Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sheepdog Fallacy

I'm an armed citizen and take self-defense seriously. I know the conventional wisdom: We're on our own, when seconds count the police are only minutes away, all of that. I train with a variety of weapons, in a variety of ways, with a variety of people all more adept and expert than I. My goal is to be safe, responsible, effective, and when possible to help others be the same. You'd be hard pressed to find a stronger supporter of the Bill of Rights--all 10 amendments--anywhere.

That said, there's an idea common in the self-defense community that I think is not only incorrect but dangerously so. It was put forward most recently in a pro-gun column in the August 3rd. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and goes like this:
People can be divided into three groups, sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Sheep are the stupid majority, helpless in the face of danger, cowardly, conforming, hiding from threats (real or imagined) in the midst of the herd. Wolves prey on these, snatching sheep and lambs as they can, leaving only bloody scraps behind.* Sheepdogs are the guardians of the flock, bravely standing between the sheep (for whom they have a vague contempt) and the wolves, their sworn enemies. This makes the self-identified sheepdogs very proud. 

Let's consider this for a minute. "Sheepdog" doesn't describe me and probably shouldn't apply to you, either. First, who do sheepdogs serve? Not the sheep. They serve the shepherd, who owns both the herd and the sheepdogs. What's the shepherd doing with the sheep? Making a living, first by regularly shearing, or "fleecing" them, second by eating them, and third by selling them to someone else for either purpose. Sure, the shepherd wants the sheep alive and healthy. His living depends on them. They're not pets, they're products. The sheepdogs aren't pets, either. They're regarded as employees at best, as tools at worst. They exist to do a job.

Second, what is the sheepdog's job? It's not to protect the individual sheep, which they couldn't do in any case. There are simply too many sheep and too few sheepdogs. Having enough sheepdogs to guarantee each sheep's safety is not possible. The goal is to keep sheep losses to an acceptable level. Acceptable to the shepherd, that is. Sheepdogs  protect the herd, not each sheep, and to make this collective protection (and fleecing, and roast lamb) feasible the herd must be controlled, which is the sheepdog's primary job.  Domestic sheep are unable to survive in the wild; without the shepherd's control they couldn't live.

Third, how do sheepdogs control the herd? Through fear. Many years ago in New Zealand I watched sheepdog trials. In response to the shepherd's whistles and hand signals his beautifully trained dogs circled the herd, crouching and staring at the sheep, who nervously moved away in the direction the shepherd wanted. If the sheep weren't fearful they couldn't be herded.

Think about it. Police officers are formally tasked with protecting "society," i.e. the herd, not the individual. (See, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_v._District_of_Columbia) In our society, governments from the Federal to the local increasingly act like shepherds.  Police, the great majority of whom are fine and honorable people, are in the role of sheepdogs, like it or not.

Armed citizens are a problem for the shepherds. Not being sheep, they're not afraid of the sheepdogs and are prepared to take on the wolves, hyenas or whoever. They mean no harm to anyone, have no desire to control others, but are much harder to control and therefore to exploit. Worse, their example might spread. They're not  wolves, but not  sheepdogs either. The shepherds, expecting obedience from everything but wolves, have no clue how to deal with them. Their common response is to try to get rid of armed citizens one way or another, typically by removing the arms. Acting like a sheepdog when you're not gives the shepherds that opportunity.

 From the sheepdog's viewpoint the armed citizen is just in the way, becoming one more source of disorder. They hate disorder. From the herd's viewpoint, they're either scary or a provocation. Sheep have dominance hierarchies, too. Consider George Zimmerman, whose sheepdog fantasies led him to confront Trayvon Martin. Martin might have grown up to be anything from a serial killer to a respected statesman, but at that moment he was just a smartass kid who wasn't going to let himself be pushed around. So he did what sheep do, butted heads with what he thought was another sheep, and now he's dead. Zimmerman, who might have become a respected leader in his community had he learned better judgment, may never get his life back. The shepherds, meanwhile, use this sad incident as yet another excuse to remove the "menace" of the armed citizen from their herds.

