Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”: how modern civilization can subvert man’s social nature

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Author: Sebastian Junger
Title, Subtitle: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
Publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-4555-6638-9
Publication: TwelveBooks, 168 pages hardcover, four chapters
Link: Amazon

I met Sebastian Junger at his book-signing party at a Barnes and Noble in downtown Minneapolis in 1998 for his non-fiction epic “A Perfect Storm”.  I remember the book well, most of all the harrowing description of death by drowning.  I would see the film by Wolfgang Petersen (with George Clooney and “Marky” Mark Wahlberg) in 2000, and write a review on AOL’s Moviegrille (at the time, a real innovation, pre social media) that would cause a squabble online over “class warfare”.  I describe the details on my legacy site here.

Junger has definitely led a swashbuckling life, and “paid his dues”, living in war zones (like to make “Restrepo” and “Korengal”) and doing dangerous work (as an arborist, where he was injured, maybe helping to inspire the book “Fire”.  Later he talks about our dependence of people who do manual labor (but my own father used to harp about this in the 1950s).

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” is brief, in fact it could have been published as another extended Vanity Fair article.  The publisher, “TwelveBooks”, a division of Hatchette, says it picks out just one book a month to publish, the opposite of self-publishing indeed.  Junger’s “Author’s Note” makes some comments about the meticulous fact checking that should be expected of all those who call themselves journalists.

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The media has described the work in terms of the psychological needs of returning combat veterans, who miss the unit cohesion and belonging of combat and military service.  But the book is much broader, in its implications for social stability, and, ultimate, “the ethics of identity” (Appiah, May 27). The title of the second chapter, “War Makes You an Animal”, is indicative of the tone of the book.

Junger’s thesis is that man has evolved wired to live collectively in small groups, or “tribes”, with self-concept and “identity” tied to the group, larger than the self.  The best example of this lifestyle probably was native American tribes before European settlers came.  During the French and Indian Wars (James Fenimore Cooper’s world that gave me a high school term paper), and sometimes other conflicts, Euorpean settlers would “defect” and choose to live in the relative “freedom” of native tribes.  But natives did not want to live in hierarchal European society, so the converse did not happen.

Tribal society was, Junger claims, quite egalitarian.  People accumulated few possessions and money was of little consequence. People slept together in yurts, and Junger makes a point that sleeping alone, in one’s own room, is a European and American invention, facilitated by material wealth and then smaller families.  Forced intimacy was the norm, and the modern concept of “privacy” was unknown until relatively recently (well into the 20th Century), as this panel, “The Birth and Death of Privacy” by Greg Ferenstein shows.

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A question occurs, what about the moochers?  Yes, tribes had ways of chasing out their freeloaders (and in individual cases were capable of great brutality).  There had to be patriarchal elders in charge (often with religious authority).  But, because people usually didn’t have the opportunity to interact with others outside of their tribes, political life was simple, so there was a sense of freedom that supplemented the “belonging”.

As society became more organized (as with the European system of sovereign states, or even entities like Mayan and Inca empires) political life became more complicated, and classes developed.  So someone living in “the commons” could well wonder about his or her assigned station in life, in a way that wouldn’t develop in simpler tribes.  Often, politicians became authoritarian and indeed abused minorities, leading to more modern ideas of struggles over class, race, and gender roles.

Junger spends a lot of attention of the importance of war and conflict in shaping social mores.  Most tribal societies have to deal with external enemies, as well as natural disasters.  Hardship and the need for individual sacrifice is a given.  So it is the long term future of the group that has the highest moral (in Appiah’s terminology) value.  He talks about the eusociality and caring for strangers that the British people developed during the London bombings in 1940, for example.  In this environment, physical cowardice is a moral evil and capital crime.  People have to give up their individualized sense-of-self during conflict, so they often feel less stress personally.  But the stress returns with peace when the standard of living returns and economic inequality (and excessive attachments to private assets) also come back.  But, in the minds of many, modern infrastructure and even “law and order” cannot be counted on forever (that is, is not inherently “sustainable”).  The modern “doomsday prepper” crowd, often associated with supporting the Second Amendment, views self-sufficiency “off the grid” within family groups as a prerequisite for living by anybody.

Family life in tribal societies is certainly embedded deeply in tribal purpose.  Marriage and procreation is viewed as a community matter as well as a private one.  Gender roles are important in more survival-challenged cultures, and the paradox of male warrior culture (and “unit cohesion”) is reinforced. Junger says that simpler cultures generally do make room for less assertive men and more assertive women, which would obviously affect LGBT persons (whom Junger doesn’t directly address).  But we know that the tribal societies of the Islamic world and of much of sub-Saharan Africa are still often very hostile to homosexuals (usually with religious teachings providing the necessary canards).  Russia seems to be trying to reinstall tribal values to rebuild its population and settle its emptied out Siberian lands.

