Sheep thinking and the push for war

We like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals with opinions formed on the basis of independent decisions. But the reality may be that we are little more than products of our culture, with our genetic differences thrown in to mix.

Certainly, we all think a little differently. I do not agree with anyone about everything, and I do not know anyone who does. Nevertheless, when we watch television, or read newspapers, or read books, we absorb the patterns of thought that unite us in belief and separate us from ourselves. A simple test:

Name the hero:
a) Your friend Johnny. b) me. c) The Dalai Lama.

Name the villain:
a) The baker on the corner. b) Peter from Family Guy. c) Osama bin Laden.

Almost everyone in our culture would get the same answers to both questions. We seem to succumb to a kind of cultural groupthink: agreeing without considering why. We hold up the Dalai Lama and other people as paragons of perfection in an imperfect world, while bin Laden (or perhaps Hitler) is the ultimate evil in the universe. Can one truly be an individual when one thinks the same as everyone else?

In teaching the method of “crap detecting” or “resistance to enculturation”, author Karl Albrecht says the following.

“It’s easy to become hypnotized by the swirl of messages that surround us: do this but don’t do that; buy this, own that, wear this, drive that; eat this, drink that, smoke this; don’t believe them–believe us; don’t side with them–side with us; demonize this person and idolize that person; worship this or that celebrity. We’re much more the products of our cultural environment than we want to believe.” (Karl Albrecht, Practical Intelligence, p139; italics in original.)

He also says that every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination, it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.

“Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are being attacked.

Culture can be a kind of voluntary cult. Admittedly, we are not cut off from all opposing opinions; however, we do cut ourselves off from them by refusing to seek them out or denying them when they find us. People like clear and simple answers, emphasised repeatedly, which means their problems should have simple, explicable causes. Yesterday, it was, “the Jews are responsible for all our problems”; today, “Iran is developing nuclear weapons to destroy the world”. Such answers are inevitably framed in “us vs. them” terms, reinforcing divisive collectivist labels, as these are the most powerful of identities. Furthermore, the people need to believe they are thinking for themselves, that all their firmly-grasped ideas came to them in a fit of intelligence, not while absorbing propaganda. When one watches political debates, for instance, one assumes that the panel consists of the entire spectrum of thinkers on the subject, when generally there are only two or three perspectives out of a possible infinite number. Seeking out only opinions we agree with, favouring simple explanations and the erroneous belief that we think for ourselves lead us to shut off our capacity to reason. Instead, we become sheep and we follow the shepherds to war.