“How did it happen that the Wolves came to wield such power here, infiltrating academia, journalism, and other segments of society that were supposed to be high-minded bastions of truth and light?”
n a July, 2020 blog post, the tech guru and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham introduced a thought-provoking rubric for contemplating our present-day free speech crisis. He divided the world into four categories configured upon two axes: aggression and independent-mindedness. Thus, we get aggressively independent-minded Visionaries who are revolutionary doers and thinkers, passively independent-minded Dreamers who just do their own thing, passively conventional-minded Sheep who follow the herd, and aggressively conventional-minded Enforcers who make sure everyone is following the rules. He then offers this: “I’m biased, I admit, but it seems to me that aggressively conventional-minded people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the trouble in the world, and that a lot of the customs we’ve evolved since the Enlightenment have been designed to protect the rest of us from them.” The very concept of free speech, he contends, is one defense we have devised against the aggressively conventional-minded set’s crack of the whip, the proclivity of such Enforcers to burn heretical books and people alike. In Graham’s conception, the free speech crisis is an infiltration of universities—once monasteries committed to the cloistering of independent thinkers—by these aggressively conventional-minded thinkers.
Graham has erected an intriguing foundation to build upon, but the particular edifice he has constructed leaves something to be desired. Indeed, he has fallen victim to something of the same error that compromised the work of Frankfurt School leading light Theodor Adorno and his collaborators in their notorious 1950 study of what they called “the authoritarian personality,” which was supposed to predispose the bearers of its complex of traits—traits such as conventionalism, aggression, and anti-intellectualism, among others—toward embracing fascism. Adorno, who would surely be an icon within the ranks of Antifa if the ignorant marauding goons comprising its core membership were interested in intellectual history rather than street thuggery, did his darndest to engineer a post-World War II “Brown Scare” before the looming threat of Soviet communism had swept the rug out from under him and brought the Red Scare to the fore. In his haste to root out closeted “fascists,” Adorno had overlooked many methodological flaws in his approach, chief among these being the fact that authoritarians of a very similar psychological complexion existed on both sides of the political spectrum. But another significant flaw in Adorno’s work, the one that Graham’s speculations share, is in failing to recognize the important distinction between those cultural conservatives who battle aggressively to preserve existing traditions and conventions (those who “stand athwart history, yelling Stop!” in William F. Buckley’s famous formulation)—and who, therefore, may justly be called “aggressively conventional”—and those individuals, whether on the far-left or on the far-right, who would overthrow the current order in favor of radical change in one direction or the other.
The woke mob is aggressive for sure, but in what respect is it “conventional” to rename buildings, tear down monuments to the Founding Fathers, defund police, and combat traditional gender and sexual binaries? These, after all, are items on the agenda of many of the same minions leading the free-speech crackdown that Graham tries to pin on aggressively conventional-minded thinkers. Commonalities notwithstanding, surely, again, there is a very real difference between those aggressive actors who fight to defend established conventions and traditions and those aggressive actors itching to tear it all down. Calling the latter aggressively conventional-minded cannot be correct. And yet those in this category are not quite aggressively independent-minded thinkers either.
There is, then, another whole category that Graham’s analysis is missing and that does not fit neatly within his two-factor rubric. If the passively conventional-minded thinkers are the Sheep who stick to rules and follow the aggressively conventional-minded Enforcers’ lead, then there is another group, the Wolves, who hunt in packs, following the lead of aggressively independent-minded Visionaries. In the same way the Sheep are inclined to follow the rules, the Wolves are inclined to break them. They are aggressive, and they are born rebels, but they are not true independent-minded Visionaries, whether because they do not possess the talent for that role or because, more likely, they are insufficiently independent-minded to strike out on their own without their peer group, their pack of hunting companions. If the Visionaries are truly independent-minded thinkers, then the Wolves are mere petty rebels who enjoy sticking it to their parents and the Man alike. They act out. They are the first to hop on outré trends, though hardly ever being the ones to create them. They get tattoos and piercings, dye their hair pink, experiment with prohibited substances, and test the limits of the law and (even more so) of good taste. They are the ones who adopt non-traditional gender identities for the sake of joining a rebellious social contagion rather than out of a sincere, deeply felt internal need. They act out, drop out, get woke, and join protest movements, the fact that they are protesting being more important than the specificity of the cause.