Tribes often require warrior initiation rituals, which modern men might see as humiliating (“hazing”), like the chest work he describes in p. 119.  But “hazing” (like the “tribunals” at William and Mary which I so dangerously skipped in 1961) might be seen as a way for getting young men to accept self-sacrifice when necessary and still perform as fathers later.  I think a curious parallel could be drawn to people allowing themselves to be shaved in public in benefit events showing solidarity with cancer patients on chemotherapy.

Junger has indeed described how humans behave.  Humans are primates, he says, generally wired to live collectively, more like wolves than cats (maybe like lions).  I wondered, what about the Bonobo chimps?  It seems that as technology has advanced and society has become more politically complex, individualism (all the way to Ayn Rand) has become “selected”.  Especially among young men in a wired, global society, individual achievement is rewarded, somewhat at the expense of cohesion with others in a group.  This development may be very hard on those “wired” more conventionally  for group life, putting them at a bigger competitive disadvantage, and complicating the issue of “inequality” further.  The popular “X-Men” comic book and movie franchise  might be a metaphor for the effects of allowing some people to stand out so much.

But, given our cultural anthropology lesson, the next question is, how should this affect policy?  Let’s not forget that in some parts of the world, tribal life invokes horrible practices (try female genital mutilation, for example.)  But let’s accept that some tribal life works.  It’s bad news for introverts. But what “moral” (or plain “ethical”) standards should be expected of the little “x-men” among us (that includes “Little Rubio”, maybe). (That is, after all, the theme of my own 2014 “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book.)   Junger, for example, talks about the draft, although not calling for its reinstatement. He mentions that the all volunteer military attracts recruits who have experienced sexual or familial abuse, disproportionately. He talks about his own draft card, and his father’s idea that he should keep it but leave the country if he had enough moral objection to Vietnam. My own history, of flunking students (exposing men to the military draft after student deferment loss when an assistant graduate algebra instructor, then entering the Army in 1968 with a graduate degree and escaping all exposure to combat myself, then becomes very troubling, something that should never be buried.  So is the earlier history of my clumsiness with the expectations of the male role, and my disinterest in the social experiences that others expected of me, for their collective benefit rather than “mine”, as a conveyor of the family for its own sake. Rather than engage people emotionally in a world where I would inevitably be perceived as “lesser”, I created my own world and propagated it. My doing so does raise moral-level questions.

As for inequality, it’s well to note that there are about 1200 voluntary income-sharing “intentional communities” (with limited connection to “the grids”) in the U.S. today; most, but not all, are in rural areas.  In central Virginia, Twin Oaks and Acorn provide typical examples.

Junger correctly observes that our idea of victimhood, and pimping it as a virtue, is indeed shallow.  Sometimes “casualty” is the right word, rather than “victim”.

Junger appeared on Memorial Day, 2016 on a PBS Ted Talk (“War and Peace”) with Adam Driver and others .  Junger talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among some soldiers once back in civilian life and away from the bonding of the military environment. He also says (as in the book), that civilian PTSD  actually went down after 9/11.  The PBS full link is here. Included is a song by Rufus Wainwright (from his second opera “Hadrian“), and short films “All Roads Point Home” by Linda Singh, “Talk of War“, and “Bionic Soldier“.  Singh talked about why people (especially women) join the military, and about what military values could offer handling race problems like Ferguson and Baltimore. Later, there was a presentation of non-violent resistance in Mosul, as parents refused to send their kids to an ISIS school but home-schooled them instead;  then there as a presentation showing that rich countries profit from selling arms to people in poor countries, where still most of the slaughter happens; guns are cheaper there than is clean water. The program ended with music for cello and piano, unannounced, but I believe it was by Ravel.

I should mention here that I do recall reading a novel “The Tribe” by Bari Wood, around 1987, about golems that bring retribution in modern day Brooklyn for what happened in the Holocaust.

(Published: Monday, May 30, 2016, at 9 PM EDT)

1 thought on “Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”: how modern civilization can subvert man’s social nature”

  1. David Brooks mentions this book in his column “The Great Affluence Fallacy” here http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/09/opinion/the-great-affluence-fallacy.html He mentions that colonials who had assimilated into native tribal culture didn’t want to go back. It’s frightening to contemplate, but it may bear relation to what some young men find joining ISIS. There’s a lot here about different personality types — extroversion and introversion — and how those who are “different” assimilate into the “tribe” without destroying it. Generally, they form their own “tribe” — if they can leave the old one.

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