Who’s a “Sheeple,” Really? COVID-19, Conspiracy Rhetoric and Fear of Groupthink

Who’s a “Sheeple,” Really? COVID-19, Conspiracy Rhetoric and Fear of Groupthink

Last week a friend said on their FB wall that they were tired of being called a “sheep” for thinking it was important to wear masks. I instantly knew I needed to look into where it came from, especially in its longer form of “sheeple.” Today you get the beginnings of a series on the highlights of my dive down the deep, dark rabbit hole where the word “sheeple” comes from, and especially how it came to be popularized and used by right-wing conspiracy theorists as a devil-term denoting complex fears about authority and collective action.

Stay tuned as I unwrap this more, both in this blog post and those to follow.

My Background and Expertise

As a reminder, I’m not THAT kind of doctor, but I do have a PhD in Communication with an emphasis in media, narrative, and society and a current research focus on stress, trauma, and conflict communication.

As I’ve written about in my previous article on COVID and conspiracy rhetoric, I took a grad course on the rhetoric of conspiracy just over a decade ago, and am deeply disturbed at how much of it is applying to my daily life these days. 

Since it is, though, I am trying to help relieve some of my stress and hopefully also yours during this religio-political apocalypse by sharing some of what I know with you so you can better understand and respond to the landscape we’re dealing with.

My Focus Today: Sheeple

So in my last piece on COVID conspiracy rhetoric, my focus was on COVID conspiracy rhetoric such as that Plandemic video—I started that piece from conspiracy rhetoric to explain how that works. (You might want to look back at that piece, by the way—as fact-checking media have reported, some local TV news programs in the US owned by Sinclair were planning to support and share that dreck before they got appropriate pushback.)

Today my focus started with a (derogatory) devil term—sheep, or in its long form, sheeple. It was only in my research about the term’s evolving usage in recent history that I realized the term has been popularized in much of its current usage and meaning through libertarian/right-wing conspiracy theorists in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including broadcaster William Cooper, who I’ll be talking about in a bit.

It All Keeps Coming Back to Conspiracy Rhetoric

In other words, no matter what I seem to research in terms of right-wing rhetoric lately, especially when it comes to expressions trying to put down collective action based on expert guidance, I keep coming back to the rhetoric of conspiracy.

This shouldn’t be too surprising considering the current head of the administration came to the country’s attention by spreading birther conspiracies, and has brought many other kinds of conspiracy thinking into the mainstream. The result? Widespread conspiracy rhetoric where we previously would have only looked for it on the fringes of society.

Today I’m going to briefly outline the history of the term, but then really dive into what I think is going on with these usages—because not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t think it’s at all an accident that I keep winding up in this same spot (after all, good careful academic research can actually lead you to keep finding similar data that lead to healthy conclusions).

Previous Blog Posts I’ll Be Building On

In the process of this journey I’ll be building on that previous article I wrote about COVID conspiracy theories, so I encourage you to take a few minutes to go back and read or re-read that article. I’ll also be building on my series on god terms and devil terms, which starts here, and my series on moral disgusts that starts here.

Without Further Ado…

So let’s dive in, shall we? I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible, but these things get complex, so I hope you’ll hang in there with me for a few minutes and join me in the near future for more.  

Starting with the Positive and Negative Biblical Resonances of Sheep

Here’s the thing: the term “sheep” has been used in both positive and negative ways for ages, including in the Bible. Interestingly, the sheep and the goats passage in Matthew 25 that among other things undergirds much of this project’s desire to look out for the “least of these” in society looks at sheep very positively, as opposed to goats, who are viewed negatively.

Even the Bible doesn’t look at sheep all positively, though—from those times up to the present, sheep have been looked at as timid and weak and, well, non-assertive—creatures that follow the herd and the shepherd, sometimes at their own and others’ expense.

Both usages have followed us down through the centuries, but only the latter has been coopted recently by right-wing conspiracy theorists and hipsters alike as a derogatory slur to put down those they see as engaged in groupthink—and, as you’ll see, also in other ways as well.

Jesus as a “Lamb”

This latter resonance showing fear of groupthink is fascinating when considering all the biblical imagery alongside Jesus going to his death as a “lamb to be slain”—but only as part of his resistance of the religious and political authorities of his time.

