thought-out discussion that addresses flaws in our arguments. We don’t always recognize the right solution, and by listening to others, we might improve what we are trying to do by someone else’s contrary viewpoints. Let me leave this topic with this quote, which sums up the reason for the Tenth Man Principle far better than I can.

Our systems badly need loyal opposition-- not mere contradiction, in the famous words of Monty Python, but argument. A loyal opposition has the common good front of mind; it shares the ends but purposefully dissents on the means. A loyal opposition is not a contradiction in terms, but rather the promise of clear decision making and accountability.” [LINK HERE]

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