Shepherds

Shepherds

“It was no accident that kings and prophets styled themselves as shepherds and likened the way they and the gods cared for their people to a shepherd’s care for his flock,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
 
 
I don’t like bucolic narratives and I don’t like the way that we equate people we don’t like with sheep in modern American political discussions. Bucolic romanticism requires a reductionist way of looking at history, and equating people to sheep is reductionist way of viewing anyone we disagree with and dislike. As Harari’s quote to open this post shows, both styles of rhetoric are much older than their current usage in modern American politics.
 
 
What Harari is saying in the paragraph that the opening quote came from is that some agrarian societies and ancient (and not too ancient) human civilizations treated their domesticated animals very well. Sheep were well cared for, in order to get the most wool possible from them. War horses and workhorses were well cared for, again for the benefit of humans. And even today we pamper our pets as if they were our children. The narrative of the shepherd comes from the care with which humans are capable of treating animals under their protection. A shepherd is a benevolent god who directs his flock to greener pastures and protects them from wild beasts and the evils of nature. Bucolic imagery calls up a simplistic time when humans lived in nature, protected and shielded from the evils of modernity. Combining these two perspectives allows people to feel a child-like protection under the watchful eye of a benevolent leader while we live in a natural peace and harmony with the planet.
 
 
I think the narrative associated with both narratives is deeply troubling, and untrue. David Deutsch was recently on Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and argued that the belief that we are living in a simulation is no different than believing that Zeus is the supreme god who directs the course of the world. His argument is that if we live in a simulation, there is a barrier at which we can no longer gain more information about the universe. A Simulation, he argues, is the same as a religion where there is a barrier at which people cannot know more about their god, the course of the universe, and why things happen. Invoking the imagery of a shepherd, to me, seems to be exactly the same. A leader comes along, invokes such a message, and says to the people they wish to lead that only they know how to help them, that there is a barrier which normal people cannot cross in terms of knowledge for what is good for them and how to live their lives. The shepherd seems benevolent, kind, and praiseworthy, but really, they are dehumanizing people. They are making statements that there is knowledge and information that only they can know and appropriately utilize, and they are hiding that from the masses. The same process happens in reverse when we call people sheep. We deny their humanity and assume they are non-thinking morons without preferences who are easily misled.
 
 
Bucolic imagery can be just as pernicious as the ideas and narratives surrounding the shepherd or equating people to sheep. Just as the idea that there is some boundary on knowledge which normal people cannot surpass, the idea of a bucolic nature to which we should return or maintain is equally flawed and inaccurate. We romanticize a past and a ‘natural’ way of living that never existed. We don’t fully understand what life with nature has been like for the billions of humans that evolved before our modern times. We fail to see the diseases, the dangers, the struggles, and the deaths of humans living in pre-modern times. We call up this idea to put people in a romantic and child-like state of mind, reassuring them that someone else will take care of them and protect them. It is a narrative that combines well with the narrative of the shepherd to create a false view of reality that we can find comforting, and that we may find the motivated reasoning to believe. Ultimately, however, I think bucolic thinking and the narratives of sheep and the shepherd should be tossed aside and discounted if we want to think more accurately and rationally. 

Societal Expectations and Outcomes

It seems to me that a great deal of human outcomes are shaped by society in ways that are not always clear or obvious. Beyond arguments of nature versus nurture, our daily actions seem to be limited, encouraged, prevented, or otherwise influenced by our society and culture. What society tells us is desirable and acceptable makes a diffence in what we want and what we can do, and at the same time social stigmas and taboos keep us from behaving in certain ways. This is important to think about when we look at racial minorities in this country, the way that our society treats those groups, and the outcomes those groups experience. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander addresses this idea and looks at how society has, over time, reinforced the idea that black men and women are dangerous, less worthy of social assistance, and culturally flawed in ways that prevent them from achieving success.

In the United States, our society is comfortable talking about how bad criminals are, and about how sever punishment for criminals should be. What gets mixed up in this discussion however, are ideas of race. We police and arrest black communities and individuals at much higher rates than white communities and individuals, and then we place severe social stigmas against people who have been incarcerated. Once an individual has been let out of prison, they return to a society that is unwelcoming, will not employ them, does not offer them housing assistance, and rewards those who denigrate the formerly incarcerated. In her book, Alexander shares a quote from Frederick Douglas that demonstrates how this approach is counter productive for reducing crime and changing behavior, which is often described as the main goal of the criminal justice system.

