Sheep And Wolves

This page was updated on 25th June 2020 to include additional points from subscribers’ emails.

A post on The Browser about US policing, and a subsequent editor’s note*, attracted hundreds of emails from subscribers, by far the largest mailbag in The Browser’s history. My respect and gratitude to all who wrote, and all who read.

The article in question was written in 2008 by a US police trainer, Dave Grossman. I found it worth recommending because (i) it was a powerful piece of writing and (ii) it helped me to understand how police officers are taught to see their role in society. 

I received a number of emails from readers who felt that the ideas expressed in the piece were wrong or dangerous or otherwise distasteful. 

I re-read the piece, and my judgement was unchanged: This was, at least for me, a valuable piece of information about the world, and well expressed. 

However, given the current times, I felt with hindsight that I should have done more to put the piece in context. I could and should have made clear that I was recommending the piece primarily as a vivid insight into the psychology and values of some police training; and not because I thought the philosophy expressed there was necessarily correct. For this reason, I felt that an editor's note was appropriate.

I intend to continue reading and recommending pieces from the widest possible range of sources. I am primarily drawn to recommend writing that suggests new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing, rather than writing with which I already agree. It is always a pleasure when those criteria coincide; but the greater pleasure is to have one’s ideas challenged intelligently.

I am indebted to subscribers for the courtesy and clarity of this recent correspondence. In fact, “indebted” scarcely does justice to my feelings: I am awe-struck. In a wide-ranging discussion about an emotive subject at a difficult time, even the most critical emails that I received were constructive and generous in their arguments.

I take the liberty of reproducing some of the main points from this correspondence below. All of the quotations are without attribution. If I have quoted from your email, and you would prefer that I did not, or if you would prefer to have the quote attributed, please let me or Uri know, and we will correct the record.

The thread is in inverse chronological order, such that emails commenting on the editor’s note will generally come first, followed later by emails commenting on the original piece.

Robert Cottrell, editor; in consultation with Uri Bram, publisher.

*This was the editor’s note published on 17th June: 

My thanks to subscribers who wrote saying that yesterday‘s piece by police trainer Dave Grossman was unwelcome on The Browser. I do think hard when recommending writing that helps me to understand how others see the world, and yet may also give offence. I apologise to subscribers who feel that I got the balance wrong in this case — Robert

From subscribers’ emails:

The inclusion of Grossman's article isn't right or wrong on political grounds. It fails on grounds of quality. Grossman is not the expert on the subject he pretends to be and this was pointed out by a lot of correspondents. He's a reductionist fraud. So that's strike one: selection should consider the author's credibility. 

Then, the article itself is laughably simplistic and way below anything the Browser normally publishes or recommends. The ludicrous sheep/wolf analogy is just a slightly dressed up version of the same fantasy that every misanthropic loner tells themselves to justify their lives before they commit a mass shooting. It's not scholarly, it's not insightful except indirectly, and it's not at least clever in the argument. You can find Grossman's references, style, phrasing, and tone on any YouTube review of survival knives. (In fact, the article resembles nothing so much as a YouTube manifesto - had this been created in 2020, I doubt it would have been an article.) He's ignorant of actual history, wrong about societal dynamics, and provably wrong about the fields he talks about, which can be discovered by nothing more difficult than a light application of Google. That's strike two. 

That it fails on both authorial expertise and on quality of content is why it shouldn't have been a Browser pick, unless it was explicitly to say: "Here's the kind of really stupid shit that the military and police communities get addicted to, circulate amongst themselves like samizdat, and is the kind of thing that informs their self-view. This frame, the view of others as stupid and weak that it encourages, the implicit contempt for society, the brittle, simplistic masculine stereotypes it cheerleads for, and the dark polarisation it relishes, are likely a big part of why those communities are so often a threat to their society."

You're apologizing for linking an article from David Grossman's On Combat? LTC Grossman's book is widely read in the US military. Perhaps you should inform your readers about that. If you're going to self-censor in the coming editions, please let me know, so I can stop paying for this service. I'm not interested in an a newsletter that appeases the Woke Left or the Authoritarian Right. 

I run one of the most prominent centers for ethics in the US. And I am disheartened by the unwillingness of both sides of our political spectrum to encounter, never mind engage, the opinions of the other side. 

