The People, Sheep, and Sheeple

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Over the past few years of reading articles on the Internet, I have been constantly exposed to the word “sheeple”. I mistakenly considered it of recent coinage; when, in fact, it has been around since the 1940s, as a web search for its etymology will show. Because of my conclusion, I began to dislike the use of that word.

However, further, more rational reflection is in order. We find that there is a possible distinction between people acting intelligently; people acting in the necessary and rational obedience required for an ordered society, whether within the family or the state; and finally, gullible people acting as members of a herd. These latter two, for the purpose of this article, refer to sheep and sheeple, respectively.

Let us start with that famous phrase, “We the People”.

Of course, especially in the curriculum of United States’ history classes, it is well known that the people of the time, if defined by those who had any say in political matters, as defined through voting rights, did not include a large percentage of the population. Slaves and women were the most obviously excluded, but also those of the wrong religious affiliation, especially most Jews and Catholics. It may be easy to have overlooked that there was an unintentional discrimination against Moslems, in that these were usually among the already-excluded slave population, where no one asked about religion, and its exercise was, at best, tightly controlled in favor or maintaining the slaves obedient to their respective masters. That there was a racial requirement is taken for granted, as we again subsume that anyone who was not white was a slave, or an Indian with whom the country was probably skirmishing.

We must also remember the obvious age requirement, and at that time, there was also the obligation to own land of a predetermined value. We give the requirements for the North and South Carolina as found under the article “Carolina” in The New Encyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 5, [London: Encyclopaedia Perthensis, 1807] under Google Books; in the former, the prospective voter had to be 21, have lived in the state for a year, and paid taxes. To vote for the senate, a property requirement of 50 acres in freehold was also demanded. In South Carolina, voters had to be free white men 21 years old, 2 years resident in the state, own either 50 acres or a town lot, and have paid a certain amount in taxes (which is not legible in our text, possibly 3 sh[illings]). We thus must add, in accordance with this information, a certain skin-color as a precondition. Where there may have been a certain laxity of requirements at the beginning, uniformity with other states eventually became the norm. [Because of possible copyright restrictions, we neither quote nor reference any sources for this additional comment, but the reader might try a search for “percentage eligible voters 1776 United States”]. Those, then, who were not excluded, comprised the people.

The following traditional nursery rhyme, which we supply with our own analysis, is considered politically incorrect in some quarters.  (If there is an official punctuation, it has been ignored.)

Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes, sir! Yes sir!, three bags full.
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

First, the historical context, which of course is not given in the nursery, kindergarten, or the first grade – according to the bbc.com article by Clemency Burton-Hill, dated 11 June 2015, this rhyme refers to a medieval wool tax: a third of the product went to the king, a third to the church – a very onerous tithe! – and the final cut could be sold.             .

Some individuals consider the term “black sheep” racist.  If we follow this little verse after “we the people”, it would be a seemingly valid conclusion, but it might be more hurtful to a person considered the black sheep of the family.  The supposed truth can only be surmised, as we find two versions: the BBC article quoted above suggests black wool was less valuable, while on a site named http://www.wolverton-mountain.com/ where there is an article about this rhyme, suggests that this same color of wool saved the “costly” expense of dyeing.  Either way, racism has little to do with it, but to be coherent with our idea of restricted voting rights; we might want to consider its validity.

Yes, sir! Yes sir! – We may consider this to be a very snappy British reply by an underling to his overlord.  Serf, slave, shanghaied sailor – tithe and tax them, and the tailor! A “yes” for the master, another for the dame, if “l’il boy” stays poor, his laziness’s to blame!  So say the conservatives, and it is to be remembered, that in the British system, the female members of the House of Lords have the title “Dame”.  That little boy, furthermore, represents those without voting rights, while the same was mostly true for the “lady”.

Now we will turn to sheep and shepherds.

While it is not currently the way the term is used on the Internet, we see the word “sheep” as a not badly-intentioned word found in the Bible.  One might object to the word as suggesting paternalism or authoritarianism, if not both ideas.  We have his references, going back at least, in our estimate, 2600 years, by Jeremias or Jeremiah, in the book named for this person.  Here we see the counterpart of sheep in an agrarian society: the pastor, or shepherd:

And I will set up pastors over them, and they shall feed them: they shall fear no more, and they shall not be dismayed … Jer. XXIII.4.  [The italicized part reads “nor be dismayed” in the KJV of 1611 (spelling modernized); the first part is the same in both the KJV and Douay-Rheims Bibles.]

