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Sebastian Junger’s ‘Tribe’ examines loyalty, belonging and the quest for meaning

June 29, 2016 at 6:10 PM EDT
The NewsHour continues our series on great summer reads with the latest from Oscar-nominated documentarian and “Perfect Storm” author Sebastian Junger. It’s called "Tribe: On Homecoming And Belonging." It's a modern take on what we can learn from tribal societies when it comes to loyalty, belonging and the quest for meaning. Jeffrey Brown talks to Junger.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we add another book to our summer reading list.

It’s a modern take on what we can learn from tribal societies when it comes to loyalty, belonging and the quest for meaning.

At the recent BookExpo America in Chicago, Jeffrey Brown talked to journalist and author Sebastian Junger. His new book is “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Start with the definition. What do you mean by tribe?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER, Author, “Tribe”: The real an ancient meaning of tribe is the community that you live in that you share resources with that you would risk your life to defend.

I mean, that’s the real meaning of tribe. Of course, in modern society, that structure, that tribal structure has been lost. That loss of tribe also costs people psychologically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did this grow specifically out of your work as a war reporter or…

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, there was this puzzling thing that I noticed.

A lot of the soldiers that I was with — and I was at a remote outpost called Restrepo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It was a 20-man position, everyone sleeping basically shoulder to shoulder in the dirt at first and then in these little hooches.

And it was very intimate, very close, very connected, emotionally connected experience. And after the deployment, which was — the deployment was hellish. And afterward the deployment, a lot of those guys missed the combat and they didn’t want to come home to America.

What is it about modern society that’s so repellent even to people that are from there? And my book “Tribe” is an attempt to answer that question.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, tribe can be any kind of community? Does it have to be a certain size? Does it have to be — how organized does it have to be?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, humans lose the ability to connect emotionally with people after a certain number, right at 150.

So there is a limit to the number of people we can connect with and that we can feel capable of sacrificing ourselves for if need be.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens, though, when you’re a member of a larger corporation, a larger town, a larger — a religious group?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I think the reason those things feel good is because they come close enough to replicating the connections of tribe that it’s sort of familiar in human terms.

They’re not tribes. Tribes, really, you have to live with the people in your tribe for it to be a tribe in the sort of ancient sense. Now, what happens when society experiences a collapse, like the Blitz in London or an earthquake or something like that, is that people are forced into communal situations with each other in order to survive.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re looking at our society and seeing an affluence and seeing — but seeing a kind of a disconnection?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, the irony of modern society, for all of its very real benefits — I mean, modern society is a miracle in a lot of ways, right? But as affluence goes up in a society, the suicide rate tends to go up, not down.

As affluence goes up in a society, the depression rate goes up. When a crisis hits, then people’s psychological health starts to improve. After 9/11 in New York City — I live in New York — and after 9/11, the suicide rate went down in New York, not up. It went down. It improved.

Violent crime went down. Murder went down. There was a sense of everyone needs each other. And once you’re called to serve your community, in some way, you sort of forget your own problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your sense of how technology changes — the Internet? Much discussion about the communities that can form, small communities that can form on the Internet. In some ways, we lose a sense of a larger community, but we have these niche communities.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I don’t talk about the Internet in my book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: But they are communities only in the most abstract and unhuman sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that’s not enough?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It’s not enough.

And, actually, I would say the Internet is doubly dangerous for all — and, again, for all of its miraculous capacity, not only does it not provide real community and real human connection. It gives you the illusion that it does, right?

So, oh, I have got lots of friends on Facebook, so I’m good. You’re actually not good. And I’m not an expert in this, but from what I studied for my book “Tribe,” what you need is to feel people, smell them, hear them, feel them around you.

I mean, that’s the human connection that we evolved for, for hundreds of thousands of years. The Internet doesn’t provide that.

JEFFREY BROWN: We talk about things having broken down in Washington.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re watching a political campaign. Right?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Very much us against them.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does the notion of tribes allow us to have a cohesion that we also think we need as a country?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes, it’s a great question.

I think what you’re seeing in this political season are political camps deciding that they are their own tribe and it’s us against them. And I think the trick — and this country is in a very, very tricky place socially, economically, politically — I think the trick, if you want to be a functioning country, a nation, a viable nation, you have to define tribe to include the entire country, even people you disagree with.

Disagreement is great, debate is great, conflict is great. It’s how we all get better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: What you can’t do is have contempt for your fellow citizens. That is destructive.

No soldier in a trench in a platoon in combat would have contempt for their trench mate. They might not like them. They disagree with them, but you don’t have contempt for someone that your life depends on. And that’s what we’re falling into in the political dialogue in this country. And in my opinion, that is more dangerous to this country than ISIS is, I mean literally like more of a threat to our nation.

JEFFREY BROWN: But as the tribe increases, the hard — cohesion gets harder, right?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Absolutely.

I mean, no one is saying this is going to be easy, but you do have — to understand the task, you have to understand your origins. You have to understand why humans are the way we are and what the cost of modern society has been.

Once you understand — and that’s what my book tries to explain. Once you understand that, it’s going to be much easier to devise, to jerry-rig a new solution to a new problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, did all this make you think which tribes you belong to or your own tribe?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I mean, sadly, I grew up in the — in the loneliest place in the world, an American suburb.

Like, I wish I had a tribe. We don’t. We just don’t. That’s the problem. That’s why our depression rate, our suicide rate, all that stuff is through the roof. That’s the tragedy of modern society.

JEFFREY BROWN: Short of a Blitz or short of a 9/11…

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Right, the apocalypse, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, what do people do in their daily life to find that?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, I think if you try to — if you imagine your life in terms of the community you live in, and you try to connect personally to the people in your community, even though you drive 40 miles away to go to work, I think that’s enormously beneficial and therapeutic.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.”

Sebastian Junger, thank you very much.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch many more of Jeff’s interviews from BookExpo America and other book festivals. You will find all those at the Web site, PBS.org/book-view-now.

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