When the New York Times cannot run an article by a US Senator, or The Browser can’t show one common perspective of people in the military, then we are not increasing civility in the country, as the critics aver, but further fractionalizing it as we retreat into our comfortable ideological enclaves.  I still fail to understand what the critics think will happen from reading such articles. 

I laud the Browser for publishing articles I disagree with, even strongly.  It used to be that knowledge was power.

I’ve done risk management for many years at some of the largest financial institutions in the world.  When similar problems keep arising, you don’t just need to address that particular issue, you need to address the underlying culture that gave rise to it. I would not have read the Grossman article had you not recommended it.  In my view it clearly articulates everything wrong about how we attract, train and manage our police forces.  Sunlight is a great disinfectant.  It’s important that we read this to understand the forces at work and use this gained insight to help improve policy going forward.  Interestingly, it seems almost diametrically opposed to a piece today from the ex-chief of Camden.

I hate to be called a 'sheep'! Honest to pete.

Although I disagreed with Grossman’s overly simplistic view of things, I didn’t mind the article’s inclusion and it was one of the ones I chose to read.

The day before I also happened to read the Matt Taibbi piece on how media outlets are being cowed into suppression of right wing views by a far-left fan base that has lost the ability to tolerate dissenting opinion.

I find it cynically fitting that we’re now here the very next day. I empathize with the pressure you’re likely facing to moderate this content, but I urge you not to let The Browser become another polarized echo chamber. 

The [Grossman] article was interesting for its mindset and almost childish simplification of human psychology. The sad truth is that most human beings in society are not sheep. We don’t need to go far back in time to see that — the Balkans or Rwanda or Syria, for example — to see how quickly ordinary human beings can turn into wolves, killing their neighbors for the merest excuse. And the sheepdogs turn into alpha-wolves, herding their victims to slaughter. The “soft gooey” quality of human beings (otherwise known as compassion) is an achievement precariously maintained, not a defect.

There is a long noble history of the warrior mentality. In Western literature there’s the Iliad. On a more popular level, there are novels like The Centurions by Jean Larteguy. This history and literature can praise the warrior without denying the severe cost in his/her common humanity. Grossman provides a slapdash ranking of virtue (who would not praise the sheepdog above the sheep?), a sense of specious superiority that is surely behind the abuses people are protesting now.

Maybe a comments section would let people blow off steam from subscribers? Or maybe you just have to listen to us from time to time.

It's important that people understand the sheepdog mental model, because it's so insidious and so detrimental to a healthy society, but I wish you'd teed it up to say that. Including it without comment implies approval.

I live and work with a lot of military, and I've trained with police on both coasts, and the sheepdog narrative has arisen within the last 20 years. It originated in the military, and goes hand in hand with having a professional warrior class (something I personally think we should get rid of). It's a story that enlisted tell each other in order to justify their actions and choices, and to make themselves feel better about themselves, and about the fact that our unending conflicts mean that they no longer really fit in society. It went mainstream with the movie American Sniper, and the police picked it up as they were turned into counter-terrorist armies via federal funding and training.

This is such a corrosive mental model because it keeps the military (to include the police) separate from society, it convinces them that they are smarter and braver than citizens, and it casts citizens as potential prey. In all ways it sets up an adversarial relationship where there should be none.

Americans are not sheep. Most of us will never need to call the police for help, but will be able to help ourselves. Most of us would prefer to work with the police to keep our communities safe from real problems, and this would create a more resilient and less fragile country. I've needed the police twice, both when I was a young girl in a small town in America and was attacked by a man in one case and a group of older teens in another. I will always be grateful that the police showed up and helped me, but those experiences also led me to become a proficient martial artist and as an adult I taught self-defense to kids and young women. There are more Americans like me than not - we are our own first lines of defense. 

