>> Wednesday, January 21, 2015
If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.- Dave Grossman, "On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs"
Bleating and babbling we fell on his neck with a screamWave upon wave of demented avengersMarch cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream.Have you heard the news?The dogs are dead!You better stay homeAnd do as you're toldGet out of the road if you want to grow old.- Roger Waters, "Sheep"
I haven't seen American Sniper; somehow I can't say I'm likely to--I think Clint Eastwood is a very capable director and all, I just find I don't care overly much for biopics in general and it at least seems like there's a kind of reactionary subtext to this kind of project that might be... well, irritating. I don't mean offensive, necessarily, or that I can't enjoy a reactionary film; indeed, I have an inordinate fondness for another movie Eastwood was involved in a long time ago, Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, an ultra-reactionary opus that goes out of its way to take a piss on much that I hold sacred and dear (this is a movie, after all, in which the real villain isn't a serial killer, but rather the villains are all the civil liberties softies who allow a monster like that to walk free just because a dedicated public servant like Harry might have gotten a little rough with him while trying to save a poor innocent girl's life). But as I get old and weary, I don't see a lot of movies anymore, and when I do it's usually nice to see something with superheroes or spaceships or something. Technically, this makes me part of the dumbening of America or something like, but what can I say?
Still, it was hard to pass up a headline like this one in Slate, "The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech" by Michael Cummings and Eric Cummings. After all, American Sniper appears to be part of the cultural conversation, and who isn't interested in furry animals. Wolves are cool, sheep are cute, and sheepdogs... well, I've always been fond of Chuck Jones' Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, though (for the record) it's just impossible to deny that Ralph is more-or-less indistinguishable from Wile E. Coyote unless you're paying special attention to their noses (coyotes, in the Jonesiverse, have black noses; wolves, red). So I was curious.
What I learned was both horrific and comedic: it seems there's a speech in the movie where someone divides the world up into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs, and that this speech is lifted from something someone named Dave Grossman wrote, linked to above, and that the whole point of the exercise is a justification of violence. Grossman, you see, thinks the world can be divided into three groups:
If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.
At Slate, Michael Cummings and Eric Cummings do an excellent job of breaking down some of the moral problems with this notion--
...the analogy is simplistic, and in its simplicity, dangerous. It divides the world into black and white, into a good-versus-evil struggle that the real world doesn’t match. We aren’t divided into sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. We are all humans.
...this simple analogy is undone by an even simpler (and older) one: the wolf in sheep’s clothing. After all, all humans basically look alike. Faced with this problem, how can you tell a wolf from a sheep?
The easiest way is race.
They are, I think, far too kind to Grossman's metaphor. It isn't just simplistic, it's actually a bit dumb. Grossman acknowledges that the limit of his metaphor is that the animals he compares humans to are just animals, but that humans have choices and may elect to be sheep, wolves or sheepdogs, and goes on to add:
If you want to be a sheep, then you can be a sheep and that is okay, but you must understand the price you pay. When the wolf comes, you and your loved ones are going to die if there is not a sheepdog there to protect you. If you want to be a wolf, you can be one, but the sheepdogs are going to hunt you down and you will never have rest, safety, trust or love. But if you want to be a sheepdog and walk the warrior’s path, then you must make a conscious and moral decision every day to dedicate, equip and prepare yourself to thrive in that toxic, corrosive moment when the wolf comes knocking at the door.
The implication in Grossman's tone, naturally, is "Who wants to be a sheep?" He's addressing "warriors" and suggests that we live in a dangerous world and choosing to be a sheep means choosing to let the wolves eat you and your loved ones. But the problem with this formulation, aside from the wolves in sheep's clothing, is that if a sheepdog can choose to be a sheep, why on Earth is Grossman assuming sheep can't choose to be sheepdogs?
Or to remain sheep but nevertheless master the art of karate, as Roger Waters cheekily suggested in the Pink Floyd song "Sheep" on their 1977 record Animals. Waters also divided the human species into three classes of animals, but he wasn't glibly doing so in order to give audiences a pat on the back and a sense of self righteousness: indeed, the point of the division on Animals is to suggest that the correct answer to the question, "Would you rather be a dog, a pig, or a sheep?" is "None of the above," all of them being nasty pieces of work in the end and the better answer being that we ought to try caring for each other a little better and taking refuge in one another (finding "shelter from pigs on the wing").
Waters' sheep are mucking around waiting for the abattoir, but the fact they're taken for granted makes them dangerous; Waters posits that they're just waiting around until they feel danger so keenly they'll rise up and trample the dogs (and, presumably, the pigs) and perhaps in true Orwellian fashion recapitulate the order they've thrown down (a la Animal Farm).
Grossman explicitly acknowledges the fluidity between his categories but apparently misses the logical conclusion; Waters only acknowledges the fluidity implicitly, but the conclusion is obvious and explicit: the revolution will come, the dogs will be run over, it will be ugly. Why would you ever want to be a dog, then? You will be hated and die bloody, because eventually people--er, sheep, I mean--will get tired of your shit and then where will you be?
Waters finds all this toxic and undesirable. Animals is a great record, but the whole concept is really a bit muddled and doesn't really work as a sustained metaphor if you try to read it as a cohesive worldview instead of as a quartet of songs (one of the songs is split in half and used to bookend the album) loosely connected through their imagery. Still: if there is any kind of coherence to the project, it's observation and caution: you should not like the things we show you, whether it's a whipped dog dying slowly of cancer, a grubby pig rolling in filth, or sheep turning into a bloodthirsty mob.
Grossman isn't half so wise. He's telling policemen and soldiers a story of how they stand outside the pack and save the weak from the ruthless, and letting them know that it's okay if they do some things that the weak don't care for if it's for their own good, and if they want to join the weak they can, but, you know. It's a poisonous message, and a dumb message, because if the listener stopped to question it, he might realize that by putting himself outside of the flock as its superior and protector, he's really asking to be trampled by hooves when the flock gets ugly. Or ripped to pieces when some or all of the flock decides to grow teeth and claws. Either way, outside is not a good place to be, and mistakenly thinking it's a position of privilege instead of one of brief necessity--which is what Grossman seems to be about--is a tragic mistake.
It's not exactly surprising this message is making the rounds. In many respects, it's not really even a new message: police officers have often had to deal with the isolating nature of their often dangerous and thankless jobs, and it seems like the military has become more insular in the years since the United States went to a volunteer military. Those outside the loop need to be aware that this message is being passed around in this way, and those who are the intended recipients of the message ought perhaps consider whether they really want to think of themselves as dogs and those they serve as sheep. All might consider the possibility none of us are sheep and dogs, that we're all humans muddling through as best we can.