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On Being Moderately Sheeplish

Joe Carter has had a salubrious encounter with the human mind, such as it is, and has discovered that conservatives are sheeple too. “I have to confess that I’d always associated sheeplishness with the Left,” he starts out, but then notes how, in his new role with the Huckabee campaign, he has found sheeplishness amongst conservatives as well. He thinks he should have known this all along.

Well, give yourself a break, Joe. It’s easy to assume that people who agree with one’s well thought out opinions are obviously brilliant and agree only because, having thoroughly examined all the evidence, they are impressed with the brilliance of those opinions. Then one encounters the so-called “popular mind” in action, and one finds out that this isn’t precisely so. And I’m not trying to be particularly sarcastic here about Joe. It really is easy to do, and quite natural. (Oh, and I had considered writing something about Huckabee’s foreign policy, as I thought it was getting badly treated, but since I’m not a Republican I never got up the energy to do the necessary research.)

The addiction to secondary and tertiary sources is becoming (if it hasn’t already become) endemic in our culture. For many of us the facts come from purveyors of opinion without regard to references, sources, context, and logic. It’s not a particular failing of the left or the right, no matter how much each side would like to think it is. Much of public discourse occurs without fact checking. We believe what is said by folks we regard as authorities and we choose authorities based on how sympathetic they are to our own viewpoint. Often we avoid reading those who may disagree, and thus reinforce our feeling of rightness. How could those other folks disagree, given the overwhelming array of authorities (the six people whose blogs I read and who agree with me) who support our position.

Now since I call myself a moderate, I need to add here that moderates are by no means immune to the problem. There’s a particular form of the problem that afflicts moderates in which we look for the extreme positions on an issue, not so that we can study the evidence for them and determine our position without excluding any option, but for the purpose of avoiding the extremes. Moderate sheeple make sure that they can in no way be regarded as extreme. That doesn’t mean that they are resistant to following leaders. Rather, they look for leaders who stay well away from the edges on any issue, and follow them.

It’s very difficult to avoid this problem. I know I have caught myself following someone’s lead on a point without checking a few times, and it’s embarrassing. The answer, of course, is to check your facts, then check your logic, then check them both again. The only way to avoid simply following one’s impressions and feelings is to explicitly look at the foundations of one’s positions. But this is hard work, and modern journalism and popular writing is not helping us carry out the task.

The tendency now is to cite a number of viewpoints. Balance in journalism means that one gives the various views on the topic. In politics, you get a Republican and a Democrat to tell you what they think, and you have balance. You get a Christian and an atheist to express their views on religion, and you have balance. Evaluation of the issues involved don’t matter.

I’m sure we’ve all seen documentaries such as those that come out just about every Easter on the historical Jesus. Several scholars are interviewed, and as the material is narrated, we get short clips of what those individuals may say. But we never get their actual evaluation of the evidence in enough detail to judge for ourselves what they are saying. I rarely watch one of those shows all the way through, because I become agitated. In general I will have read at least something by every scholar they cite, and as they take abbreviated quotes from those authors and charge forward I become more and more agitated until I must choose between changing the channel and damaging the TV when I throw something at the narrator’s head.

We have people getting the impression that they know something about the search for the historical Jesus when most couldn’t identify a pericope, or define what is meant by form, source, or redaction criticism, or identify one or two criteria which any group of scholars might use to determine historicity.

Of course, they believe the documentary is balanced, because they have shown a variety of viewpoints. We’ve gotten to the place where people don’t think it’s nice to evaluate ideas. But some ideas are really stupid. Some ideas are really dangerous. Are we to expect journalists to simply present all sides without giving any kind of evaluation? That seems to be the way that we’re going, and I hear these complaints from people all across the spectrum of political and religious beliefs.

I would suggest that we don’t want neutral media. We want diverse media. These days we have no reason to believe we won’t get diverse viewpoints because there are many sources available. Of course, those sheeple who are looking for a leader to follow will get their information from the easiest source, but in the modern world it’s very difficult to actually exclude an idea from discourse. Just consider the intelligent design movement. Never has a “suppressed” idea been so loudly and constantly proclaimed.

Many today seem to think that “all men are created equal” somehow means that “everything is equal.” We want equal results, equal time, and so forth. But not everybody deserves the same amount of attention. Not every idea deserves the same amount of exposure and proclamation. A few more facts, a few more references, and a little more evaluation would go a long way.

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  1. Larry B says:

    “A few more facts, a few more references, and a little more evaluation would go a long way.”

    I would give a hearty AMEN to that!!

  2. Martin LaBar says:

    Great post. I hope this doesn’t mean that I should stop reading your blog . . .

  3. I hope this doesn’t mean that I should stop reading your blog . . .

    The hazards of admitting one’s own fallibility! 🙂

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