“In Frederick Douglass’s words, “Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation.” A society that sets low expectations for black people, arrests them at unreasonably high levels, calls them criminals, and reduces black culture will produce more black people who fit the description and expectations that society has created. When we do not create environments that encourage everyone to succeed and demonstrate to everyone that they can participate and be welcomed to engage and grow, then many people are left behind and not helped forward.

We see this happening today. A recent paper from Raj Chetty demonstrated that black youth at the top of their class in math and science are less likely to go on to become inventors and file patents relative to white youth with average to below average performance in math and science. What is limiting our children is a lack of support and the lack of a vision of entrepreneurship. A classmate of mine, Chris Dickens, is a youth parol officer, and he explained that children who receive fee for service Medicaid during their time as a ward of the state see a reduced recidivism rate of about 50%. These two examples indicate that crime, success, and opportunity are not simply matters within our own power, but are shaped by the society and environment around us. If we celebrate a culture that criticizes and demeans those who have been marginalized, then we will constantly isolate those who need the most support, and our actions will create the very evils and social outcomes that we claim to dislike.

Hostility Toward Blacks

In the 1970s Richard Nixon began using crime and the need to control crime as an excuse for policing and incarceration practices that had disparate impacts on black people. Through the 1980s Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior continued to push the “tough on crime” narrative, hinting at race while appearing neutral in their approach to policy and problems in the United States. In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander examines the evolution of these racialized messages and policies and describes the ways that anti-black sentiment spilled into the language that is still used to discuss politics and culture. I read Alexander’s book during the summer of 2016, before Candidate Trump had emerged as the Republican front runner, when racial attitudes in the United States felt like they could still take a major step forward.

 

Instead, what I believe we have seen in our country is backlash against President Obama and a return to the negative racial discussions that arose with President Nixon. Regarding Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., Alexander wrote the following:

 

“Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for “get tough on crime” and anti-welfare measures. Among whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also tend to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization. Whites, on average, are more punitive than blacks, despite the fact that blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are often the most punitive, even though they are least likely to be crime victims. The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.”

 

We have fallen back to the same dangerous rhetoric today. President Trump has taken us to a place where the racial underpinnings of our politics are possibly more obvious. Lacking any policy understanding, he thrives on culture wars, and denounces black athletes, black protesters, and black politicians at any opportunity. He has used the NFL and NBA as targets for white resentment, especially rural white resentment.

 

I do not believe that facts like the ones presented by Alexander above will change the situation. I do not believe that demonstrating how white privilege has helped the core of the republican party will make a difference in where we are today. And I don’t believe that even the future (hopeful) election of another black president like Cory Booker will make a difference in where our country exists on race.

 

What will make a difference is for reasonable people to become more connected with racial minorities in our communities. Particularly within schools and youth groups, we must reach out and connect with those who have been disadvantaged. We must not flaunt our support for things like Black Lives Matter, though our support is crucial. We must not tell those opposed to racial equality that they are the bigots that they are, but we must quietly and rationally express our support for movements and policies that support diversity and individuals who have been victimized by race. Sharing these feelings with those closest to us will create a space where others can be more comfortable with movements supporting rights and policies that benefit minority populations. Demonstrating to our friend and family that people like them can also support diversity and minority populations will help them be more reasonable and less racially tribal in their decision making.

Human Speech

The last section I highlighted in James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, was written by writer Chris Kraus who spoke mostly of obsession in her letter to Harmon.  Near the end of her letter Kraus wrote, “Human Speech is driven, always, by the desire to achieve a goal. Realize you are constantly being manipulated.”  When we look at political speeches we are good at understanding that there is a goal or agenda behind the rhetoric used by politicians, but I am not sure we extend that to a lot of other areas in our life. Television and commercials are nothing but influence machines, and speech in the workplace often focuses on what we want or need others to do for us.  I think a big area where I am able to grow from this quote is by reflecting on my own speech.  By building a base of self awareness I can think more about what I say and evaluate what goal lays beneath my speech.

 

Krause also writes, “Nothing exists without a source. It is important to contextualize everything.”  I think this is important to consider when we are looking at the goals behind other people’s speech. The more focus and awareness we have the better we can be at understanding what goals people have, but keeping Kraus’s second quote in mind helps us see that there is a deeper level than just the goals of another person.  We can dive even deeper and start to evaluate where the other person’s goals came from, and just what they will gain when they reach those goals.  Seeing the context behind the goals will help us understand the motivation for others, and will help us react better to the other’s attempt to manipulate us.  If their goal is positive and pure, then jumping on board to help them and follow their goals may not be a bad idea.  If their motivation is purely self serving then perhaps it is better if we shy away from their goals and influence.