Remember how I told you to keep that term in mind—harmfully simplistic? This is where we understand the point of all of this, as I am sure that several of you are questioning that very thing right now. Sure, you might say, things are not that simple; we all know this, but over-complicating a basic analogy does not serve anyone.
But it does because assuming simplistic models as being accurate when they are not is harmful to even the best of us.
Just think about some of the people you have served with in the military. Maybe they had a combat job and maybe they even saw combat. Now fast-forward and imagine them 15 years after getting out. No training, no PT, nothing—how far is that four year-stint going to take them in a mass shooting after being removed from it for over a decade of pizza, beer, and a desk job?
And here we come to the crux of the matter—9 times out of 10 that guy still thinks he’s a sheepdog.
Do not try to tell me you have not seen this yourself. There are guys floating all over the veteran community that have supposedly “been there, done that,” but have not done a lick of actual training in a decade or more. They talk a mean game about when they were “in the sandbox” and yet cannot run more than 50 feet without needing a break, haven’t fired a firearm in years, and forgot all the first-aid knowledge they thought they knew originally (or maybe they sucked at all of these things to begin with?).
I have seen police officers who were afraid of crowds and should never be trusted with a gun. I know of firefighters who could not pass the physical fitness test of their department but found ways of gaming the system to stay on and do the job. And I can just about guarantee that each of them, if engaged in a conversation on this topic, would proudly proclaim the title of “sheepdog.”
Overconfidence Can Kill
The field of psychology is rife with problems and one that, despite having a master’s degree in a subset of it (or maybe because of that?), I am mostly unimpressed with. But there have been a few notable efforts in this area over the last few decades, one of which deserves attention here.
Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger studied and developed what would come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect—a cognitive bias relating to people’s inability to see their own inability. The crude version is that people are often “too stupid to know how stupid they are.”
So in a world where the sheepdog analogy is continually forwarded—a world of constant talk about fighting, shooting, and saving lives—do you think that people who are not actually sheepdogs…are going to recognize that fact? Do you believe that most people are going to understand that one may be a sheepdog only once in their entire lives and live the rest of it as a sheep? Or do you think that off-the-charts levels of overconfidence and cognitive biases are going to lead people to believe they are something they are most certainly not?
At 44 years old with all my experience and learning, what I know more and more each day is what I don’t know—how unsure I am about a whole lot of things. Could I protect those people over there if a shooter came in the door? Could I fight that guy who looks pretty tough and like he’s about to embark upon a domestic violence jamboree with his waif of a wife?
I do not assume because there are countless variables. I work regularly at being as smart and capable as I can be, but also know the limitations of my own ability and the myriad factors involved in life, especially when things get violent.
Walking around every day telling myself that “I’m a sheepdog” belies everything I know about this crazy thing we call “life.” It is insanely complicated, and throwing everyone into one of three categories ignores that reality.
So here we come to the difference in what I am addressing and what Grossman forwarded, which has more to do with how someone psychologically copes with violence—how they are naturally wired—than with a category they choose for themselves. Although these are not necessarily the same, I posit that they are decidedly linked more closely than some may realize, and that poses a significant problem for his analogy.
If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath–a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.
Usually when a paradigm is flawed, we can trace it back to an initial step being slightly off. Much like shooting an azimuth, one or two degrees off does not lead one to get lost right away, but if that path is followed long enough then the walker is going to find themselves in trouble.
That is the case here, as we are offered a slightly flawed starting point: “no capacity for violence” equals a “healthy productive citizen” who is a “sheep.”
I recall hearing a 911 dispatch recording in which an elderly woman was reporting a man attempting to break into her home. The dispatcher told her to find a place to hide and the grandmother said something like, “no need to. I have my shotgun” in the calmest voice imaginable. She then proceeded to tell the dispatcher that, although she did not want to, she was going to have to go ahead and set the phone down so she could shoot this guy because he was coming in and, BAM, she did. Upon picking the phone back up, her voice had not changed in tone, but she reported that she had, in fact, shot and killed the intruder.
Just like that. A grandma who, according to most who knew her, had “no capacity for violence” and was a “healthy productive citizen.”
News flash: most people have a capacity for violence. If the right circumstances are present, then nearly anyone can be pushed to a point of committing a violent act. And herein lies the problem with this whole analogy—it belittles the tremendous levels of complexity involved with these terms.
What does one mean by “capacity” and is there a definitive demarcation line between capacity and non-capacity? Can we demonstrate clearly where one person has zero capacity for violence and another has a full capacity, or are we ranking people on a 1 – 10 scale? And how would we do that given the myriad variables involved that are incalculable by any known methodology?