Conspiracy theorists often refer to the great mass of the public who neither follow nor reject their ideas as sheep. I have also heard freelancers contemptuously calling regular employees sheep. But why were sheep chosen, rather than say ducks or pigs who can also be farmed and herded? Exploring this leads down some strange alleys, from the Bible to Animal Farm to Baa Baa Black Sheep to racism.
The Sheep and Goat Parable
This parable says God will separate the people coming before him for judgement like a farmer separating sheep from goats and is a sign of how alien the biblical world is, for today sheep and goats are seldom, if ever, raised together so separating them is unnecessary.
Those equated to sheep then depart stage right to a place of comfort and goats depart stage left to eternal darkness. The sheep are said to be those who have helped the poor and the goats those who have not.
There is a radical protestant interpretation that the goats are those who rejected the message of Jesus, though I could not been able to follow the reasoning behind this. On the face of it it being a sheep seems to be a good thing.
There are problems however. I was told that the “original” uses the same word for sheep and goats but was unable to find which original the informant referred to The Vulgate of the 4th century uses oves for sheep and hedos, meaning a kid, for goat. It is also not clear when the parable was created or written down, for later Christian scholars felt that the spiritual truth of the bible took precedence over reality and inserted passages into the Bible wholesale.
This tendency to deny reality for the sake of a pretty theory then fake the evidence is not confined to religion, but arises in politics and economics and continues to this day.
Soon after Christianity spread to Gentiles it began to change from a religion of liberation to a tool of social control, a process that became complete when Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman empire (something he seemed later to regret) and the Christians, now free from persecution eagerly began persecuting other religions (the philosopher Hypatia was murdered by a mob incited by a religious fanatic: the mob scraped her flesh from the bones with oyster shells) and each other: at one Synod the historical St Nicholas punched the 80 year old Arius, who he regarded as a heretic, in the mouth.
With Christianity being used to control not liberate, the Sheep and Goat parable, if not actually invented for the purpose, would have been very useful with its message that docility and submissiveness were the key to Heaven.
Of course in real life sheep are fleeced several times before being led to the slaughterhouse: in olden times a goat. known as a Judas Goat, would lead them to slaughter
The Sheep and Goat Effect
In the early days of parapsychological research it was observed that on the standardised card guessing tests used in those days believers in PSI tended to score significantly higher than chance and those who disbelieved in PSI tended to score significantly below chance levels. This was known as the sheep and goat effect, with the scientists terming the believers sheep and the skeptics goats. Of course the roles could be reversed with the sheep being the skeptics following scientific orthodoxy and the goats being those who followed their own path.
There is a school of thought that says you unconsciously manufacture bad or good luck depending on expectations and needs that may not be conscious and could have been established many decades earlier. The Sheep and Goat effect illustrates this with believers and skeptics creating their own realities in a way that third parties, those doing the measurements, could see. There are other cases where herd instinct can influence a shared reality. In the Irish village of Ballinspittle some decades ago a stature of the Virgin Mary was seen to move night after night and crowds gathered to see the statue move. There was no evidence the statue moved but doubtless anyone who did not see the statue move wisely refrained from saying so. One can see the same apparent movement by drawing a black spot on a blank sheet of paper and staring at it. Herd instinct, the sheep mentality one might say, influenced the perception of reality. Peer pressure prevented dissent.
It would appear that when conspiracy theorists refer to people as sheep they are referring to this herd mentality, the unwillingness to dissent, something shown in experiments such as the one where a subject is asked to decide which of two lines is shorter in the presence of confederates of the experimenter who all choose the longer line. In most cases the subject goes along with mojority opinion.
Of course those who refer to the masses as “sheep” are implicitly claiming an exclusive knowledge of the truth, similar to the exclusive knowledge priests claim justifies them in leading their flock. In reality many such theorists follow predetermined paths in sheeplike fashion.
