Mulling: The “Sheeple” Problem

(Relax, I’m not using that word seriously.)

I have a tendency to wax on a bit, especially when idea is still new and exciting to me- writing helps me crystallize things and turn them around in my hand.

I wanted to be clear about a few positions before I start picking up another line of thought- I have two more notes on Bogosts’ Unit Operations to put together, and I have a couple of unbaked notes I wanted to play with. Then, somewhere soon, I’ll probably start talking about games and design.

Below, I wanted to re-articulate a few tangential points I’ve referenced recently.


Political arrangements are often different from policy preferences. I have some policy preferences. I think that policy matters. In the past (ex. at bottom of this post) I’ve mentioned political preferences of mine that are not popular. When I wrote about political landscapes [here, (IV)] I was arguing about different procedural/legal considerations, how governments choose to organize. Living under one blend of democratic republic with so-and-so properties is not inherently better than some other blend of parliamentary democracy or even something a little more taboo. Only actualized, existing political structures, effecting (yes this is a correct use of effect) particular policies can be judged, and we judge them by their effectiveness in preserving and promoting human well-being (or whatever other value you’d like). I meant to also suggest that environments matter, and that situations that make some arrangements untenable can also change. I also meant to demonstrate that getting to your preferred political arrangement should be part of your cost/benefit calculation. In early 20th century history and fiction, it seems that some utopians did factor the cost of political change into their equation, but if Utopia has incalculably great benefit, then these idealists were willing to suffer nearly-incalculable loss to achieve it. The peaks are farther than they think, or maybe not as high, the gorges are almost never shallower than you predict, and in the end it’s easy to roll downhill into an unsavory place. I’m very fond of the landscape metaphor, I wish I could figure out what questions I’d really want to ask about it, and play with it some more.

Pragmatism is an ideology. (And that’s okay.) I’ve been writing a lot about ideology and apologetic. They interest me. I also want to stay grounded- for example, I want to avoid what we might call the Sheeple problem. I am not a free-floating observer above human concerns. I also have baggage, and I should own it. Pragmatism as a philosophy has tenets and is an ideology with ideas, ideals, and values of its own. Ideology is not evil- it just is, and it’s everywhere.

Atheism denotes a single proposition. (As opposed to a complete belief system.) This is the kind of argument I would’ve had years ago. I can’t believe adults choose not to understand this, but I’ve seen it in a few places recently. Surely not from you, reader! An Atheist can be a Secular Humanist or a Buddhist or a Nihilist. Calling yourself an Atheist might assign you to the tribe of people who call themselves Atheists and their implied belief system, but that’s a separate matter. Atheism is not a belief system, but atheists still have belief systems.

In light of this apparently widespread confusion, I shouldn’t have loaded my “special, undefined” idea of a more or less atheistic belief system in this post. I meant that to mean a belief system that does not simply replace the holes in the shape of the previous, “religious” worldview. I should have used a different phrase to avoid this misreading.

People are not sheep. I again want to distance myself from the Sheeple problem, wherein “everyone is a sheep (except for me of course)”. It’s a lazy and narcissistic way of looking at actual cases of influence, social cohesion, etc. This belief is also related to the ideological blindness brought on by the belief in one’s own post-ideological hyper-rationality. It is a silly belief with no predictive power or insight. The cult of the self is quite popular these days.

That’s not to say that other, similar-seeming propositions are untrue (eg. “Most people ain’t too bright” or something like that- I’m not sure how useful such a proposition is, but for many bars of “bright” the proposition must be true).

House of Cards: The environment that makes Frank Underwood so effective does not exist: his opponents are empty, agent-less rubes. This makes for schleppy (although fun!), television, because we the viewers are also smarter than Frank’s enemies and he lets us in on his wacky machinations as equals. This proposition is related to the whole Sheeple principle: We are (naturally!) on the side of Frank, a “wolf among the Sheeple”. Game of Thrones is more realistic in the social sense.

I’m not contending that Frank Underwoods don’t exist in some form, just that this particular one was blessed to find himself on a planet full of idiots, instead of properly navigating whole complexes of other sociopaths contending for power. In House of Cards, if there were more than two Frank Underwoods in the House, the entire American legislative system would explode. But we know that our world is full of Underwoods, and even in much pettier positions than Congress. He’s not a special snowflake in our world- he’s an expected feature. And Frank’s game, truth be told, is pretty weak.

Anyway, excuse me. I just crammed the second season down last weekend, it’s still fresh on my mind.

The Fictionality of History: So, the social world is not composed of a single Frank Underwood dictating to the great, naive masses, and in the same way I wanted to emphasize that history is a model that can be manipulated, and is often warped by tribes with agendas, but that there does not need to be a secret cabal for such a thing to happen. Movements and tribes have historians and polemicists and theorists, but histories must be adopted to have any real power. There is a back-and-forth, and this process is not engineered so much as curated.

The celebrity that cries out to her fans, “I couldn’t do this without you!” is saying an obvious truth (assuming the plural ‘you’, anyway). Her power comes by adoption of her product.

Some political schemes try to assert their preferred histories by violence, and this is usually not a sustainable strategy. Cultures are cultivated by organic ‘chicken-egg’ type processes, not meticulously constructed from the top-down. Single, official, unerring histories are incredibly fragile, and that’s why apologetic evolves naturally- because unerring official histories are nice to believe in but are difficult to maintain over different places, people, and time.