Tribes and American Men’s Identity Crisis

platon-soldier
The photographer Platon is featured on the Netflix documentary series Abstract. One focus of his work has been soldiers and military families.

I started my week with a really ugly misogynist verbal dump from a family member. It was very upsetting and the self-preservationist in me beat a retreat. I am concerned my family member is listening to so much hate radio. Still I want to be curious about what is taking so many men down this path. I looked at my pile of unread books and grabbed Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. As a reporter in many war torn countries, he has observed people coming together to help one another in a crisis. It is backed up by more rigorous research.

His definition of tribe is different than one I would have thought of: “the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with.” What Junger has observed is that people don’t mind, and in fact, thrive on hardship. But modern society has made hardship more and more scarce. Dorothy Day touched back to her experience after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when everyone pulled together, when the natural disaster and its destruction leveled society. A society-wide crisis–whether it is war or environmental disaster–resets community to a fundamental egalitarianism.

Humans lived with one another this way for centuries until agriculture and then industry developed and the concepts of private property and individual efforts became more important than the common good. Junger points to the three intrinsic values needed to be content: 1) feel competent at what they do; 2) feel connect to others; 3) authentic in their lives. As Junger explains, “Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth.”

Humans are hard-wired to help other people. Risk-taking to help others is expressed differently among men and woman. Men tend to do the majority of bystander rescues, and our definition of hero tends to encompass this kind of action that risks one’s life to save non-kin.  Women tend to display the majority of moral courage. (p. 56-57)  Both are needed:

“When a woman gives shelter to a family because she doesn’t want to raise her children in a world where people can be massacred because of their race or their beliefs, she is taking a large risk but also promoting the kind of moral thinking that has clearly kept hominid communities glued together for hundreds of thousands of years. It is exactly the same kind of altruistic choice–with all the attendant risks and terrors–tat a man makes when he runs into a burning building to save someone else’s children. Both are profound acts of selflessness and distinguish us from all other mammals, including the higher primates that we are so closely related to.” (p. 58-59)

When you examine the experience of soldiers after tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, you begin to see why some miss the battlefield and may become depressed when home. They are transitioning from an experience full of social ties and meaning, and return to a relatively isolated existence often without work of any kind.

In today’s The New York Times Magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote one of the featured articles: “New Jobs Require New Ideas–And New Ways of Organizing.” She is focused on the change in our economy and why the labor movement is reinventing itself. As Ehrenreich states, “If the stereotype the old working class was a man in a hard hat, the new one is better represented as a woman chanting, “El pueblo unido jamas  sera vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!)” If men are already feeling emasculated by a lack of work and changing roles in society, there are going to be increasingly angry at women when they read this and it may explain why the Women’s March is stirring up such strong reactions from some men.

The resistance to #45 better fits the kind of moral courage that is more often in women’s domain. Where women feel energized and inspired to run for office, men may be engineering a backlash that will make previous anger at women seem tame.

I am not sure what the solution is, but I am concerned that we’ll repeat the post-9/11 experience when men decided we should go to war. Men need an outlet for their warrior urges and their need to take life-risking action. Or at a minimum, they need good jobs that provide for their families. Without a positive way for them to express these values, what will they get up to?

 

 

 

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