I like historical fiction—books, movies, TV. I especially like the kind that has a plot based on some kind of shadow agency, secret society, or cabal that is mysteriously at work in the story yet lurk in the background. The Illuminati. The Culper Ring. The Trilateral Commission. All kinds of stories include groups like these meddling in world events, often for the sake of power. The identity of the participants in such groups is usually almost entirely unknown. The stories often play with a little bit of true history to create grandiose plots in which the fate of all humanity is at stake. They’re fun reads.
Of course, I think they’re fun because they’re imaginary. Historical fiction is just that—fiction. It doesn’t claim to be anything else.
Deepfakes, Conspiracy Theories, and Extremism
Distinguishing fact from fiction is getting more and more difficult. I’m worried about the further development of deepfakes, for example. Deepfakes—from “deep learning” and “fakes”—are videos in which people appear to be saying things they never actually said, built by AI computers using images and recordings of the speaker, mashing them together into coherent and convincing fictions that masquerade as fact. They’re very hard to recognize and they’re getting harder. In fact, they’ve already been playing a part in global-political shifts and experts are concerned about their further disruptive capabilities.
Conspiracy theories are another example of the difficulty we have separating fact from fiction. Much like historical fiction, conspiracy theories try to explain the existence of factual realities using highly questionable evidence (but only if one is willing to raise the questions). For example, pandemics are often accompanied by conspiracy theories. Psychologist Stephen Taylor notes that, “Disease outbreaks are commonly the subject of conspiracy theories, especially when the nature of the disease is poorly understood.” Taylor describes some of the theories that arose during the Bubonic Plague in the 1500s, the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the end of that century.
We don’t usually think about it this way, but beliefs, such as believing a deepfake or a conspiracy theory is true, are most often the sort of thing that are “caught” rather than, say, chosen. Stanley Fish describes coming to have a belief like catching a cold—rather than having beliefs or a cold, we’re had by them.
Fish demonstrates this by sharing a story about an old NPR episode. There it was reported about a former member of a eugenicist extremist group. The group believed, among other things, that people with “defects” like cleft palates ought to be “put into special colonies or otherwise dealt with.” When asked what “changed his mind” the person did not offer reasons, arguments, or evidence. Instead, he offered a narrative. He told a rather personal story, describing how, in fact, his own daughter was born with a cleft palate. As a father who loved his daughter, he suddenly realized he was caught up with the wrong beliefs and the wrong crowd.
Again, it wasn’t reasoned evidence or arguments that accounted for his prior belief, nor his immediate rejection of that belief. It was an experience that could only be accounted for by a story. He didn’t deliberate and weigh evidence. In both respects, his beliefs just seemed to happen to him, similar to catching a cold.
Think For Yourself?
We’d like to imagine ourselves as these incredibly thoughtful and deliberative creatures who don’t believe anything without weighing the evidence first. In the old adage, we’re the kind of people who “think for ourselves.” But in fact, most of our beliefs have come to be what they are because of persuasion of various sorts. In fact, group pressure is perhaps strongest. When everyone around us seems to believe a particular thing, it’s hard not to believe it too, if only because we don’t want to be excluded. Yet we don’t really deliberate in making that choice. Rather, it just seems to happen. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we end up thinking with others.
Group pressure is sometimes called herd or mob mentality. One place mob mentality affects us is online. Some have recognized and lamented this reality. Algorithms strongly influence our news feeds, delivering to us pieces that others read who share a similar algorithmic profile. So even if we don’t know the mob we’re a part of, the “omnipotent” internet treats us like a member and delivers content we’ll like, all the while letting us believe we’re in control of what we consume.
Social media does the same. But it goes further in encouraging us to actively participate in a mob. When we log on, we’re asked what’s on our mind. We are encouraged to read, share and hashtag the same things as our friends. This experience can be so overwhelmingly influential that we start to believe that’s the only way to think. The only positions to advocate for and support are the ones the mob approves. A kind of “orthodoxy” quickly develops. And if you disagree, you’re labelled a heretic.
The member of the extremist group faced a conundrum when having to choose between committing to the orthodoxy of his group or his role of loving father to his daughter. In choosing his daughter, we should recognize that he lost a strong connection to a community in which he probably found belonging, identity, and meaning.
We see this about many issues: racial, ethnic, political, environmental, sexual, gender, guns, speech, and more. The arguments boil down into zero-sum games. If you’re not completely and fully for one side, you’re ostensibly for the other. No conversation, no debate. Silence is violence, yet sometimes you’re just told to shut-up. Your only option seems to be to listen and fall in line or live as a kind of outsider.
Sometimes falling in line with the mob is relatively trivial. I used to live in the Pacific Northwest. IPA beers are all the rage there, and that’s what all my friends were drinking. I cant stand IPAs, so I didn’t drink them. And while my friends might harass me for not liking their favorite style of beer, I was never at risk of losing their friendship.
