Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why Sheeple Are Good - The Problem of Independent Thinking

The other night I had a phone conversation with a good friend. We got to talking about the good and bad things of our respective cities. As we discussed the culture of these places, we got to talking about politics and preferences.

One of the things we noticed was how so many people are willing to agree with things because someone has told them certain ideas are good or correct. This type of behavior is fine when a person is a child. It's expected that children will accept their parents' beliefs and thoughts until they are old enough to make their own decisions. But what happens when children are never taught to think for themselves? What if they grew up without ever learning how to determine their own opinions? come to their own conclusions?

The popular term given to such people is "sheeple." Often times those of us who think independently would suggest this is a bad thing - to behave like sheep. Most would say that it is better to come to one's own conclusions. It is better to think through things, consider evidence, and reach some kind of independent thought. However, independent thinkers are difficult to control. They are difficult to lead.

We can try, of course, to teach people to think independently, but evolutionarily it could be a bad choice. In fact, it might be impossible. Most social animals have some kind of a hierarchy. Primates, birds, insects, even fish have dominance hierarchies. Hierarchies ensure structure. They prevent social animals from falling into chaos. In a time of emergency, a leader can assert him or herself to steer the flock to safety. Humans are no different. When an attractive, charismatic, intelligent person tells us something is true, as a species we generally will accept it as truth. I can only imagine what would happen if the president came on CNN screaming and crying like a little baby. All hell would break loose because our leader had modeled fear.

On the other hand, if the president comes on every network calmly saying we have a plan of action and everything is fine, even if the world is going to hell in a hand basket, people will largely believe him. Most people will remain calm because our leader has said things are fine, and therefore, they trust it must be so. If everyone was an independent thinker however, the situation would be wildly different.

There is a reason that everyone is not able to think independently. There is a reason why we have social structures in place and why certain people naturally are given leadership positions.

This may be annoying to those subordinate independent thinkers. It is especially annoying when many people agree with the entire party line (think: the current incarnation of the Republican party) without a second thought. It might be frightening to listen to someone say they are for either presidential candidate because both will "do a good job," despite having radically opposing views.

The situation may seem hopeless, however there is a solution. We can as independent thinkers, change the beliefs leaders espouse. Or, we can become the leaders ourselves.

It is a process which takes a great deal of time, resources, and influence. Still, it can be done. Within a social hierarchy, there are roles to be played. By creating a network of influence, it is very possible to change what messages are being sent and who receives them. If, for example, Fox News was suddenly owned by someone like me, can you imagine what people might start believing? The world would be a very different place.

Every good leader understands this concept to his or her core. It is true there may be competing ideas, championed by different leaders, but the result is the same. Groups of people will follow them. Groups of people will agree with minimal questioning. This is how society is able to function. This is how laws are accepted and obeyed. It is one of the lessons which is socially reinforced when we are children - through our parents and even our teachers.

Some might argue that it is better to think freely. That all things should be free, on principle. Except we know of course, that could never work. It would be a disaster and it would never happen. Some people can only be one of the flock. That is their role. Just like in every wolf pack, there is always an omega and subordinates. The pack cannot function without these roles being fulfilled. We need sheeple. We need leaders.

Even if we tried to have as egalitarian of a society as possible, these roles would still exist. They might be more subtle, but they would be filled. We are social creatures and we need social structures.

We will never live in a world without sheeple. They have a part to play. Rather than disparage such people, independent thinkers need to accept this. We need to understand how the roles work and how they can be used - for both good and bad. Only then can we fill our own roles and change the direction of our world.

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