I object to Grossman’s mischaracterisation of wolves as rabid slaughterers, which says more about his mindset than what we actually observe in the natural world. He might benefit from reading Of Wolves and Men, by Barry Lopez, whose observations about actual wolf behaviour over many years are spellbinding. Most of us still think of the wolf (or any other animal) as a sort of static, generic beast with qualities that we project. The true revelation of this book is what Lopez calls ‘the conversation of death’, that moment where the eyes of predator and prey meet and a ‘ceremonial ritual’ begins, in which ‘both animals, not the predator alone, choose for the encounter to end in death’. Lopez gives many examples to back this up, and it absolutely demands to be read

Grossman is claiming there is no moral difference between a psychopathic wolf and a sheep or sheepdog.   But of course he didn’t quite mean it.  He wanted to express his opinion that these divisions are a fact of nature. Grossman is making a choice based on some moral categories. The fact that he is no moral philosopher doesn’t take away from the power of the piece. He’s a tough-minded sheepdog, not Thomas Hobbes.  I can make this determination by myself.  I also understand that you don’t have to give assent to every article you post

The Grossman article ranks as one of the two best that I have seen on your site. While the author’s opinions may not be shared by many, this was provocative, insightful, and well written. You have a choice: publish what you want and not publish what you don’t want to. Readers have a choice: read what they want, don’t read what they don’t want to

The animal analogy was an interesting one and led me to conclude that the fundamental problem is not the existence of bad people but the kind of Manichaean worldview that splits humans into deceptively simple categories. The result is people who consider themselves to be 'sheepdogs' but can't reliably tell the difference between 'wolves' and 'sheep' – or who attempt to do so merely by the colour of their 'coats'

Some deaths — like the recorded ‘knee to neck’ for eight minutes — set off public protests, but most do not.  Killing is mostly a routine matter.. About three a day, a thousand a year are shot by cops, and that has held steady. Slight majority are white, but blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans with disproportionate representation. Most of the victims are armed and on drugs or drunk. But we better leave this to the meds. It is harder to be a cop than an editor.

[Grossman’s] analogy does not allow for the existence of peaceful, compliant people capable of violence but unwilling to employ it for moral reasons. Unable yes: unwilling no. I am glad you are willing to direct me to ideas or opinions with which I do not agree; I just don’t think this was that well written. Granted the publication appears to be for internal consumption.

Mr. Grossman is an influential thought leader in the U.S. military who has transitioned into being a counselor to the American law enforcement community at large, and I feel like I am better versed in the discourse over policing in America by having become better acquainted directly from the source with his, to me, highly problematic philosophy. Perhaps a "trigger warning" is in order, but please rest assured that I and my friends were only discomfited by the ideas Mr. Grossman presented, not by your recommendation of his article.

The warrior mindset seems to be a huge part of what's wrong with policing in America, and I appreciated getting a glimpse into that mindset from a primary source.

The piece from police trainer David Grossman was weird and kind of horrifying, but it also represented a point of view I’d never seen and always suspected existed.

The author may not be someone you would want to spend a holiday with but he speaks his mind, and I like to hear other points of view. 

As an African American, I have my views on policing but I am not afraid to see other views in print. I can't afford to hide from them. If folks feel that the Grossman piece was too one-sided, then show them an alternative view! I can recommend "Confessions of a Bastard Cop"

I subscribe precisely because I want to read from a wide variety of sources and opinions. I will expect an apology if you quit doing that.

I got halfway through that police trainer piece before abandoning it. Not because it was ‘a view from the other side’ (which I welcome), but because it was a view very clearly unsympathetic to those of us who support civil society. I understand his metaphor, but the writer appears to have contempt for “sheep”. 

His argument was the tired trope that the American National Rifle Association has been peddling for decades: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” This ignores the myriad factors that allow wolves to threaten sheep society, chief among them institutionalised racism and right-wing gun-lust.

I was interested to read about police perspectives on their roles in society. It's something you don't get to see everyday. While I fully support defunding the police, it helped me (I hope) move a little closer towards understanding what an identity crisis this is for police and why this is such an emotional issue for everyone on all sides. How can we progress beyond this standoff without approaching other perspectives with interest and an open mind? We're not sacrificing our values here! Can we as a community please try to model curiosity instead of burying our heads in the sand?

Don’t apologize. I say this non-politically. The Browser is one of the very few places where I can encounter intellectual discomfort. Please don’t lose that. 

I had some points of debate with the writer, such as: When the call went out, "Let's roll!" People (probably men) stepped out of their comfortable routine and met the challenge. In just the same way, people volunteer (or accept the draft) and go to war. For some, it's doubtless an outlet for inner tendencies towards both good and violence. For some — just violence. For others, it's repugnant but standfast pacifists have their own toughness. Nevertheless, the writer's viewpoint seemed valid — his way of describing the world. My observations make me think differently. All good.

