One thing I’ve come to enjoy during olive gathering is podcast listening - it turns the meditative plucking of the black or green fruits into a contemplative act, where each stroke with the rake or snatch with the fingers from the branch is accompanied by the voices of the wise and knowing. Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Dan Carlin, Bad Wizards and Lovecraft Lovers takes me out on journeys into the most fascinating topics, subjects and tales. One day of olive picking I remember especially, I got through no less than six hours of Joe Rogan, had my mind blown three times, and decided to get hold of one book. That book was authored by Sebastian Junger, and it’s called Tribe. I will now go on to piece down my take of the work, but first I will provide you with a link to the podcast itself - it’s right here.
The first fall after he’d finished college, Junger set out to hitchhike across the American northwest. Having grown up in an affluent Boston suburb, the hike was thought to be a discovery of the real America, and the real self. With a backpack containing some basic survival equipment and a week’s worth of food, Junger remembers coming up on the interstate outside Gillette, Wyoming one morning. In the distance he sees a lone man walking towards him. The man is unkempt, with a greasy suit and wild hair. Now standing before him he asks the writer if he’s got any food on him. Being afraid of getting robbed Junger answer that his rations are low. A conversation takes form, and Junger learns that the man lives in an abandoned car, gets by on fill-in work at the coal mine outside of town, and that today there was no need for extra labour. “I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay”, the man says and hands over his lunchbox. Junger describes the concept of tribe as hard to define, but a start of it could be “the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with.” For some reason the man in Gillette decided to treat the young hitchhiker as a part of his tribe that day.
The book is mainly comprised of historical and contemporary examples of situations where modern humans have been exposed to a more tribal setting - where Junger addresses some of his perceived ailments of modern society, and where we can look for ideas for treatment.
The first example Junger brings to the table is that of the not to uncommon phenomena of whites joining Indian societies during the conquest of America, whereas the opposite happened very rarely. After describing some historical instances of this form of emigration, Junger turns to the reasons of why Indian life was compelling to the early American settlers; amongst other hunting being more thrilling than plowing fields, the less harsh religious norms and more relaxed sexual mores. But the chief cause that he mentions is the fundamental egalitarianism of nomadic tribal society. Which is prominent in three ways; firstly the limited accumulation of personal property in a mobile community reduces the inequality of wealth, secondly social status gets connected to personal traits rather than heredity - a successful hunter’s son is by no means a successful hunter himself, and thirdly individual autonomy, here Jungers quotes a runaway colonial woman describing her life with the Indians: “I am the equal of all the woman in the tribe, I do what I please without anyone’s saying anything about it, I work only for myself, I shall merry if I wish and be unmarried again when I wish. Is there a single woman as independent as I in your cities?”
Junger goes on broadening the scope and, through anthropological studies of contemporary tribes, looks at what have been the living standard for the human species for the vast majority of its existence - namely the hunter-gatherer community - and compares this to modern society. Since it takes around 25.000 years for genetic adaptations to appear in humans, he argues, that we are still wired to the close-knit, interdependent lifestyle of our nomad ancestors. The main technological advance that fundamentally altered the human experience is that of the agricultural revolution, which allowed for accumulation of personal property and thus the opportunity for individualistic choices and independent living that erodes the requirement of group effort. This has led to a scenario where a person can spend long stretches of time only encountering strangers, being constantly surrounded by people yet feeling deeply alone. Jungers says that the evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming, and that although measurements of happiness are hard to provide, those of mental illness are not: “Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society - despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology - is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tends to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.” The increase of mental illness in modern society seems quite staggering, and Juger points to the lack of connection to the circumstances we are genetically wired to as the general cause. According to the self-determination theory, there are three intrinsic values for human happiness; we need to feel competent at what we do, we have a need for self-expression and authenticity and we need to feel connected to others. Modern society, in its prosperity, has a tendency to emphasize extrinsic values such as money and status, and it is this discrepancy that underlies alienation and mental health issues.
Jungers background as a war journalist shows throughout the book in the examples that he gives, and they are some quite strong examples. Making the statement that “[c]ommunities that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything, they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals”, he goes on to illustrate this through his own experiences from the conflict in Bosnia and the German blitz bombing of London during the second world war. In both cases the common struggle for survival led to the populations grouping together and supporting each other rather than to fall into chaotic despair. In the subterranean bomb shelters of London tens of thousands of people gathered and soon established their own norms for maintaining the peace and helping each other; gone were the stratified society of the surface world, down here you were an equal part of the groups’ survival. The British government had expected the the bomb raids create a severe trauma on the populace, but not only did that not happen - the admissions to psychiatric hospitals went down and the resolve of the people strengthened. “Chronic neurotics of peacetime now drive ambulances”, a doctor remarked.