From the standpoint of personality psychology, though both the Visionaries and the Wolves are likely low on the Five Factor Model’s dimensions of agreeableness (i.e., empathy, valuing group harmony over personal integrity) and conscientiousness (dutifulness, responsibility, foresight)—though I would expect driven and accomplished Visionaries to be higher in conscientiousness than the trash-it-all Wolves—the principal distinction I would expect to see between these categories is with respect to the dimension of openness to experience (i.e., intellect, inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, creativity). The Visionaries are more likely to possess the kind of attitude of high-minded, searching intellectual inquiry necessary to mount credible challenges to (and assaults upon) stale academic or social orthodoxies, while the more pack-minded Wolves are rebelling for the sake of rebellion. They are not deep thinkers; indeed, they are doers rather than thinkers. They do not necessarily need to understand the subtle details of the cause they have embraced so long as their wolfpack is along for the ride. They catch the whiff of prey wafting through the air and speed off heedlessly in that general direction, not bothering to sort out what or why and, once engaged, cannot be dissuaded and, in fact, will redouble their pursuit if voices of reason attempt to intervene. Their openness to experience may not be as low as that of purely conventional-minded thinkers, but it is likely to lie somewhere midway between these and the high-openness Visionaries. (Because our agreeableness, as well as our bank accounts and consequent investment in the existing order, tends to increase as we get older, while aggression-driving testosterone that peaks in our late teens declines, people’s propensity to be rebels predictably decreases as we age.)
Having revised Graham’s schema to include this significant missing subgroup, we are now in a better position to assess who has truly been the source of much of the turmoil in human history. In contrast to Graham’s view that aggressively conventional-minded Enforcers are the core obstacle human societies have faced, I would argue that it is this group, the Wolves, that has caused all the rest of us so many problems. To be sure, Enforcers pose a threat by resorting to extreme measures to shut down efforts to reform society, forming lynch mobs to defend slavery to the last man, and so on. It is precisely to oppose such evils that Wolves are needed. Without them, just causes that aim to overthrow corrupt and despicable social orders would never get off the ground; Visionaries need Wolves to make up their rank-and-file. But because, in accordance with Sturgeon’s law (“90% of everything is crap”), most social rebellions, like most other novel, untested notions humans devise, are bone-headed, the Wolves are just as likely—or, more accurately, far more likely—to join unjust and perverse challenges to the social order, both from the Left and from the Right. They are the members of Hitler’s S.S. and Mao’s Red Guards; they are Nazi, Bolshevik, and Jacobin shock troops; they are fundamentalist Islamic fanatics eager to topple secular dictators, terrorize civilians, destroy the monuments of ancient Near Eastern civilizations, and bring the Islamic State into being. And they are, as well, the rampaging rejects of our own woke mob, terrorizing cities, looting businesses, toppling monuments, and cracking down on the voices of dissent.
How did it happen that the Wolves came to wield such power here, infiltrating academia, journalism, and other segments of society that were supposed to be high-minded bastions of truth and light? A functional society consists always of a delicate balance among the subgroups we have identified. Sheep are the backbone of society. Without them living peacefully within the confines of established laws, rules and norms, doing their duty, working productively, and raising and sacrificing for their children, societies simply collapse. Most people in a healthy society are going to be Sheep, and that is perfectly fine.
Whether at center stage or working behind the scenes, Enforcers and Visionaries maneuver to pull the governing social consensus one way or the other. If the balance tilts too far in favor of Enforcers, society becomes repressive and stagnates. If the balance tilts too far in favor of Visionaries, society destabilizes and runs off the rails, a runaway train speeding toward no certain destination. A critical mass of creative Visionaries is needed in universities and corporations, though Enforcers are also essential to uphold standards and discipline and to demand that time-tested traditions be treated with reverence.
On the margins of society, the passively independent-minded Dreamers march to their own drummers, carving out non-traditional lifestyles and career paths, meditating, engaging in the arts, traveling the world, turning up at Burning Man, doing their part to make society far more interesting than it would be if all we had were Sheep confined to their well-trodden pastures. And, as for the Wolves, as I have already said, we need some significant number of them to roam and be ready to pounce when a just cause summons them.
The most important balance that needs to be maintained throughout society is that between its two largest groups, the Sheep and the Wolves. When the power and influence of the Wolves crosses some critical threshold, aggressively rebellious acts start to look passive and conventional—just the thing everyone does now—so the herd-minded Sheep start coming on board. This is how an entire society goes rogue, both how great revolutions are made and how ordinary people come to stay silent or even join in as Nazis commit atrocities in broad daylight. When an evil empire of one sort or another rises up, with enough time and with a new generation of Wolves (led by Visionaries) growing up in these repressive environs rebels, we get Soviet or Chinese dissidents fighting the good fight against the sinister social order their predecessor Visionaries and Wolves had erected.