Given all that, if you must have an inspirational totem animal, what fits? Well, two of the most dangerous animals on the planet are the rhino and the Cape Buffalo. They're grass-eaters,  grazing happily if unmolested and seriously aggressive when threatened. Neither seems obligated to protect the zebras, wildebeest and so forth from the predators. Rhinos are pretty much solitary, buffalo live in groups that cooperate in their defense.  I wouldn't try to herd either one. Take your pick.

* I like wolves, who generally get a bad rap. Modern urban predators are more like hyenas or jackals, but that's another rant. 


  1. Agree up to the point you claim armed citizens are a problem for the shepherd. These only add an additional threat protection for the shepherds product. You also place shepherds and government as one. Government would be more accurately compared to the predators.

  2. I had a dream last night, really shook me up. I was walking my dog, 2 police came and took him away, spare you the details, but i didn't fight, i collected info as i always do, then pounce when there week for revenge

    Every once in awhile, i've had major eye opening perception changes. That led me to here. I don't' fit in to any of these. (been thinking turtle, but it's a role i'm not meant to play).

    I'm not a wolf anymore, although i still have my wolf tatoo and during darker times, i lived by the rule of sword, but honestly, i just don't like the taste of meat and i'm quite content on being a vegan, but i do enjoy an occasional rib.

    I had to rebuild my life (sick from gmo/processed food), to wake up to a new world and not sure where i fit. I'm going to school for computers, security, i know there true power, as well i have no desire to work for DOD or DHS like my dad. (this is being recorded, but i don't care, i'm not threat) I am however very protective and hate bullies. I regret that was a talented wolf, but all the while i would try to help the sheep and trying to get them to wake up and fend for themselves, but soon got discouraged. I tried to be a sheep, but couldn't drink the koolaid. I love to protect and help build people up, wanted to be a teacher and inspiration, but sadly, i still felt like a wolf in sheep clothing. I know i am no threat to anyone or anything, but know the power that shepards/sheepdogs have if you get in there way. I just want to help people and be of service.

    I know this is weird, but you were the only one that actually made seance on that sheep dog vs wolf thing. (this isn't about gun control), I have a wife and son who i love, but with way things are heading, i'm no longer able to blend in as easily. help them. Feels like there's a spot light on me. At the same time, i'd rather not hide anymore.. but that comes with consequences. I am social person, but being sick for years has left me isolated. Now that i want to be social again, it seems that there is all this PR and bullshit now on the web, it's hard to know what's real, what is not. This is an attempt to figure out what I am, to define what i want to be and who I am not. I do have PTSD, (vet) and i know this makes it hard to reach out as well, in a time were everyone is suspicious of everyone. There are more labels than ever and to be honest, i don't do social media, because it's part of the problem.

    Sigh, what am i.. will i find a place in this crazy world.

  3. I don't usually reply, but wanted to in this case. These little essays are intended to get people to ask themselves questions they wouldn't otherwise think to ask, or sometimes just to let off steam.
    I'm glad you found it meaningful, and hope you and your family will have happy, peaceful lives. Don't think you're alone; everyone struggles. Sometimes you win.

  4. Thank you for not telling me what i am, i guess that's for me to decide. This is just a time to reflect.

    Keep working on being a better me, be positive, good things will attract. A day later always seems to put things your worried about in more perspective.

    I've made new friends at school, I'm healthy, thinking again, with that gratitude of good family and I know what friendship means now. I'm moving now, that's all that matters.

    Overwhelming message from the last few days: Don't preach, but be side by side. But at the same time, you can not hide from the truth, good or bad. All in all, i'm a little bit of all of those types, but then I think that's human nature. If i'm present, not ruled by fear, i have faith that i will be what i need to be for that moment.

    Shit don't need to be so black and white all the time, or for that have meaning.

    Appreciate that provocateur, I wish you happiness and health for you and your family.

  5. I was thinking about this last night. It strikes me that the human role most akin to a sheepdog is kapo.

  6. I'm a honey badger.

  7. Superlative CriticApril 9, 2015 at 5:21 PM

    Nonsense. The sheepdog analogy is a simple analogy intended to simplify a concept, and to completely change it so the original meaning is lost is to defeat the purpose of analogies. The fact that everybody understands the intent of the original analogy shows that it has done its job. An analogy is never intended to communicate complex concepts in a complex manner. Of course, in the course of simplification, some details of the complex subject are lost. An analogy is not intended to capture detail. I could take any analogy and show it's fallacies.

    There are many real-life examples of armed civilians stopping bad guys in public, and stopping massacres. So clearly armed civilians have operated as sheepdogs. If you are a CCW holder, and someone starts shooting up a school - you think you would not try and help? The sheepdog analogy is ENTIRELY valid, because ALL responsible citizens should be deputized because we should all take responsibility for each other. The only difference between police and civilians is that police are paid to do the job for which all citizens are in fact responsible (because for example, not everyone may be equipped or capable at any given time to do it), however if a civilian is in fact equipped and capable, I argue that a responsible civilian SHOULD intervene and become a sheepdog.

    I am not advocating vigilantism, I am advocating civilians following the same laws that police do - when a crime is in progress or has completed, a civilian should be allowed to apprehend a criminal in service to their fellow man AND the law.

  8. From the article: So he (Travon Martin) did what sheep do, butted
    heads with what he thought was another sheep, and now he's dead.

    No, he was a thug, hardly a passive sheep. Poor analysis.

    He slammed Zimmermans head into the concrete
    from a full mount position. Thats crystal clear illegal deadly force in
    the guise of an "educational, teach-you-a-lesson beatdown" from Martin. Poor analysis from the author. Sheep dont use deadly force. See sentence 2 above.

    "Butted heads" is a soft ball slow pitch use of language and analysis.

    Also, there was nothing wrong with Zimmerman keeping an eye on Martin as
    a member of his community. Blaming him for that is the author putting
    the Lame in Blame. Martin ambushed Zimmerman.

  9. Dear Super,

    Thanks for your thoughts. It's hard to be a provocateur if nobody gets provoked. Which doesn't mean I agree. In fact, you're wrong. People do think in terms of analogies and categories, most of the time about most things. It's part of what I used to study when I was an active academic. People act as sheepdogs when they define themselves that way. Second, examples prove nothing. I'm reminded of a story in which a cleric, looking at a painting of people saved from a shipwreck thanking God, said it proved God's existence since they'd prayed for salvation, and were saved. A philosopher replied "What about the ones who prayed and weren't saved?" Finally, I won't take time to discuss values, which are purely personal. I have my own ways of contributing to my neighbor's welfare and safety, and they don't include winding up like George Zimmerman.

  10. Your first mistake is in thinking that sheep are passive among themselves. Google some videos of rams in mating season and see if you want to butt heads with them. Further, I never said Zimmerman was wrong in a moral or legal sense. I said he didn't use good sense. He could have accomplished his goals without risk to himself, or to Martin, punk that he was. I suspect that if you asked him today Zimmerman would say that he should have stayed in the car.

  11. If you mean ram, then you would have said ram. Sheep connotates sheep not rams. The importance of definitional rigor of language...

    Maybe the new turn of phrase is sheep and rams. Works for me.

    I suspect that if you asked him....is conjecture and supposition on your part to justify your point. Im not biting on assumption.

    Youre a psychologist with a CHL. You have my respect for that as a CHL holder and citizen myself.

    By having a CHL and carrying, we operate with "mantle of protection" to ourselves and those innocents around us when we can legally articulate scaling self defense force and choose to act on it.

  12. Your first comment is kind of picky. Read this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep, scrolling down to "dominance hierarchies." And yes, it was a metaphor so let's not get into any more wordplay. As to what Zimmerman may or may not wish at this point, yes, that was a rhetorical device. OK. Note your last paragraph makes a very important and consequential assumption. I won't argue it here but urge you to learn the realities of self defense from people who've seen the consequences up close.

    You and another commentator have convinced me to write some more on this. Stay tuned.

  13. I train extensively with the top 1% level instructors -legal and tactical - including Mas Ayoob.

    I am willing to exercise and create the consequences of deadly force in legally articulated self defense to protect my life, my family's lives, and potentially innocent third parties under the mantle of my protection.

    CHL holders unwilling to do that carry something worse than a talisman

  14. I wish you luck, and hope you never need to exercise your right. Like all the others, the right of self-defense comes with responsibilities and costs. I'll leave you with a quote from a favorite cartoon hero, Super-Chicken:
    "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."


I welcome your comments.