I’ll just put that here to ponder, especially since a lot of biblically inspired sheep and goats and Jesus as lamb usage has strongly influenced rhetoric through the centuries alongside this sheep as timid followers usage.

“Sheep(le) as a Devil Term”

So yeah, if you look deeply, the historical meanings around the word “sheep” aren’t nearly as simple or as entirely negative as it may seem from the current use of “sheeple.” Which is a great sign that someone’s trying to oversimplify something into a devil term if the term is used in only derogatory oversimplified ways.

As a reminder, a devil term is a term used entirely negatively, apart from the full scope of most of its dictionary usages, as something to be fought at all costs.

As it happens, the devil term version of sheep—sheeple in its long form—was actually added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017, which is simply a sign that this devil term has been used frequently enough in society to be recorded in that particular dictionary. It doesn’t mean it’s not a devil term–things get complicated sometimes, and the dictionary describes rather than prescribes. <shrug emoji>

A Short History of the Word Sheeple

In fact, the first print use of sheeple, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and Wikipedia, was in 1945 in a column of a publication about the music industry. At the tail end of WWII, a critic of the government-organized BBC’s impact on music culture called its fans “sheeple.”

In this way the first usage evoked both threads of the term’s ultimate usage—(1) groupthink in response to powerful authorities exerting influence over the public; (2) giving in to popular culture trends.

In this series of blog posts, I’ll be mostly focusing on the first usage, especially the way conspiracy theorist William (Bill) Cooper popularized it in the 1980s and 1990s—because that’s the origin story of the devil-term way “sheep” was used on my friend’s wall, and has been one major way it’s been used largely by right-wing folks in recent years up to the present to dismiss those who disagree with them (I’ll get to the other ways it’s been used by the right in a bit).

How You Came to Be a Sheeple if You Wish People to Social Distance and Wear Masks

Specifically, in recent weeks and months the most recent right-wing usage along these lines has been applied to people who listen to epidemiologists’ advice about COVID-19, especially those who listen to such advice coming through governmental and international agencies.

In short, this usage illustrates a strong fear of collective action guided by institutions and experts, equating all of such action with the negative group phenomena known as groupthink.

Now, as someone who teaches small group communication and leadership every semester, I’ll be honest—this makes me cringe hard. This usage is a devil term because it offers very little to no distinction between what is healthy group decision-making and what is unhealthy group decision-making. On the contrary, it starts with a suspicion of collective action, and works backwards to come up with its own self-fulfilling prophecy that collective action is always wrong if the government or other institutions you don’t trust tell you to do something.

We can see here the roots of why this term has gotten soooo political in the current climate: see, that same fear of collective action ties back to the fear of that classic devil term socialism I talked about at the beginning of my devil terms series and defense of that god term freedom I talked about when I recently talked about COVID and mask rhetoric. It also ties into the fear of tyranny I talked about in the devil terms series.  

The Current Usage

The term in its current usage is used as a bludgeon, as a hoped-for conversation stopper. I said before during my last article on COVID and conspiracy rhetoric, it starts with the interpretation that decisions toward the common good, based in collective decision-making, is automatically untrustworthy, and then selects its evidence to back up that interpretation.

This is rather different than the healthier way of doing things, which works to remain open to the idea that collective action and expertise can either be healthy or unhealthy, efficient or inefficient, depending on the situation, the methodology, and a variety of other factors.

Learning About Bill Cooper

This made a lot more sense to me after I brushed up on the history of this term, especially as popularized by Bill Cooper—though learning about his usage also complicated my understanding of the term quite a bit.

Just in case you know as little about Bill Cooper as I did a week ago, William Cooper was a strongly libertarian Vietnam vet who briefly worked in Naval Intelligence (and capitalized on that wayyy beyond what he could have known in that role), conspiracy theory lecturer, ufologist, “patriot movement” participant, and short wave radio broadcaster who died in 2001 after an armed interaction with the authorities. Perhaps not coincidentally, his life was filled with unhealthy family relationships as well, including many incidents of domestic violence.

This man’s book and broadcasts may not have reached a huge audience in his time, but they have had a huge influence through some of the people he did influence, from the writers of X-Files to Timothy McVeigh, to a bunch of rappers from Harlem, 9/11 truthers, and our most recent conspiracy theorist QAnon, according to the well-researched 2018 biography Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America by journalist Mark Jacobs.  

