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Race, Evil, and Black Wolves: Answering the Critics Part 2

(We have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

On Monday, we addressed two of the criticisms of our Slate piece, (“The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”). Today, we want to tackle some more of the rebuttals.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with race!”

Far and away, people--even people who liked the article--objected to us connecting the sheep, sheepdogs and wolves analogy to race more than any other objection. Some felt the connection was not related to the core article, or Chris Kyle.

There’s a number of rebuttals we could issue in response. First, as we wrote in the article, many (most?) Americans use race, consciously or subconsciously. In particular, many police officers use race in their decision making. (By now, most people have seen the Harvard Implicit Bias test. If not, check it out.) The sheepdog analogy, by its very nature, divides people into categories. And most people in America divide their fellow Americans into categories...using race.

Ironically, many of the people objecting to the accusation of racism had an odd response: being racist. For example…

“But black people are wolves!”

I wanted to make this point in the original article, but Michael C made me leave it out. Follow this simple logic train (which we don’t agree with):

- The world is divided into three groups, sheep, sheepdogs and wolves.

- Wolves commit crimes.

- African-Americans commit crimes more than any other group.

- Therefore, African-Americans are more likely to be wolves. (Again we don’t agree with this at all.)

Think that’s crazy? I do too, but I just wanted to follow the crazy logic of the sheepdog analogy to its logical conclusion. If this analogy is true (it’s not), African Americans are more likely to be wolves. Turns out, some commenters are already leapt to that conclusion, citing crime statistics and saying, “See, African Americans are wolves!”

And people say the gun rights debate doesn’t have anything to do with race. But let’s get more specific...

“Michael Brown was a wolf!”

Many commenters on Twitter and in the comments section objected to us using Michael Brown as an example.

From Twitter: “at the same time, the pieces author mourns a violent criminal like Michael Brown (can't speak to Garner), so…”

From the comments section: “BTW, Mike Brown was a wolf, as shown on the security video in which he assaulted and robbed a much smaller man.” and “Mike Brown was a wolf killed by a sheepdog.”

Or in more racially-loaded terms, Michael Brown was a “thug”. (Yes, someone wrote that.) And less sensitively, some commenters wrote that he deserved to get shot.

This is really where I get upset. In essence, they’re arguing that petty larceny is a crime deserving a death sentence. Yes, I mourn the death of any young man who gets shot, because I don’t see the failing as his, but a society that couldn’t help him. Especially when an overzealous law enforcement community and its supporters see shooting him as a justified action for robbing a liquor store.


“Evil exists!”

That’s the gist of this article refuting us. On one hand we can’t refute this. There are definitely horrific, vile acts in the world it is hard to call anything but evil. But, as we wrote in our Slate article and many times since, the number of horrific, vile acts in the world is decreasing. Evil isn’t spreading in the world, it’s receding.

But going from “evil acts” to “evil people” is a different ball game and it begs way more questions than it answers. Does one act forever make someone evil?  What about soldiers or police officers who beat their children or cheat on their wives? Are they evil? What about the torturers?  What about drone strikes of weddings in Yemen? Does that make the operators in Langley sheepdogs or wolves? What about politicians making bad decisions about wars that kill innocents? Are they sheep or sheepdogs? Evil or justified?

Evil is too simplistic a term to judge people with, unfortunately. And so is the “sheep, wolves and sheepdog” analogy.

four comments

Back in the day I came into contact with many thugs, arresting them, investigating their activities, interviewing their victims and even on occasion getting into physical altercations with them. Not a one of them was black. That isn’t because there aren’t black thugs but because in the place I worked there weren’t many black people. There were thugs though and they were thugs because of their behavior. It had nothing to do with their race or skin tone.

Mr. Brown was not killed because he stole something from a store, he was shot because he became involved in a physical fight with a police officer and he was on the verge of winning, or at least the cop thought he was. This presented the officer with a horrific decision that had to be made in an instant, that being should he further engage in the hand to hand stuff and risk being disarmed thereby risking being shot with his own weapon, or should he shoot.

Most officers aren’t Bruce Lee clones and most fights aren’t really fights, they are struggles to keep the guy from getting away. When they aren’t things get very complicated very fast. One of the major complicating factors is there is a gun involved and once the wrestling around starts who controls that gun becomes critical. There are a lot of officers who are killed with their own weapons after having been disarmed.

So that’s one thing. Another is because most guys are not Bruce Lee they need something to give them an edge. That something will either be a weapon or numbers. Numbers is preferable because shear number of bodies makes it much easier to subdue a guy without having to shoot him. More importantly the psychological impact of numbers mostly stops things before they get physical. Ideally you arrange it so there is backup before anything starts but sometimes the ideal isn’t doable, then a weapon has to be resorted to. The display of that weapon normally stops the fight. The nightmare is when it doesn’t and the weapon has to be used.

I can see how society has failed some of the thugs. In Mr. Brown’s case the bystanders could have helped the cop thereby avoiding the need for gunplay. That happened to a friend of mine. He got into a fight at the side of the road and before a very few seconds had passed a number of cars stopped and the drivers got out and assisted my friend in subduing the guy. No resort to weapons needed. Nobody did that in Mr. Brown’s case and now he’s dead. That is one way society could have helped. Another way is trying to do something about the shattering of the black family.

I will admit though as a street cop I wasn’t so interested in helping thugs reform as I was in helping the people they robbed, stabbed, beat, assaulted and in trying to keep them from doing those things to others. The officers I worked with were interested in doing the same thing. We dealt with what we faced as best we could.

Also, listen to this week’s This American Life. Covers this topic again, proving the evidence on race and police decision making.

Catching up on my On Violence reading, so sorry for this late comment. You guys are doing great work with this series and with Chris Kyle’s book. This particular post highlighted to me that Grossman’s quote and subsequent discussion is related to ideas about people’s character, particularly understood within a virtue ethics framework.

Though probably not that sophisticated, in essence, Grossman seems to be implying that through the development of habits, a person differentiates themselves between three characters, the most virtuous being the sheepdog.

One of the problems with this (due, in part, to the lack of sophistication in the analogy) is that the habits emphasized are technical skills (ability to handle yourself in combat) and not right judgment. Right judgment being an important consideration in any virtue theory. The assumption is that the development of the technical skill necessarily includes or produces the development of judging rightly between sheep and wolves. You guys have pointed out examples of these failings.

Anyway, I thought you might find this book review relevant to the discussion, especially regarding your penultimate paragraph: http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/55693-character-..

Perhaps we should edit this post and the Slate piece to be about the very clearly shot in the back Walter Scott…

Funny, in the report filed after the shooting, the officer claimed Scott was also trying to wrestle his gun away from him. Video proved otherwise.

You know who else a cop claimed was trying to wrestle his gun away…the officer who shot Michael Brown. I wonder if cops just use that as a defense…

Well, at least the world was protected from broken tail lights.