George Orwell was socialist, skeptical, if not disgusted with the way socialism had turned out – and even more disgusted with right wingers: in his day the Tory Party. In his extended parable Animal Farm, the animals revolt and turn out the human who runs the farm. Then the problems start. The pigs, being the most intelligent animals, become the leaders. They take the puppies born on the farm from their mothers at birth and raise them to become bodyguards for the pigs. When the horse becomes too old to work they tell the horse and the rest of the farm that the horse will go to a retirement home. When the van comes to collect him the donkey, one of the few animals who can read, notices that the “retirement home” is a actually a glue factory: This parallels the way the Third Reich told relatives of Jewish veterans that the victims were going to retirement homes in the East. As time goes on the animals notice that while the farm may be getting richer none of the animas are richer and indeed are working longer. One day the animals sneak up to the farmhouse window and peer in. The pigs are drinking with the previous human owner and the features of pigs and humans become indistinguishable.
The role of the sheep in this tragic parable, one played out in right and left wing revolutions, noted by The Who in the song Wont Get Fooled Again and at the time of writing being replayed in the Middle East, is to drown out dissent by bleating “Four legs good, Two Legs Bad” whenever someone asks an inconvenient question. The day after the pigs and humans merge the pigs call a meeting and come out on two legs to a chorus from the sheep of “Four legs good, Two Legs Better”
The Black Sheep
In Old England sheep farming was a major activity. Most sheep are white but occasionally a black sheep would appear, the result of recessive genes. It was harder to dye black wool than white and farmers found black sheep to have little commercial value. At the same time negative beliefs about the colour black arose, as early as 1526. By around 1550 a belief had arisen that the black sheep differed in character as well as colour, and the term Black Sheep became identified with bad character by the mid 18th century. Today anyone who stands out from a group of which they are a member as a result of characteristics the user of the expression finds undesirable is a Black Sheep.
It would seem that when a peasant or farmer in the middle ages heard the Sheep and Goat parable they imagined a herd of white sheep eagerly trotting off to paradise, and followed injunctions to be like the good white sheep instead of noting that in real life the sheep were fleeced a number of times and eventually sent not to a glue factory disguised as a retirement home, but were slaughtered. The Black Sheep was an anomaly, one who resisted the rule of community and church. Perhaps they were criminals, perhaps they just refused to conform. In any case the black sheep could have implicitly symbolised those who refused to obey church and state and were thus more likely to be slaughtered earlier.
Some farmers prized the black sheep however and deliberately kept a black sheep in a flock of white. They would mix a little black wool with the white and produce a light grey wool, easily died where the pure black was hard to dye, and believed the cloth made from this wool was warmer and more weatherproof than that made purely from white wool. Perhaps some recognised that having a few people in a community who did not conform to majority rules was healthier, could lead to innovation and sometimes gave added resilience to a community under stress
The Black Sheep and Racism
It is impossible to talk of the Black Sheep without mentioning racism. Jungian Psychologists claim that the shadow archetype, in the West at least, manifests as dreams and images of black people and animals, and the medieval idea of the devil was often a mysterious stranger dressed in black, and this may have been part of the reason why black began to get negative connotations, except in business where black indicated profit, and red loss, and later in the new Protestant puritanism which followed an older Catholic tendency and rejected bright colours along with most of the things that made life worth living. The black sheep was not however rescued from disapproval, probably because of the image of refusal to conform.
Some teachers took the old nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep and converted the animal to a Rainbow Sheep, whatever that might be, to avoid accusations of racism. This is again sheep like following of dogmatic political correctness, like the union leader told my mother to remove a picture of a pride of lions as it was “sexist”. She replaced it with a picture of horses mating.
One black ram could contaminate the whiteness of a flock just as in countries where anti-black prejudice flourished negro blood was considered so strong that one black ancestor six generations ago rendered one black, the white blood being ignored: a similar strength was accorded to Jewish blood in the Third Reich. The Jungian theory concerning the way the Shadow archetype manifests, xenophobia, the theory that the Black Sheep is an undesirable and that one black ram can contaminate the whiteness of an entire herd and the envious belief, in the US (at least during the interval where slavery was legal but importing slaves was not), and the UK, that Black people had more fun, danced more and had more sex and sexual partners than “free” white people could well do much to account for the way every immigrant group to the USA has initially been labelled as Negro and, unless black, has been reclassified as Aryan on adopting the repressive culture of the “free” whites dominating society.
The image of the Good Sheep in the Sheep and Goats Parable as destined for paradise, even if it can be dated back to the historical Jesus, if such a person existed, gave church and state leaders a useful tool at the time Christianity was changing from a path of liberation to a path of control. The Sheep and Goat effect shows how belief can affect World and that the assignment of people as sheep or goats is arbitrary and often decided by a dominant group. Animal Farm shows the sheep as buttressing the dominant elite through mindless conformity, something conspiracy theorists have long claimed (their theories may be wrong but in this at least they seem to be right). The discussion of the Black Sheep shows how black was basically associated with negative characteristics, often merely the refusal to conform, and the discussion of racism suggests ways in which the image of the sheep, especially the black sheep, could have generated racism.
The answer to the original question, why conspiracy theorists talk of sheep not other animals, could have come from Animal Farm but also from the Sheep and Goat Parable as a tool of social control, and from the 16th century notion that the black sheep was an undesirable, with the later attribution of Black Sheep-hood to rebels and outsiders resulting in the sheep being seen, as in Aesop's fables, as docile and easily fooled. The idea of the mass of people submissive to authority as sheep seems very old and this is probably why it became popular
Some Sources and related hubs
 The Black Sheep
Daniel from St Louis on November 20, 2012:
I absolutely agree with your idea of "experience and environment." let's face it, a teen would have a hard time developing sexual attraction towards the opposite sex if they're were never around the opposite sex, or never saw the opposite sex. So, yes! Environment and Experience are a very big part of it. Unfortunately, sexuality is something that is developed as we grow into adult hood, and once sexual attraction has been achieved you are stuck with it for life. Anyone who claims they "made the transition" is only lying to themselves. I even met one guy who swore he hated being gay! He could not stand it! So he decided to become straight. My best advice to the world, just be yourself. If the world cannot accept people for who they are, then its their problem, not mine. We are not on this earth to pretend to be someone we are not.
Daniel from St Louis on November 20, 2012:
I have to disagree. But no hard feelings. Just keep in mind, I'm a computer scientist, not a writer. People may choose to make a transition, but I believe its purely psychological, not physical. Think of it this way, are you attracted to woman? If your answer is no, then its because your body is not wired to be. Sexuality is a natural process, and you cannot change it. Its fixed! I could want to make a transition to being straight, but I cannot be chemically or biologically attracted to woman, that is natures decision, not mine, and it would be by psychological choice, nothing more. I have met people who claim to be straight and they state they were once gay. Unfortunately, that is purely impossible. You cannot change your bodies chemistry that way just by thinking. Physical attraction is not a choice, if it was, then no one would have sex, since no one would be attracted to anyone. This is the real issue, people think that their sexuality is choice, and this will never be possible. I did not choose to be straight or gay, I am just gay. I was born this way, and it happened on its own. Bisexuality is real as well, and the persecution of them is even greater than for gays and lesbians. They are hammered in the united states for this! They can't help it. One more thing to think about, how can a straight person, lets say a male, choose to be attracted to another male if they have no sexual chemistry for it? Just think about what I said. Are you attracted to woman? No! Because you cannot be if you aren't already. Its chemistry, not ideology. Better yet, why would I want to have sex with woman if I am not attracted to them? This would make no sense. Anyway, get some sleep, I can't seem to get enough myself, lol :)
AlexK2009 (author) from Edinburgh, Scotland on November 20, 2012:
Djdaniel150: you wrote:
"You cannot decide to be straight or gay, its forced upon every living human being."
I suspect you will disagree with what I am saying but I will say it anyway. I hope you do not blow a fuse.
I have read of cases where gays have become straight, in some cases they made the decision to become straight.
Now, I do not claim EVERYONE can make that transition, and suspect there is a spectrum of sexuality. But it has happened. One person I heard talking on the radio said he prayed to Jesus and became straight over a relatively short time. One famous intellectual in the UK maybe 90 years ago became straight when, after arguing with a friend whether gay or straight was better, the man's wife got fed up and dragged them both into the bedroom. One of my wife's friends was gay and camp, running a hairdressers shop where the receptionist was a man in drag. One day he changed and now has a family.
Of course there have been transitions in the opposite direction as well.
And I am not sure where bisexuality fits in to this point, let alone transsexuals.
We could argue this a long time and may well do so. I think many people have more choice in this than they realise. If you like we have greater plasticity than we realise. Being gay seems to me not to be a sin, not to be a conscious choice, whatever Christians say, but not to imposed solely by chemicals and genes either. I suspect experience and environment have something to do with it.
Now onto Christianity. The problem I think is largely that extreme Christians confuse mythical, spiritual and historical truth. When I read Graves' white Goddess or translations of the Norse Lore it strikes me as real in a way different from historical reality. But I try not to confuse the two.
Anyway it is nearly midnight and I do not want to be even more of a zombie tomorrow than normal. :)
Daniel from St Louis on November 20, 2012:
True. It seems the Christians try to tell everyone how to live their lives, yet they also preach that god was our creator and created us to be unique and think for ourselves. Its funny how they contradict themselves, stating we are unique and free to be ourselves, then stating we should all be puppets in gods hands. Makes no sense. I for one am gay, yet virtually all Christians claim that being gay is a sin. I guess they don't understand sexuality. Sexuality is governed by a set of biological and chemical processes that take place within our bodies, not by our choices ( a fact proven by science). You cannot decide to be straight or gay, its forced upon every living human being. So this disproves all of Christianity as a total lie! Also, Christians claim that there is no such thing as Evolution. Really? Too bad they don't realize Evolution is taking place in our bodies every second of our lives ( also proven by medical science). What is Evolution? The ability to adapt to change! For instance, if you walk outside your home and it's 40 degrees outside, yet it was 68 degrees in your home, your nervous system automatically adapts to the change in temperature by tightening up the pores in your skin and drawing blood back. A fact! Likewise, if you walk outside and it's 100 degrees, yet it was 68 degrees in your home, your pores open up and release heat through sweat in order to cool off. Our nervous systems are constantly monitoring our external environment for changes, and adapting accordingly (Evolution). So I guess I just disproved Christianity again. Religion = Ignorance! Likewise, spirituality = understanding and learning = intelligence = life worth living. Evolution is not a theory, its proven not just by medical and biological sciences, but by itself. There is no need to prove it, as it happens on its own. If you suffer a severe brain injury, your brain will literally attempt to re-wire itself! I know this because I studied Neurology in college, and I lost part of my own brain in a car accident. They took one piece of my brain out and basically threw it in the trash. My brain did just that, re-wired itself. Another name for this is "Plasticity", and is also proven by science, and I am living proof of this.
AlexK2009 (author) from Edinburgh, Scotland on November 20, 2012:
It occurred to me that most people confuse religion and a spiritual path. Most religions rapidly develop into a community the rules of which actively work against spiritual development, no matter how that is defined. One can see this in the way Sufis have been persecuted by their religion, the early persecution of Quakers, and the way Christian churches packed those with mystical inclinations into monasteries and convents of contemplative orders.
Daniel from St Louis on November 19, 2012:
Agreed. Some people use religion for means of good, while others use as a means to justify their hatred towards the world.
AlexK2009 (author) from Edinburgh, Scotland on November 18, 2012:
Actually most, perhaps all religions rapidly become tools of Social control, the book worshipping ones most of all, but even Buddhism has a darker side (though I would have to see if I still have the references for this)
Daniel from St Louis on November 18, 2012:
I love how you described Christianity as once being a religion of liberation, only then to become a tool for social control. I believe it remains this way today. Especially in the U.S. We have separation of church and state for a reason, yet law makers want to shape our laws based on their religious beliefs, v.s shaping laws on more practical means. This just goes to show how Christianity has a very dark checkered past.