What happened in the United States, I believe, is that the long tail of the 1960s counterculture whipped back around to topple our apple cart. As Steven Pinker argues in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the 1960s brought with them a “decivilizing process.” The causes were manifold—one Pinker does not consider is what William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theory of generational cycles would classify as a natural “awakening” of pent-up energy after the repressive post-war “high” of the late 1940s and the 1950s—but the major factor Pinker identifies is the capacity unleashed by mass media of enabling the members of an entire generation of young people, for the first time in human history, to be aware of each other’s doings like never before. Tuning in to the same frequency allowed those who came of age in the Age of Aquarius to grow up together, learning from and imitating each other, creating, in Pinker’s words, a “horizontal web of solidarity that cut across the vertical ties to parents and authorities that had formerly isolated young people from one another and forced them to kowtow to their elders.” A generation of young people failing to internalize the traditional norms and expectations their elders might have conveyed and adopting, instead, a shared generational posture of defiance represents a massive social transformation that turns rebellion from the penchant of a defiantly inclined minority to a dominant social pose, dragging many of that generation’s Sheep along.
Even when the Enforcers of the Nixon-Ford 1970s and Reagan 1980s—marshaling the fear of older Sheep and recapturing the allegiance of many younger ones as well—brought a reaction against the 1960s counterculture, the radicals chased from the public square managed to ensconce themselves in the universities, traditionally protective of non-conforming views. Over time, they turned the entire educational establishment on its head, effecting a Gramscian “march through the institutions.” Inspired or directly mentored by Visionary father figures like Herbert Marcuse, charismatic New Left radicals like Angela Davis and Bill Ayers found perches in academia from which they could coopt further generations.
By the late 1980s, with these flower children now in their 40s, they were in position to wield real institutional power, transforming, as I have described elsewhere, the political complexion of their academic departments, from a roughly even political distribution of faculty as late as the mid-1980s to a distribution already dramatically skewed 72% Left/liberal and only 15% Right/conservative by 1999, and growing still starker with time, to where many academic departments have no conservatives at all today. Predictably, these tenured radicals politicized the study of their areas of expertise. The attitude of rebellion against traditional academic love and reverence for scholars’ objects of study took special hold over the less objective and, consequently, more vulnerable humanities and social sciences. Before long, we were living in a reality in which professors of literature had come to see it as their role to stand in moral judgment over the authors they purport to study and professors of American history see it as their life calling to demonstrate that American history is evil, while faculty in metastasizing racial, ethnic, or gender studies departments see it as their mission to prove again and again that certain racial or gender groups are historically (and, by implication, presently) more virtuous than others. (No wonder we cannot get students excited about reading great literature or remedying their appalling ignorance of basic historical facts.) Nor were public schools spared in the assault upon the educational establishment, as the same crop of 1960s radicals had taken over education schools, the places where teachers learn how and what to teach.
So it came to be that, in 2021, we have the very institutions that are supposed to be protected bastions of open-minded inquiry devoted to the study and dissemination of time-tested truths made instead into overheated indoctrination mills intolerant of ideas that contradict their one-sided dogmas. Because universities have long had a reputation as academically (not politically) conservative citadels within which snooty, elite dons defend eternal verities against the incursions of mass culture and its untutored hordes, the very idea of professors and students taking a sledgehammer to the whole foundation feels thrillingly transgressive to those with a penchant for rebellion, especially because such rampages tend to vindicate their profound ignorance of the details of the old construct that they now have a readymade excuse not to study or learn to appreciate. Of course, the same mass media forces that led the members of the 1960s generation to feel solidarity with each other rather than with their elders are far more pervasive today, when mass social movements can take shape in a day with a few well-placed hashtags.
If the academic Wolves that have overrun the college green bothered to look around, they might notice that there is nothing truly rebellious or transgressive about their juvenile gestures anymore, that all around them are other members of the same pack, howling away ever-more-histrionically about racism or sexism or whatnot. They might observe that right alongside them, there are timid Sheep who have started learning to mimic their feral howls. They might realize that in the current environment, standing up for free speech, high culture, and academic rigor would actually be the far more rebellious alternatives. But impressions, once firmly rooted in our minds, are hard to displace, and so, with the Wolves having escaped the pens of academia and run rampant throughout what we commonly take to be the more “intellectual” segments of society—journalism, tech, the entertainment industry, the financial industry, and so on—we are now mired in a bizarre quagmire in which much of American society is stuck in a contrived pose of rebellion against a caricatured version of itself, even as corporate giants like Pepsi, Gillette, and Nike, now joined by all those other newly woke capitalist enterprises attempting to profit off of their conspicuous displays of support for #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and the like, have tried to turn their posture of protest into a marketable commodity.
Contra Graham, today the Enforcers are not the enemy. Today, in fact, it is the Enforcers—those who would stand up to defend core values like freedom of speech, the academic pursuit of truth and beauty, and opposition to totalitarian codes of speech and behavior, tribalist racial essentialism, and sinister attributions of collective guilt on the basis of race or gender—to whom we must look to lead us out of our unsavory predicament. If they cannot steer the silent majority of Sheep back to greener pastures, the howls echoing out all around us are certain to rise to a still more deafening crescendo until this whole country, with all its freedoms and virtues that once made it the envy of the world, goes to the dogs.
Alexander Zubatov is a lawyer in New York, as well as an essayist and poet.