These pastors, of course were real people, and as such, the relationship between sheep and pastor should be that of the people and those who govern them.  In our modern world, of course, there are, because of their unique abilities, dogs which are called pastors, shepherds – the English word for the Latin pastor – and sheep dogs; the most famous of these probably being the collie and the German Shepherd.  It is said that once a dog has tasted blood, it will no longer serve as a shepherd. Some of the human pastors, unfortunately, have had their equivalent of blood, and should no longer be around the sheep they profess to guard from harm.

Our nursery rhyme shepherds were a bit careless, as is shown by the words of Little Bo Peep, and Little Boy Blue.  However, the first of these suggest that the sheep will return, while “Mary Had a Little Lamb” suggests faithful following and waiting.  How is this behavior of being a follower different from that of a dog?

Of course, real-life sheep serve a purpose, and some would associate that same purpose to a population under some form of government.  We have here what really originated the idea for this article – the discovery that Tiberius Caesar reportedly said, “boni pastoris est tondere pecus, non deglubere“, that is – when it was suggested to him that he task his subjects heavily, that “good pastors shear their sheep, not flay them”.  This quote puts us back a mere couple of millennia.  How do our modern pastors shear us? Maybe the best comparison would be the equivalent of some type of education, especially in the laws and customs of those we associate with, or as far as religion is concerned, the obvious instruction it requires.

To call the general population, sheep, however, when sheeple – to be discussed in the next paragraph – are meant, is to say that people should be ungoverned in the manner of stray animals.

So, now we come to the sheeple – those who act as members of a herd.  In fact, this word, if sheep were people, would be offensive, as the only herd actions of sheep are following the leader, and staying together.  That they might flee together in case of attack should not bring upon them the opprobrium associated with what should more properly be considered as undesirable group behavior.  In the first place, sheep, although guided by sheep herders, are more liable to be considered as members of flocks rather than herds.  A Google search has the latter results (put as “flock of sheep”) outnumber by herd comparable herd search by a factor of 2.5.  I would prefer that that it were possible to associate the behavior of the gullible with that of packs, on the basis of behavior exercised by, for example, wild dogs or wolves.  Even this may be unfair, insofar as those animals do have some positive social attributes.

Do sheep attack those of a flock coming from outside of their group; or, on the contrary, allow easy integration?  What is known about the behavior of a pack of dogs in the same situation?  What do sheep eat?  What do the canine packs go after for food?  Here we could compare the pack with a school of sharks at feeding-frenzy time.  Do we want to associate the word for a place of education with a group of dangerous animals?  Of course, we could say that the rock band Pink Floyd, in Another Brick in The Wall, with the reference to mind-control, was talking about a structure in which the dominant members do want to create the equivalent of what we nowadays refer to as sheeple.  Study of pack behavior shows that the dominant member will always have rivals. Consequently, we do not want to say that it is necessarily the mark of a “good” shepherd to do everything possible to prevent an challenges to his or her leadership.

The previous paragraph does not deny that herds and packs share some ways of acting, especially when it comes to followers.  In our mind, the sheep may follow meekly, but the weaker canines in the pack, while not following so humbly, are in fact in thrall to the alpha and beta males, whom it would be best to avoid challenging.  We though, should not, in a “we the people” environment, need to worry about such animal behavior among our species.  We live as a civilized group, following just laws.  If necessary, we are made, or forced to be outcasts, the lone wolves of society.

Addendum: Further Definitions

I would like to leave with the thought that the term “sheeple” for urban sheep insults all types of the latter species. We do this through definitions.

I once knew a person, self-described as gregarious. The root of the word is the Latin grex, meaning herd. The definition, depending on the dictionary, may be kinder to the reader in English, than the ones that are given by the Royal Academy of Spain: these refer, in the current on-line order given for gregario: 1) the animal version; 2) what we might call a collectivist or communistic version; and finally, 3) a definition which corresponds to the common understanding of sheeple. (To avoid copyright complaints, these are not translations, but explanations.)

We then have some almost circular definitions, where we find that the etymology of “rabble” – our preferred understanding of the human herd – comes from the idea of a pack-animal – both http://www.etymonline.com and http://www.merriam-webster.com agree. The latter, forcibly, gives one definition of “rabble”: mob. This latter word, upon further investigation, is used in Australia to mean, among similar words, “herd”. The same is found at dictionary.com. (These repetitions of sources are provided to give validity to the definitions, and to allay any charges that material is being copied from a specific source.)

An alternative to the word “flock”, with a comparable meaning, is found in a derivative of grex: congregation. Here we see how this word shares four letters with “gregarious”.  Some congregations refer to themselves as assemblies, and by this latter word, all taint of herd association is happily lost.

May 4 and 6, 2019.

© 2019, Paul Karl Moeller

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