Junger goes further into the existing research of the positive mental effects of disasters, and the processes humans undergo during times of distress. He also recounts interviews of those who’ve been in civilian warzones, and describe how they miss it. There are two points that gets conveyed here, the first being how we as humans are primed to endure the hardship that disasters bring, the second being that it is not the hardship that we look back to with reverence, it is the community that it brings with it. “I do miss something from the war. But I also believe that the world we are living in - and the peace that we have - is very fucked up if somebody is missing war. And many people do”, he quotes a bosniak survivor of Sarajevo.
In the last chapter Junger gives an interesting take on the werewolf myth. In the Navajo Indian tradition resides the idea of yee naaldlooshii, or the skinwalker. These beings wore the pelts of sacred animals, travelled at great speed across the desert and had eyes like embers, that could paralyze its victim with a single look. They were thought to attack people at remote places, killing them and sometimes eating their bodies. The myth addresses a common fear throughout human societies: that you can defend against external enemies, but yet remain vulnerable against the lone madman in your midst. In America, the incidents of rampage shooting began to rise in the 1980 and would have doubled twenty five years later. A rampage is defined as occurrence were one single person attacks random people and kill four or more. Today these events are so regular in the American nation that they hardly stay in the news feed for more than two or three days. What drives the people that commit these acts is a complex question, but Junger points to two facts regarding them. Firstly that nearly all rampage shootings happen in affluent middle-class societies or in majority-white, christian, low-crime rural towns. And secondly that they tend to happen during times of economical crisis, where the social bonds of society are put under great stress. Junger reflects that the alienation and lack of connectedness in these situations is what animates the skinwalkers.
Another aspect he brings up in this chapter is that of the role of contempt in today’s society. Unlike criticism, contempt assumes moral superiority of the speaker and is directed towards people who’ve been excluded from the group or deemed unworthy of its benefits. This has a toxic effect on a community, and a person who is speaking with contempt of another member of the group is a symptom of disunity. In contemporary dialogue this way of communicating is seen growing within the political scene; where the opponents are to a lesser degree criticised for their policies, instead they are talked of as were they enemies to the nation. Junger warns that this rhetoric has dangerous consequences of fragmentation and disruption: “The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively - that should be encouraged - but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group.”
What Junger is doing in this book is describing correlations; between the rise of affluence, communal disconnectedness and mental health issues. He is addressing specific downsides of modern society and how it differs from that of our tribal roots. He sums up his visit in the Joe Rogan Experience with his hypothesis: “My guess is that a certain amount of the high suicide rates, the high depression, anxiety, drug addiction, porn addiction, child abuse, mass shootings in the streets - my guess is that the common denominator in all those things is the catastrophic lack of communal connection that many Americans experience.”
Having listened to, read and reflected upon Jungers thoughts of modern society, I have found several points of interest that I take with me. To begin with, the term tribe many times comes with negative connotations - closed groups, segregation, us-them thinking etc - and to get a view of positive aspects of the concept broadened my thoughts. Maybe there’s a potential revival of tribalism in a global and including way, or maybe we can learn from our old history of how we can establish flourishing local communities. And the notion of our genetical constitution - how we are wired to live a life quite different from that which modern society is offering - can give us guidelines for individual choices and serve as a foundation for policy making.
On the note of the correlation between mental health and that of communal disconnectedness I came across an article in The Guardian by Johann Hari. He makes a case for why we should look further than medication when thinking about depression. Mentioning the human needs of belonging, being valued, of security and competency (close to those of the self-determination theory), Hari refers to a large survey conducted by Gallup between 2011-2012, where they studied peoples’ attitudes to the place in life where we spend most of our time - the work place: “They found that 13% of people say they are ‘engaged’ in their work – they find it meaningful and look forward to it. Some 63% say they are ‘not engaged’, which is defined as ‘sleepwalking through their workday’. And 24% are ‘actively disengaged’: they hate it.” If 87% of the people in a community feel that they are “not engaged” in their main contribution to it, I’m not to sure it’s a very functional community. I wonder what the result to the same question would have been in a tribal setting. Hari sums up his article in the following way: “If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs – for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.”
There is a underlying existential crisis to the topic raised by Junger and Hari. The way we conduct life today is in many ways deeply dissatisfying, alienating and out of touch with our biological needs. There is a loss of meaning in the affluence. A disconnection in the great hubs of humans. And a future that greatly will reduce the demand of human labour to keep the cogs of society moving. I believe there’s an urgency for individual and collective reflection on the subject of meaningful ways of conducting life. I’ve already sent for my next book to digest on this matter Life 3.0 - Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark.