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Some Closing Thoughts on Wolves, Sheep and Sheepdogs Analogy

(We still have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

So this is it. Our (probably) last post on the sheepdog analogy, at least in the foreseeable future.

Obviously we had some space limitations in our Slate piece “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech” We didn’t have room to debunk more of the analogy, without losing focus. So, since we have our own blog, here are some final thoughts:

This is a very troubling analogy...for libertarians and small government conservatives.

Just think, what is the job of a sheepdog?

No, not the fictional sheepdog on this shirt, but a real sheepdog. I’m not a farmer (no surprise), but my sister-in-law once took her border collies to a sheep ranch where they train the sheepdogs. The video she brought back is below.

Notice what you don’t see: wolves. Notice what you do see: a sheepdog herding sheep. Yep, it’s just sheep and an untrained (but instinctual) sheepdog. The sheepdog doesn’t give a damn about wolves. Nope, all it cares about is telling the sheep what to do. That’s right, the sheep want to go left, go right, stop in place, go too fast. The sheepdog says, ‘Nope, you go where my master wants you to go.”

And that my friends, is the ultimate, unintended irony of libertarians (or small government conservatives) embracing the sheep, sheepdog and wolves analogy. They praise the idea of sheepdogs as protectors of freedom, while also worrying that President Obama wants to take their guns and steal their freedom. But presidents don’t steal freedom; sheepdogs do. Police forces and armies steal freedom, not social workers.

The sheepdog, far from being a symbol of liberty, should be the symbol of oppression. Sheepdogs herd the people, telling them what they can or can’t do. They represent fascism, not liberty.

We love unintended ironies.

Structural solutions versus human solutions

This is my (Michael C’s) second least favorite part of the Grossman essay.

“They [parents] can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits throughout their kids’ schools. But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kid’s school. Our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured, by school violence than by school fires, but the sheep’s only response to the possibility of violence is denial. The idea of someone coming to kill or harm their children is just too hard, so they choose the path of denial.”

Grossman is utterly incorrect in his analysis of the situation above. Yes, fires have plummeted in schools, but firefighters aren’t the reason why. Fires have declined across America largely because, as a society, we realized that firemen are a terribly ineffective way to deal with fires. Instead, overhead sprinkler systems douse fires before they spread out of control. Improved construction techniques and improved electrical systems reduce the chances of fires starting in the first place. Same with regulations (yes regulations) banning space heaters or flammable furniture and clothes. In short, America created structural changes to prevent fires in schools. If we hadn’t changed the structures fires occurred in, no amount of firefighters would have helped.

Are there structural changes we could make to prevent school shootings? Absolutely: remove the means of mass murder from society. The above historical analogy about fires versus violence in schools indicates that we need structural changes to prevent school shootings, not more “good guys with guns”.

Occasionally, the entire essay is a “quote behaving badly”.

As long time readers know, we hate “Quotes Behaving Badly”. In our minds, it’s exhibit one of how bad information spreads on the internet.

Quite entertainingly, we can dissect how a quote behaving badly gets birthed. In this case, Grossman quoted Bennett to open his article, people quote Grossman’s essay, but give credit to Bennett. Here are some examples.


eleven comments

Regarding unintended ironies…Fascinated by how far you guys have pursued this – it has been running on a bit considering Dave Grossman isn’t exactly Von Clausewitz and Clint Eastwood isn’t exactly Thucydides. A question though: seems that the sheepdogs, in herding the sheep, could be interpreted as protecting the sheep if say, the herd was shuffling off a cliff. That is to say, guardians can be jailers or they can be protectors. This is to suggest that you seem to be putting the analogy in its worst light rather than its best – which is neither difficult nor clever to do.

The sheepdog analogy is a pithy oversimplification that holds significant merit only among people who like thoughts that can fit in the space of a bumper sticker. How much time and effort should be devoted to explain that? I only ask because I have been following your thoughts with interest for the last few years and this series seems like a curious…I’m going to go so far as to say ‘distraction’.

@ Kamil – We wouldn’t have pursued it this far if it’s reach weren’t so omni-present on the right wing.

We cut a lot of examples out of the Slate piece, but regardless to say, hundreds of blogs and dozens of organizations spout this analogy.

That’s why we spent so much time debunking it.

That said, we’re done now. On to other topics.

It’s interesting to see how you yourself fall into the sheepdog category when you suggest that the way to protect schools is to “remove the means of mass murder from society.” (This is based on the idea that said expression translates to mean firearms) No doubt that is an altruistic desire born out of protection…I.e. a sheepdog, yet it becomes draconian because you would take away my right as a citizen of the United States to legally own and use those same “means of mass murder”. This appears to be yet another unintended irony.

Which brings me to the failure of the idea and analogy of sheepdogs. Many on the left and the right believe that they simply know better and that their ideas are superior. The right employs the aforementioned analogy and the left will try and convince you that big government can solve all problems. Either way it is an illusionary form of control meant to perpetuate a single ideology over another.

As a school teacher and a veteran I choose to neither call myself a sheep or a sheepdog. I feel that the best path forward is to empower individuals with real knowledge (not an agenda driven system designed to produce preconceived ideas) and let them make up their own minds as to how to live and protect themselves…not a sheep nor a herding, guiding, restricting sheep dog. And that aforementioned educated and informed society can then make conscious decisions on how to best deal with the “wolves”.

Which, by the way, is why I enjoy your writing and blog.


Thanks Ryan for the comment. And Kamil, as Eric C said, we’re done after this.

Michael should clarify, done with this topic, not writing in general.

Really interesting to see your thought process on this (silly and simplistic – in my opinion) sheepdog analogy. There’s been debate over arming police for years here in the UK. But to the surprise of many, the police, time and again, vote overwhelmingly against it. Trust between the public and police is paramount. I think the term used is ‘policing by consent’. Growing up here, I’ve taken this for granted. I’m always taken aback by the casual attitude of Americans towards guns and gun ownership. My brother visited Oregon last year and was deeply disturbed by all the ammunition displayed at the local Walmart. No thanks.

“[…] regardless to say, hundreds of blogs and dozens of organizations spout this analogy.”

I would venture to suggest that these aforesaid blogs and organizations and their respective adherents are referring to the literal sense of Grossman’s analogy: a sheepdog is employed as a livestock guardian dog. I don’t think this analogy would have gained the traction it did if Grossman was referring to a plain pastoral dog. A sheep cannot protect itself from a wolf. Obviously there are some complacent, innocent individuals whom cannot protect themselves from violent aggressors. Just like how Chris Kyle’s young character depicted in “American Sniper” beats the shit out of his on-screen little brothers’ assaulter (a presumed bully and predator), law enforcement officers will beat the shit out of a bad guy for hurting innocent people (see: recent detention booking photographs of Mesa shooter Ryan Giroux’s face).

I really don’t see material that would require such extensive investigation.

As for the Slate.com article, someone could perhaps take their rebuttal further by reminding others that Grossman authored “On Combat” and intentionally pandered his work to law enforcement officers — something that invalidates “safest time in human history” link. Law enforcement officers are routinely placed in more potentially dangerous environments and subjected to potential human interpersonal aggression than other non-law enforcement officers individuals are.

It’s common sense to believe that someone tasked with responding (often at high vehicular speeds) to hostile and potentially hostile situations to directly confront individuals is dangerous. Therefore, it’s common sense for Grossman to use an analogy to mentally prepare peace officers for the reality of hostile and potentially hostile encounters. Anyone whose read “On Combat” can understand that the analogy was primarily used by Grossman as a preemptive method to mitigate post-traumatic stress for officers involved in lethal and non-lethal shootings (the “conditioning” part).

As for Chris Kyle, to quote from a wise man named Hoot: “once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that other shit go right out the window”. Even if Kyle advocated Grossman’s sheepdog analogy, it’s illogical to condemn and openly mock him for executing sanctioned military/government orders which are inverse with his irrelevant personal ethics/morals.

@ 5150 – I’d argue, based on reading between the lines of “American Sniper” that Kyle enjoyed beating the shit out of that bully. He writes about how he loved fighting. Standing up to bullies? I’d argue the justification followed the love of fighting.

As far as Kyle, I don’t think we mock him as much as deplore statements that he doesn’t regret taking human life. One may have to take human life; they shouldn’t delight in it.

It’s curious how the analogy omits the shepherd – you know, the one character in the husbandry process who can actually reason. It also depends on the presumption of domesticated sheep, which automatically means those sheep don’t have free will.

in addition to the myrad of things stated, don’t these silly oversimplifications also pose another danger? they allow us to gloss over our own behavior, I believe something like 5% of our force reported some sort of unwanted and or violent sexual assault. How in world can we say we are the sheepdog protecting anything when we treat our own in such a way. Fantastic discourse and comments. Thank you.

“law enforcement officers will beat the shit out of a bad guy for hurting innocent people (see: recent detention booking photographs of Mesa shooter Ryan Giroux’s face)”

Law enforcement officers will beat the shit out of anyone. See the photographs of Kelly Thomas as he lay dying in the ICU. They will also gleefully murder Americans who attempt to defend their families from home invasion (see: Jose Guerena). Knowing you’ll get away with it probably doesn’t hurt.

The danger police face has been exaggerated so wildly that they now believe they need MRAP’s and APC’s to survive American towns. Or because they enjoy the sense of power strutting around like street-soldiers amidst powerless peasants gives them. They get weapons and armor they don’t need and shouldn’t have because a hugely corrupt military industrial complex is terrified of the citizenry, and the idea that these things are required for policing is simply retroactive justification.

Sorry, but “Protect and Serve” is mostly a myth in 2015, and the traditional American peace officer is mostly extinct.