I read Bellwether (by Connie Willis) again and finished it the other day. Each time I read it — this is the 6th or 7th time — I learn something new.
I frequently lament that I don’t understand why we have become so stupid, but I think, to a large degree, this book explains exactly why.
It’s because most people — not everyone, but more than half of us — follow “bellwethers.” These are people who have an inexplicable ability to will others to do their bidding. Sometimes, they don’t even have to ask. Something in us recognizes them and we are drawn to them. We follow because they are our “direction.” Without them, like a flock of sheep, we circle randomly.
Bellwether grabbed me from page one. From sentence one. Not merely was delighted by the story itself, but I learned a lot about chaos theory, fads, sheep, and the meaning of “bellwether,” a term I’d heard and used — and misused — for years but never understood.
It was the bellwether and sheep connection I never got. What do I know about sheep? It turns out, sheep and humans have an unnerving amount in common.
A bellwether is a leader of sheep, an über ewe, the sheep who the flock follows. There’s no reason why a bellwether leads and or any obvious reason why the flock follows. There is just something about that ewe that the other sheep sense.
In our current world, that seems to be exactly why we follow political leaders who — if we were to apply rationality to the equation — are leading us to disaster. Yet many will follow them to the death — recently, that’s a literal death rather than a figurative one.
What the bellwether does, other sheep do. Automatically. Without thought — assuming sheep think or for that matter, whether people think. The flock will follow her. Without a bellwether, the flock will circle without even knowing where to find the grass. Add a bellwether and she will lead. The rest of the flock will follow her, over a cliff if that’s where she goes. The flock doesn’t know they are following the bellwether. They just do it.
We no more recognize our bellwethers than do sheep. Wherever they lead, we follow. Mindless. Stupidly. An atavistic instinct, embedded in our DNA? Some are born to lead, others to follow? A few of us will never follow. Some of us were born to walk a singular path.
The book is laugh-out-loud funny. Erudite, witty, and replete with trivia guaranteed to upgrade your anecdotal skills.
Bellwether suggests answers to previously unanswered questions. Why do people vote against their own self-interest? Why do we do so many moronic things? We’re following a bellwether. They are loose amongst us, invisible shakers and movers. Sometimes unaware of their effect on the people around them, but often they know exactly what they are doing and revel in their power.
You should read this book. Even after you know all the facts of what happened, most history doesn’t make sense. If you add in a few bellwethers, it suddenly comes clear.
Human life, history and relationships are illogical. They happen. We can explain them in retrospect, but really we don’t actually know what happened or why. That’s what historians are for, to make sense of the past because it doesn’t make sense on its own. Human society is chaotic. The only predictable thing is its unpredictability.
I think, confusion notwithstanding, we have run out of time. We can’t be sheep anymore. We need to THINK. We need to REASON. We need to understand and make decisions based on facts and evidence, not on some pol’s popularity or speechmaking ability. We have to recognize bellwethers and find the strength to resist them. If we don’t, the end of our road is not far ahead. I will not live to see it, but our grandchildren might — or their children.
I found Bellwether original, insightful, amusing and thought-provoking. Highly entertaining and funny. I can’t imagine what more anyone could want from a book. I recommend it both in print (Kindle or paper) and audio. It is a book you will read and remember.
After you read it, read it again.