by an anonymous former Special Forces Officer
“United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.”
-Patrick Henry March 1799
We are living in extraordinary times. America and the world are faced with unprecedented challenges today. Indeed, the very fabric of our nation appears to be unraveling, as we face the pervasive threat of a global pandemic, economic hardship unseen since the Great Depression, and ever-increasing waves of societal discontent. The underlying causes of America’s internal anger and frustration have Americans lashing out at each other, expressions that contribute little to solving the fundamental issues of the malcontent.
Faced with these challenges today, it is easy to become overwhelmed with negativity. There seems little that can be done to make a lasting impact, bring order from the chaos, and positivity from the pessimism. And yet, with each challenge comes opportunity, a chance to learn and perhaps grow from this experience. These circumstances have already forced upon Americans a reset, a reordering of our lives to accommodate a “new normal.”
No longer are we detached from the dynamic forces, both good and evil, that globalization has wrought, we are awash in it. We are all interconnected. Globalization has impacted our daily lives as we struggle to define our new place in this environment. Yet, we often feel rudderless, without a clear understanding of this changed milieu. How does one comport oneself, what are our responsibilities as individuals and as citizens in this new age?
Americans have always been fiercely independent, individual liberty is at the very essence of who we are as people. But individual liberty and individualism can become somewhat misconstrued. Individualism at any cost can erode our collective sense of responsibility to others. As America struggles to define itself in this new era, we have the opportunity to enact practices, both formally and informally, that can restore our sense of liberty and justice for all. And transform Sheep into Sheepdogs…
Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs
Author and retired Army officer David Grossman describes a paradigm regarding individuals’ actions that fall into three generalized categories. He describes people as belonging to either the “Sheep,” “Wolf,” or “Sheepdog” mentalities. Simplified, these archetypes describe a mindset on how one views the world and how one acts.
This paradigm has an interesting connection to what could be called inclusive citizenship. Often the lack of inclusivity highlights our differences, putting Americans at odds with each other, often to our detriment. Rather than magnify the fissures that exist, inclusive citizenship is an approach to restore a sense of collective partnership and obligation towards each other as Americans.
Like the Sheep/Wolf/Sheepdog paradigm, inclusive citizenship seeks to fashion an approach on how to view the world and how to act. It strives to educate people so that when they leave school and leave home, they have an understanding of the political, legal, and economic functions of adult society, but also have the social and moral awareness to thrive and act in it. Inclusive citizenship seeks to transform Sheep into Sheepdogs.
According to Grossman, most people fall into the Sheep category. Grossman is not using the term pejoratively. What he implies is that most people function in day-to-day society, focused on individual obligations and responsibilities as part of the “communal” flock. Issues of protection, care, and maintenance of a functioning society (and the world for that matter) are entrusted to others. Being a sheep, therefore, is more of a mindset. Sheep are participatory members of society, they generally try to do the right thing and demonstrate pro-social behavior but with perspectives, actions, and a sense of responsibility more at an individual level.
Wolves are those that seek to exploit others for personal gain, be they individuals or entities. They are the “Predatory Identities” spoken of by Arjun Appadurai in his book Fear of Small Numbers, who operate from the mindset of fear and propagate the “us versus them” mentality. They are those that use misinformation to spread discontent, opportunists who thrive upon chaos and prey upon others. According to Grossman, Wolves are the sociopaths who commit violent crimes or ignore moral or ethical boundaries with impunity to the detriment of others.
Then there are the Sheepdogs, the protectors against society’s Wolves. The role of the human “Sheepdog” is similar to that of their canine counterparts, they possess a sense of awareness and responsibility to protect the perimeter and vigilantly watch for “Wolves.” Like all canine’s they see the world not as “black” or “white” but in a more comprehensive, all-encompassing array of yellow, blue, and gray. Especially gray, for the world is not black or white, but a complex amalgamation.
Their mere presence can keep “Predatory Identities” at bay. They are prepared to make a stand against injustice and those who would do individual or collective harm. Grossman describes Sheepdogs as individuals who possess a moral compass and a “deep love for their fellow human beings.” It is this mentality that inclusive citizenship seeks to foster. Sheepdogs protect the whole flock, their devotion transcending race, religion, ethnic origin, gender, or sexual orientation.
Sheepdogs are Made, Not Born
Being a Sheepdog is not a matter of birth; it is a mindset, a lifestyle, and a matter of education and upbringing. While Grossman uses his Sheep/Wolf/Sheepdog analogy to largely explain violent confrontations, it is just as applicable to moral and ethical confrontations today in our communities and the world at large. Being a Sheepdog is dangerous, Malala Yousafzai, the advocate for women’s rights in Pakistan, almost lost her life in her courageous stand against the “Wolves“ of the Taliban.
Becoming a Sheepdog
Inclusive citizenship is an approach to transform young people into the world’s Sheepdogs. It is both an educational and societal philosophy that enables people to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for their own lives and yet be responsible to their communities. Inclusive citizenship is more than a subject, it is a set of skills, values, and a conviction designed to enhance life for all people and all creatures. It embraces both human rights and ethical responsibilities, beginning in school and radiating out to the community, the nation, and the world.
There are elements of citizenship education in many subjects, some of which can be found in our school curriculum of social studies, history, geography, and economics. But as a life philosophy, inclusive citizenship seeks to go beyond just civic development in young people. It involves developing more active, informed, and responsible “world citizens”; who are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their communities and contribute to positive change through legal and legitimate processes, not through insurrection or revolution.
These skillsets do not develop unaided, they come through careful and thoughtful nurturing. That process begins first at home. Families today are understanding more than ever the importance of community to our individual and collective well-being. Being self-quarantined has dramatically highlighted our interdependence and need for collective caretaking to enjoy the individual liberty and freedoms we enjoy.
While a certain amount of these skill sets will be picked up through experience in the home, it is rarely sufficient to develop citizens for the sort required in today’s complex and diverse global environment. Education must also foster these skills. Education should emphasize further development of self-confidence and resilience that up-armors people to successfully deal with significant life changes and challenges.
We should remember and understand our history, but transcend those contexts that serve no useful purpose. Inclusive citizenship should not cultivate a sense of “American Exceptionalism” but rather give a sense that we are all Americans, with a proud and complex heritage. Education’s role in creating Sheepdogs is to enable students to make a positive contribution by developing the expertise and experience needed to understand their responsibilities and prepare them for the challenges and opportunities of life in an increasingly complex world.
But parents and educators play only part of the role of transforming Sheep into Sheepdogs. Politicians, civic and religious leaders, coaches, and mentors all play a part. Embracing this approach requires responsible leadership and it requires us all to model these behaviors, setting a positive example.
All give way… together
Today more than ever, America needs motivated and responsible individuals, who relate positively to each other, especially those from diverse backgrounds. America requires responsible citizens, willing to participate in the life of the nation, and the wider world and play its part in the democratic process. Let us take this occasion to foster respect for justice, democracy, and the rule of law, openness towards diversity, and the courage to defend a point of view. Let us embrace a willingness to listen to, work with, and stand together against that which would divide us. It is not an easy path to follow, but one that offers a profound sense of both personal and shared fulfillment.
We have today, a unique opportunity, born out of fear and frustration, to cultivate a greater understanding of universal obligation and responsibility and to instill in people a readiness to be Sheepdogs.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on June 19, 2020.