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Why Conspiracy theorists and Priests call people sheep
Conspiracy theorists often refer to the great mass of the public who neither follow nor reject their ideas as sheep. I have also heard freelancers contemptuously calling regular employees sheep. But why were sheep chosen, rather than say ducks or pigs who can also be farmed and herded? Exploring this leads down some strange alleys, from the Bible to Animal Farm to Baa Baa Black Sheep to racism.
The Sheep and Goat Parable
This parable says God will separate the people coming before him for judgement like a farmer separating sheep from goats and is a sign of how alien the biblical world is, for today sheep and goats are seldom, if ever, raised together so separating them is unnecessary.
Those equated to sheep then depart stage right to a place of comfort and goats depart stage left to eternal darkness. The sheep are said to be those who have helped the poor and the goats those who have not.
There is a radical protestant interpretation that the goats are those who rejected the message of Jesus, though I could not been able to follow the reasoning behind this. On the face of it it being a sheep seems to be a good thing.
There are problems however. I was told that the “original” uses the same word for sheep and goats but was unable to find which original the informant referred to The Vulgate of the 4th century uses oves for sheep and hedos, meaning a kid, for goat. It is also not clear when the parable was created or written down, for later Christian scholars felt that the spiritual truth of the bible took precedence over reality and inserted passages into the Bible wholesale.
This tendency to deny reality for the sake of a pretty theory then fake the evidence is not confined to religion, but arises in politics and economics and continues to this day.
Soon after Christianity spread to Gentiles it began to change from a religion of liberation to a tool of social control, a process that became complete when Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman empire (something he seemed later to regret) and the Christians, now free from persecution eagerly began persecuting other religions (the philosopher Hypatia was murdered by a mob incited by a religious fanatic: the mob scraped her flesh from the bones with oyster shells) and each other: at one Synod the historical St Nicholas punched the 80 year old Arius, who he regarded as a heretic, in the mouth.
With Christianity being used to control not liberate, the Sheep and Goat parable, if not actually invented for the purpose, would have been very useful with its message that docility and submissiveness were the key to Heaven.
Of course in real life sheep are fleeced several times before being led to the slaughterhouse: in olden times a goat. known as a Judas Goat, would lead them to slaughter
The Sheep and Goat Effect
In the early days of parapsychological research it was observed that on the standardised card guessing tests used in those days believers in PSI tended to score significantly higher than chance and those who disbelieved in PSI tended to score significantly below chance levels. This was known as the sheep and goat effect, with the scientists terming the believers sheep and the skeptics goats. Of course the roles could be reversed with the sheep being the skeptics following scientific orthodoxy and the goats being those who followed their own path.
There is a school of thought that says you unconsciously manufacture bad or good luck depending on expectations and needs that may not be conscious and could have been established many decades earlier. The Sheep and Goat effect illustrates this with believers and skeptics creating their own realities in a way that third parties, those doing the measurements, could see. There are other cases where herd instinct can influence a shared reality. In the Irish village of Ballinspittle some decades ago a stature of the Virgin Mary was seen to move night after night and crowds gathered to see the statue move. There was no evidence the statue moved but doubtless anyone who did not see the statue move wisely refrained from saying so. One can see the same apparent movement by drawing a black spot on a blank sheet of paper and staring at it. Herd instinct, the sheep mentality one might say, influenced the perception of reality. Peer pressure prevented dissent.
It would appear that when conspiracy theorists refer to people as sheep they are referring to this herd mentality, the unwillingness to dissent, something shown in experiments such as the one where a subject is asked to decide which of two lines is shorter in the presence of confederates of the experimenter who all choose the longer line. In most cases the subject goes along with mojority opinion.
Of course those who refer to the masses as “sheep” are implicitly claiming an exclusive knowledge of the truth, similar to the exclusive knowledge priests claim justifies them in leading their flock. In reality many such theorists follow predetermined paths in sheeplike fashion.
George Orwell was socialist, skeptical, if not disgusted with the way socialism had turned out – and even more disgusted with right wingers: in his day the Tory Party. In his extended parable Animal Farm, the animals revolt and turn out the human who runs the farm. Then the problems start. The pigs, being the most intelligent animals, become the leaders. They take the puppies born on the farm from their mothers at birth and raise them to become bodyguards for the pigs. When the horse becomes too old to work they tell the horse and the rest of the farm that the horse will go to a retirement home. When the van comes to collect him the donkey, one of the few animals who can read, notices that the “retirement home” is a actually a glue factory: This parallels the way the Third Reich told relatives of Jewish veterans that the victims were going to retirement homes in the East. As time goes on the animals notice that while the farm may be getting richer none of the animas are richer and indeed are working longer. One day the animals sneak up to the farmhouse window and peer in. The pigs are drinking with the previous human owner and the features of pigs and humans become indistinguishable.