I was previously aware of who Grossman is and do not hold the man in high regard, but think this style of writing should still be shared as the article was surprisingly informative and provided great insight into how some individuals within the American police might view themselves. Maybe next time just share it with some degree of context in the normally excellent summaries.

As an active duty service member, I am familiar with Dave Grossman's books "On Combat" and "On Killing" and can tell you they are widely read throughout the military and have contributed meaningfully to how service members deal with the violent and traumatic realities that accompany military service . Though I understand some readers' reluctance to be exposed to this material in light of the current backlash against police brutality, I believe his writings are still important to understand the mentality that many police officers subscribe to that is presented in the article

While I believe that some police officers’ over-enthusiasm for the "sheepdog" mentality likely needlessly escalates many situations, and Grossman oversimplifies the human condition into three broad categories of "sheep," "sheepdog," and "wolf," we will not be able to address the problem of police brutality without understanding the mindset and culture that underlies the police force. Denying or silencing discussion of the issue ensures it will not be addressed. While perhaps your summary of the article could have better prepared readers for its contents, I don't believe your apology was warranted.

I loved that you ran the Grossman piece, and that you followed up today's honest apology with the subtle rebuttal of the piece on compromise.

I raised an eyebrow when I saw that article posted. I gave you the benefit of the doubt. However, I think it would have been better to have a third party perspective on his work rather than his own.

I don’t agree with Dave Grossman’s reductionist view of society; but I wouldn’t know what that was unless you’d showed me. Please don’t stop finding articles like that.

I would object to Grossman's work being featured in The Browser not because he writes about the police, but because his work is generally shoddy. For example, he relies very heavily on the work of S.L.A. Marshall who, it's been known since the late 1980s, simply fabricated his famous statistics about soldiers.

Grossman's own 'killology' writings aren't much better — eg his casual reliance on group selectionism to explain human fighting dynamics, though group selectionism is quantitatively extremely difficult to make work for evolution, many instances of apparent group selectionism have been shown to be regular individual selection/inclusive fitness adaptations, and evolutionary biologists/psychologists continue to hotly debate if group selection applies at all to humans either genetically or culturally.

Defenders of Marshall & Grossman tend to defend them by saying their work is, if perhaps not quantitatively accurate, qualitatively accurate, and impactful. Their specific factual claims may not be true, but they are truthy enough. Marshall's assistant remarked disgustedly that Marshall had come up with the idea that the ratio of fire was inadequate before interviewing a single soldier; and what such a man wants to see, he will, and not just there, but everywhere.

I’m impressed you dug that up from 12 years ago

I don’t disagree with your decision to run the piece; it’s a worthwhile expansion of opinion-space from which nearly all media outlets could benefit. I think your mistake was in not leading it with a bit of explanation about why you chose to do so, and giving people a chance to either adjust their mindset or just move on.

The Grossman article was absolute crap, but I don't want to see The Browser succumb to middle-of-the-roadism. No need to apologize on my behalf.

If you aren’t making some people unhappy every day then you aren’t doing your job. 

Those of us who have honorably served share Grossman's perspective.

I am disgusted and concerned that you would include the writing of Dave Grossman as worthy reading. Grossman makes his living as a self-proclaimed "expert" in teaching and training police officers to kill people and feel less psychologically troubled by it. Please note: as a scholar of conflict and humanitarian crises, I certainly understand that the psychology of killing is real and worthy of study; we should be reading Hugo Slim on the subject, not Dave Grossman.

Dave Grossman's ‘Killology’ training style for police officers is part of the aggressive police culture that has led to the untimely and tragic deaths of so many American citizens, particularly Black Americans, and I don't understand why you would choose to directly amplify his voice. If that issue was one you wanted to address, you could have chosen a more balanced article that evaluated his approach and its effect on policing, drawing from both supporters and critics

I am writing to express confusion as to why you included the article "On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs" in the June 16 edition of the Browser. Dave Grossman's Killology training style for police officers is part of the aggressive police culture that has led to the untimely and tragic deaths of so many American citizens, particularly Black Americans, and I don't understand why you would choose to directly amplify his voice. If that issue was one you wanted to address, you could have chosen a more balanced article that evaluated his approach and its effect on policing, drawing from both supporters and critics.