Bill Cooper’s Usage of the Word Sheeple

Interestingly, Bill Cooper’s usage of the words “sheep” and “sheeple” definitely betrayed his fear of authorities and collective action, but it also betrayed a fear of the opposite, in a way—that is to say, Cooper often used the words sheep or sheeple (occasionally cattle, or the disturbing word cockroaches) for each of the following things:

  1. Social Loafers. People “on his own side of the fence” who he saw as not pulling their weight in rising up against the authorities he found to be consistently untrustworthy. In the study of small group communication, we call these folks who don’t contribute their share in a group social loafers.

    In short, Bill Cooper both distrusted collective action by those other than him with authority, and wished for collective action by those who trusted him. This is an incredibly authoritarian perspective—the ideological roots of which I’ll get into in a later blog post in this series.

    At the same time, complexly, he encouraged all his viewers to think for themselves (but only by following his trustworthy methodology, of course—as he had the only trustworthy “keys” to events!).
  2. His Competitors. Bill Cooper’s authoritarianism further comes out when it comes to how he treated his conservative competitors, including, later in his career, the now-infamous Alex Jones. They and their followers were sheeple. He had a few partners in conspiracy over the years, but ran afoul of many over time, often because of his reported behavior as a bully.

    That said, sometimes Cooper seemed to have had good reason to suspect others on his side of the fence, and had genuinely reasonable disagreements with them. His fear of collaboration and desire to be higher up on the hierarchy than others often tripped him up, though, as did his fear of authorities in general.  
  3. Progressives, or Really Anyone who Agreed with Any Authority He Questioned. This is more the traditional usage of the term, and includes of course people on the “other side of the (political) fence” as well as those on his side. And this is the usage that has become directed outward these days toward all manner of moderates and progressives.

    It should be noted that Cooper often paired the devil term “socialist” with “totalitarian” in his phrasing, externalizing and making explicit the shorthand I described in my early devil terms blog posts that yokes those two things together. In many ways, this kind of pairing made by him and other such rhetoricians likely reinforced and maintained the current usage of socialism as a devil term that automatically implies totalitarianism in an unhealthy way.

A Summary and a Look Ahead

At any rate, hopefully you have a better glimpse into the origins and development of the word “sheep” and “sheeple” as popularized by right-wing conspiracy theorists now. In coming weeks, I hope to unwrap other things I’ve learned through looking at Bill Cooper and his influence on conspiracy theory that are extremely relevant to understanding the current rhetoric.

I hope this series will help you understand why especially Cooper’s third usage of “sheep” I outlined above has come to be associated with this strong fear of expertise and authority—the better to continue to do what you can to respond healthily to it. I’ll also be looking at a wide range of related topics such as the connection between conspiracy theory and biblical rhetoric.

There’s a lot going on here—I hope you’ll stick around for the rest of the series. See below if you want first notification of new blog posts via our newsletter, which will also offer you a free gift, the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls.”

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to understand and speak up against the toxic rhetoric toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward speaking up and dealing with the conflict that results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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4 thoughts on “Who’s a “Sheeple,” Really? COVID-19, Conspiracy Rhetoric and Fear of Groupthink

  1. I am very much enjoying these blog posts. Real food for thought. I have been on the mailing list but if I received the link to Guide to Online Trolls I have lost it. I don’t remember seeing it so would appreciate if I could receive it again. A subject worth being educated in. Thanks.

    1. Hi Bernie, Sorry to have missed this request–I’ll see if I can re-send you the guide in the next couple of days. Thanks for your encouragement! I hope you enjoy the latest installment in the series. Cheers, DS Leiter

  2. Thank you for this terrific article and I look forward to more essays on this timely subject. I really appreciate the research and the education and I have shared it widely.

    One thought I had is that I would love a teeshirt with “Sheeple and Proud of It” blazoned across it as a rub-it-in-your-face kinda statement.

    Only problem is that I don’t go anywhere so no one would see it. And, of course, depending on who saw it, it might be hazardous to my continued well-being.

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Who’s a “Sheeple…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 11 min
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