Sebastian Junger’s Tribe — Mapping the Tribal v-Meme

Hiawatha Trail

Hiawatha Trail, Idaho — a long time ago…

I recently was turned on to and audiobooks by a couple of friends — notably Ryan and Zach, both entrepreneurs and educators.  Audiobooks are a great way to fill in the hours of a drive for a society filled with individuals, like myself, who don’t have the time to just sit down and read a book.  They’re also great for filling in the blanks in your brain with business books, and secondary titles that you’re never going to read.  It was with that spirit that I approached one of Zach’s recommendations — Tribe: On Homecoming and Belongingby Sebastian Junger.  Junger, who also authored the book The Perfect Storm, as well as numerous essays, a movie, and a book on war and its effects on the people involved, doesn’t romanticize the bonding that happens in soldiers during combat.  He presents compelling portraits of the ambivalence of emotion that accompanies individuals in extreme situations — the horror and fear, as well as the love, bonding and empathy that such individuals share.

In Tribe, which was originally expanded into a book from a piece in Vanity Fair, Junger looks mostly at the issues of returning veterans from war and makes the compelling argument that what veterans really want when returning to the United States after an extended deployment is not boarding first rights on aircraft, or salutes at ball games.  What they crave is a feeling that they are part of a group that shared the sacrifice that they made — not set them up separately to take a burden that others in the society were unwilling to share.

He maps the PTSD space fairly well — the problem that individuals have when there is no group to re-integrate with, which veterans encounter all too often.  An interesting insight I had while listening was comments my psychologist wife, who used to work in a university counseling center, about rape victims and their path to recovery.  When, for example, a sorority sister was raped, the victim almost always recovered rapidly from the trauma when the sorority directly confronted the incident, and the other group sheltering the rapist.  Extended trauma almost always only happened when the in-group of the person being raped attempted to rationalize the trauma to maintain social relations with the out-group.

Junger goes on to extoll the virtues of tribal societies — their fundamental egalitarianism, their swiftness of retribution, bonding ceremonies, and their emphasis on functional identification of their members.  You are what you do, in large part, in a tribal community. He also discusses in-depth the prevention of large gaps in wealth and well-being in nomadic and semi-nomadic societies, and how that preserves the social order.  There can only be so large a gap in material possessions, because there’s only so much you can haul on your horse.

There’s extensive coverage of how Authoritarian v-Meme societies chronically disparage the underclass and their behavior in crisis.  Before the Battle of Britain, for example, the British elite were convinced that the common folk would pillage in the streets after German bombers launched the first wave of attacks.  Instead, what happened was a group cohesion that settled in that was key in surviving The Blitz and defeating the Nazis. It should come as no surprise to followers of this blog that this was the case.  Boot people back down the Spiral to the Survival/Tribal v-Meme, and they will find a way to overcome their differences rapidly.  Authoritarian/Legalistic societies depend on depressing populations to make them easier to control, and so the attitudes pre-Blitz by the English elite also should surprise no one.  As well as behavior of British society in the aftermath of the war, that led to rapid Communitarian empathetic evolution and establishment of institutions like the National Health Service.

Junger also makes the case that robust, adaptive solutions to larger problems like climate change depend, potentially, on tribal behavior.  Global warming is going to drive numerous crises with different characteristics in different ecosystems — drought in one area might need one set of solutions, while flooding in another area may require different manifestations of group cohesion.  All of this is true, of course.

But where Junger falls short in his analysis is in his lack of understanding the different levels of empathetic connection, and the ramifications of more simplistic In-group/Out-group social organization in complex societies.  The bonding of the British during the Blitz led not to restrained behavior toward the Nazis and German society at the end of the war.  It led to Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the fire bombing and leveling of virtually every German city, of which Dresden was only the most famous. And any solution for global warming is going to require not just the fine-scale networks for customized, local action.  It will also depend on a global sensor network to understand, for example, larger effects to oceans, and fisheries. And as Conway’s Law informs, that will require a spatial awareness and empathetic connections that span the planet.

Junger’s analysis that we live in a fragmented, alienated society is spot-on. But where it falls apart is in the main thesis of Tribe contrasts only of the Tribal v-Meme benefits of closeness against the Authoritarian need for status assertion, control and depression of populations.  Contemporary societies are more complex than this, and without understanding that ever-important concept of scaffolding.  What does that mean?  We have to fold in the strong national identities based on perhaps nothing other than geographic residence, with higher v-Memes allowing for individual choice and preference, and even on up to a reflective, Second Tier nature that allows question of why we’re setting up our In-groups/Out-groups the way that we are. If we don’t, we will not as a society avoid the violent excesses of Tribal societies in the past.  It’s not in the social physics cards.

Still, Junger does yeoman work in nailing the key factors that are preventing unity in our current condition, through examples from veterans not being able to find work, to Wall Street bankers and their unpunished piracy.  It’s well worth the 2.5 hour listen to give you a description of the base of inclusion that we must build on in order to not only save our veterans, but ourselves.  As long as you remember that the book, as even Junger alludes to, is a start.  Because there is no real alternative except larger empathetic evolution.

Worth watching: There’s a evolving story on tribal coalescence that’s happening on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in southern North Dakota, involving protesting an oil pipeline being built built by the Dallas-based firm, Energy Transfer Partners.  Non-affiliated individuals, as well as enrolled tribal members from across the United States have traveled to the site to protest the pipeline, which tribal members view as a threat to their clean water supply.  The video below shows a recent confrontation between construction workers and protestors.


There are interesting explorations of Spiral Dynamics 2nd Tier/self-aware evolution of the Tribal v-Meme, as this gathering of the tribes attempts to merge diverse cultural perspectives while maintaining unity among groups that have had difficulty achieving consensus in the past.  See this BBC piece for perspective.  

As of this posting, there has been violence.  My prediction is that there will be much more violence, and potentially protester death, before this is all over. especially if there is no injunction from the courts for further environmental/archaeological study.  The Tribal v-Meme does not back down, unlike typical, more mainstream U.S. protests.

Postscript — here’s a great piece in Outside Magazine that backs up my assertions.

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