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Must We Be Herd Animals?

Are you a sheep or a human being?

We humans are social creatures. Most of us are wired to care about what others think of us and to feel loyalty to our family, our friends, and our country. That is a good thing. It helps us to live and work cooperatively with others and balances our other instinct to look out for ourselves first. As social creatures, we are always compromising between our personal needs and the needs of others. Most of the time that works well. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we subordinate our own personal accountability to the fears and passions of the group and act as herd animals rather than responsible individuals.

Demagogues have exploited that weakness in the human psyche since the very beginnings of civilization. They have created fear, typically of the others, non-members of the group, and used that fear to stampede the herd into supporting behavior that it would normally find repulsive and threatening. To promote and prolong that fear, demagogues suppress the free dissemination of information by sowing distrust in any source other than themselves. By the time the herd’s panic has subsided, it’s too late — the reins of power are firmly in the hands of the newly minted dictator.

Must we be herd animals? I believe we don’t. I hope that we’re smarter than sheep. Sadly, history teaches that all to often we fail that minimal test. To avoid failing the test, we must always remember that “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” There are always people who value power above everything. We must always be on guard against them because they will try to steal our freedom. If someone tells you that our problems are caused by the others, that he is the only one who can fix them (if only you give him enough power), and that everyone who disagrees with him is lying, be skeptical. Consciously or unconsciously, he’s playing on your herd instincts and may be trying to drive the herd. Don’t be a sheep!

Because someone disagrees with with you does not make him your enemy. We’ve been bouncing back and forth between conservative and liberal perspectives for most of our history. Our American democracy was designed to operate through compromise — not with the my way or the highway, take no prisoners, mentality that drives our current political discourse. The last time we tried that we had a rather nasty Civil War. If we break our democracy because we cannot compromise we certainly will risk losing our freedom.

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