The role of the sheep in this tragic parable, one played out in right and left wing revolutions, noted by The Who in the song Wont Get Fooled Again and at the time of writing being replayed in the Middle East, is to drown out dissent by bleating “Four legs good, Two Legs Bad” whenever someone asks an inconvenient question. The day after the pigs and humans merge the pigs call a meeting and come out on two legs to a chorus from the sheep of “Four legs good, Two Legs Better”
The Black Sheep
In Old England sheep farming was a major activity. Most sheep are white but occasionally a black sheep would appear, the result of recessive genes. It was harder to dye black wool than white and farmers found black sheep to have little commercial value. At the same time negative beliefs about the colour black arose, as early as 1526. By around 1550 a belief had arisen that the black sheep differed in character as well as colour, and the term Black Sheep became identified with bad character by the mid 18th century. Today anyone who stands out from a group of which they are a member as a result of characteristics the user of the expression finds undesirable is a Black Sheep.
It would seem that when a peasant or farmer in the middle ages heard the Sheep and Goat parable they imagined a herd of white sheep eagerly trotting off to paradise, and followed injunctions to be like the good white sheep instead of noting that in real life the sheep were fleeced a number of times and eventually sent not to a glue factory disguised as a retirement home, but were slaughtered. The Black Sheep was an anomaly, one who resisted the rule of community and church. Perhaps they were criminals, perhaps they just refused to conform. In any case the black sheep could have implicitly symbolised those who refused to obey church and state and were thus more likely to be slaughtered earlier.
Some farmers prized the black sheep however and deliberately kept a black sheep in a flock of white. They would mix a little black wool with the white and produce a light grey wool, easily died where the pure black was hard to dye, and believed the cloth made from this wool was warmer and more weatherproof than that made purely from white wool. Perhaps some recognised that having a few people in a community who did not conform to majority rules was healthier, could lead to innovation and sometimes gave added resilience to a community under stress
The Black Sheep and Racism
It is impossible to talk of the Black Sheep without mentioning racism. Jungian Psychologists claim that the shadow archetype, in the West at least, manifests as dreams and images of black people and animals, and the medieval idea of the devil was often a mysterious stranger dressed in black, and this may have been part of the reason why black began to get negative connotations, except in business where black indicated profit, and red loss, and later in the new Protestant puritanism which followed an older Catholic tendency and rejected bright colours along with most of the things that made life worth living. The black sheep was not however rescued from disapproval, probably because of the image of refusal to conform.
Some teachers took the old nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep and converted the animal to a Rainbow Sheep, whatever that might be, to avoid accusations of racism. This is again sheep like following of dogmatic political correctness, like the union leader told my mother to remove a picture of a pride of lions as it was “sexist”. She replaced it with a picture of horses mating.
One black ram could contaminate the whiteness of a flock just as in countries where anti-black prejudice flourished negro blood was considered so strong that one black ancestor six generations ago rendered one black, the white blood being ignored: a similar strength was accorded to Jewish blood in the Third Reich. The Jungian theory concerning the way the Shadow archetype manifests, xenophobia, the theory that the Black Sheep is an undesirable and that one black ram can contaminate the whiteness of an entire herd and the envious belief, in the US (at least during the interval where slavery was legal but importing slaves was not), and the UK, that Black people had more fun, danced more and had more sex and sexual partners than “free” white people could well do much to account for the way every immigrant group to the USA has initially been labelled as Negro and, unless black, has been reclassified as Aryan on adopting the repressive culture of the “free” whites dominating society.
The image of the Good Sheep in the Sheep and Goats Parable as destined for paradise, even if it can be dated back to the historical Jesus, if such a person existed, gave church and state leaders a useful tool at the time Christianity was changing from a path of liberation to a path of control. The Sheep and Goat effect shows how belief can affect World and that the assignment of people as sheep or goats is arbitrary and often decided by a dominant group. Animal Farm shows the sheep as buttressing the dominant elite through mindless conformity, something conspiracy theorists have long claimed (their theories may be wrong but in this at least they seem to be right). The discussion of the Black Sheep shows how black was basically associated with negative characteristics, often merely the refusal to conform, and the discussion of racism suggests ways in which the image of the sheep, especially the black sheep, could have generated racism.
The answer to the original question, why conspiracy theorists talk of sheep not other animals, could have come from Animal Farm but also from the Sheep and Goat Parable as a tool of social control, and from the 16th century notion that the black sheep was an undesirable, with the later attribution of Black Sheep-hood to rebels and outsiders resulting in the sheep being seen, as in Aesop's fables, as docile and easily fooled. The idea of the mass of people submissive to authority as sheep seems very old and this is probably why it became popular