Sebastian Junger’s TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging (Grand Central/Twelve 2016) is one of several short, relatively ‘incidental’, books I’ve read in the past month — ‘incidental’ in that they’re mostly off-topic to my more serious themes of science, philosophy, and the future, as were the books I wrote up here in February. Though as it’s turned out, every one of the books I’ve read recently does has something to contribute to my thinking on the big matters.
Junger is a journalist and author, whose book The Perfect Storm became a film and contributed a lasting phrase to the English language. According to this book’s flap, Junger is *defending* tribes — “small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding” – as necessary to our psychological survival.
This may well be, but I came into the book wondering how he would square this psychological tendency of our human nature with the modern dangers of tribalism, that in the US has led to such divided and corrosive politics, where only belonging matters and not, say, facts and evidence. I’m not sure he did square it, but he had many interesting stories and observations anyway.
For example, a story, in the introduction: How the author hitchhiked across the northwest US in 1986. He grew up in Boston suburbs where neighbors didn’t know each other, and nothing required them to band together, or form any kind of solidarity. In Gillette, Wyoming, standing alongside the highway with his backpack, he was approached by a man he thought might rob him, but who instead gave him, Junger, his lunchbox.
‘Tribe’ might mean the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. This book is about why that sentiment is rare in modern society, and what we can learn from tribal societies. Modern society makes people not feel necessary.
The first of four sections is about how, as Europeans settled America and drove back the native tribes, it was not uncommon for European men to leave their own society and join the Indians — and virtually never vice versa. Indian society was egalitarian, and marked by extreme loyalty to the tribe; they work less than ‘civilized’ people, are virtually never alone. While modern socities emphasize authority, and leave individuals alone even beginning in infancy.
Moral behavior derives from evolutionary group pressure, where bad actions, like hording and selfishness, are punished, and cooperation is rewarded. The anonymity of modern culture makes it easy to cheat, not just in small ways, but in huge ways, e.g. insurance fraud and the financial crisis. (And despite that crisis, legal correctives, e.g. forcing CEOs to reveal their pay ratios, have been blocked by Republicans.)
Comment: note the conservative resistance. Why wouldn’t conservatives be interested in making it more difficult for cheaters to cheat? Because it’s about rigging the system for themselves?
The second is about the author’s contact with war, as a journalist in Sarajevo as it was besieged by the Serb. War, like natural disasters, makes everyone equal, and their behavior changes, as in the Blitz, when those trapped together in shelter instintly began cooperating, forming ad hoc laws, and outside mundane life went on, without the hysteria officials had feared would occur. The war actually had a positive effect on mental health. the modern world protects us through police and fire forces, so that an individual may never experience a catastrophic situation in his entire life. The effect of the war on Britain led to social movements in the UK that brought about national health care and a strong welfare state. That lasted decades, until Thatcher came into power. Catastrophes force self-interest to be subsumed in group-survival. Thus in a way some people miss wartime.
Comment: He makes a key point that people in war or natural catastrophes typically cooperate, at least while the disaster is in place – they don’t, as in so many catastrophe novels and movies, go hysterical and become dysfunctional. How many SF catastrophe novels and movies depict this apparently instinctive cooperation? Aren’t they usually about the breakout of chaos? Because that’s so much more dramatically interesting.
The third section is about PTSD, which even author — a journalist and not a soldier — experienced upon returning home. PTSD was diagnosed only after Vietnam; before that it was shell shock or simply cowardice, something resulting in execution. Rates of PTSD are at historic highs, though partly this may be because it’s easy to rig the system. Still, what’s so dispiriting about modern society? Many soldiers miss the war after it’s over. The US fares poorly in three factors that affect a combatant’s transition to civilian life: the cohesiveness and egalitarianism of society, not being seen as victims (as when getting lifelong payments for having PTSD); and feeling as necessary and productive back home as when at war.
The final section ties these themes together. Story: an incident at a bar in Spain in which drunk Spaniards and Moroccans seemed about to fight, until passing wine around made them happy and convivial; as if male conflict and male closeness are two facets of the same quality.
Modern society is complex, so that most Americans are disconnected from all the things that keep the nation going, from farming to oil production. Those who build our infrastructure are less regarded than stockbrokers. And so people cheat.
Rampage shootings in the US occur generally in affluent towns or rural majority-white Christian towns. After 9/11 there were no rampage shootings for two years, and rates of crime and suicide declined. So what behaviors are missing from day-to-day life? America is split across so many boundaries, it helps understand how soldiers feel coming home. Here’s a striking paragraph, p124:
Today’s veterans often come home to find that, althought they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country–a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.
In the dispute between liberals and conservatives, both sides represent ancient evolutionary concerns: on the one side, freeloaders who threatened survival; on the other, a culture of compassion in which all were cared for. “Each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.” P127
And so the author wraps up. How to make veterans feel their society is worth fighting for? Focus on shared humanity, not how people are split by differences. American politics is undermining the tribe by trying to excommunicate others from the group.
Examples: Sergeant Bergdahl’s desertion was an outrage; but nothing compared to the bankers who caused the financial collapse of 2008. Unemployment, and suicides, went up. Yet none of the CEOs were charged; they got huge bonuses. Neither political party has denounced those men.
Better example: of another businessman, who gave up his salary until his company recovered. That’s the kind of service and self-sacrifice that society needs.
So: I don’t think Junger has a solution. Rather, this book is an example, or illustration, of an inescapable quandary: how our human nature, forged over millions of years living on the Savannah, doesn’t adjust easily to live in a multicultural society, or a world society. Junger seems to be aware of these evolutionary issues, as Wilson and Pinker have explored, but — there’s no easy solution.