At other times, falling in line with the mob is dangerous. Group pressure can lead to some very poor choices. The pressure of the group to remain faithful to the mob above all else begins to cost the loss of other social relationships. We experience fracturing and societal breakdown as people take sides, polarizing, and imagine those who are outside their groups as enemies.
All of this is frustrating and exhausting for at least two reasons.
Frustration and Exhaustion
First, the realities that people are arguing about are very important to many of us, and oftentimes people’s lives are at stake. This is true for the ongoing racial tensions, the disagreements about whether to where masks in public, and many other significant concerns.
Second, when the arguments function like a zero-sum game, there is no room for debate, discussion, or even slowing things down to learn more. Profoundly complicated issues get over-simplified. Emotion and reaction predominate. Confusion arises about the goal. Fruitful progress stagnates.
DO SOMETHING is often the cri de coeur. But “what” and “why” remain tremendously difficult to answer.
In the cartoon series Charlie Brown, there is a recurring scene in which Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick. Over and over again, Charlie lines up for the kick and just as he is about to kick the ball, Lucy pulls it up and out of the way, causing Charlie to fall onto the ground. Various iterations of this scene recur, sometimes with Lucy promising not to pull the ball. In one scene, she even signs a contract committing not to pull the ball. Yet, just as Charlie is about to kick it, Lucy inevitably pulls it anyway despite the contract.
Many people want to do something about the troubling issues of our time, especially those involving concerns of social justice. In a zero-sum game, over and over again well-intentioned people are told that they need to do something. Still, the very things they do—even when they are doing something in line with the voices they’ve been listening to—their actions are derided as not enough or in fact the wrong thing. Like Charlie Brown, those who try often experience Lucy metaphorically pulling the ball.
Exhaustion and frustration.
Perhaps people who want to help—who want to do something—are captive to a mob mentality much like the man with the daughter who had a cleft palate. And the factual truth of the matter begins to reveal itself when efforts to help and bring about change are met with rejection, silencing, and ostracism.
Covidiots and Sheeple
During the present pandemic, the debate about how best to helpfully behave for the sake of others has led to two unique labels. There’s the COVIDiot (from COVID + idiot), a derogatory term used for those who do not follow the health and safety guides set forth amid the pandemic. There’s also the “sheeple” (from sheep + people), a term that’s actually in the dictionary due to its regular use over the last few years. Sheeple is another derogatory term that refers to people who mindlessly follow the crowd. The term is often used in the phrase “wake up sheeple,” evoking the idea of being “woke,” but applied in a new way in light of the coronavirus crisis. Getting “woke” in this sense seems to mean one of two things (leading to a rather ironic confusion): either you wake up and realize that following the public health guidelines is for everyone’s good, OR it means you should claim your independence from the authorities who can’t tell you what to do, like wearing a mask in public. We’re facing group pressure in two different directions here.
In the Bible, the word for “sheep” is used more than 400 times. We learn that sheep are followers. They do what other sheep are doing, often to their own detriment. They have a herd mentality. They will follow the mob off a cliff. Sheep need someone to protect them from these dangers, a guide to keep them safe, a trustworthy voice to which they can listen.
Shepherds are the corollary image for sheep in the Bible. Shepherds were those who protected the sheep, lead them away from danger and toward safety as well as sources of life, like food and water. Shepherds were familiar to their sheep. Like many animals who develop relationships with humans, sheep find the voice of a shepherd to be trustworthy and comforting. Sheep follow their shepherd because they know their shepherd cares for them.
Who are you gonna follow?
At some point, we all have to recognize that we’re caught up as part of some mob. Maybe it’s the mob that’s actively dividing us. Maybe it’s the mob that’s criticizing that mob. Maybe it’s the mob that’s feeling helpless to make a difference because of frustration and exhaustion, resigned and giving up. And perhaps it’s a mob that I haven’t discussed yet—the apathetic mob, who just doesn’t care. Indeed, perhaps we’ve all been a part of each of these at some time or another. If we are had by our beliefs, and therefore caught up in a mob mentality without being aware of it, we can draw a striking conclusion:
We’re all sheep then. And we all need a shepherd.
The Bible describes us well in this regard, saying, “we all like sheep have gone astray.” (Isaiah 53.6).
Yet, this is not the last word. It’s only the first one. If we have all gone astray and need a shepherd, where do we find one? Jesus says of himself, “I am the Good Shepherd.” (John 10.11) Jesus says of his sheep that he knows them and they know him. They listen to his voice. He goes on to talk about more sheep who are not yet a part of his flock but will be, united under his leadership.We need a shepherd these days. Our world is in turmoil. Lives are stake. A pathway forward and toward unity is not possible without the leadership of the Good Shepherd.