“People speak with incredible contempt about–depending on their views–the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that it’s applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. . . . People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united long.” (Sebastian Junger 126)
We are a divided people–a people in many ways at war with each other. Sebastian Junger examines the reasons in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. I picked the book up because it was the common read one fall on the campus where I taught freshman composition. All incoming freshmen receive a copy of the chosen book each year.
I hadn’t participated in the common read before and never again did. Other books didn’t fit with my course plan. I refused even to bring one home to investigate beyond the cover, which featured a naked woman. (Really!?)
At times, students indicated great relief that I wasn’t making them read the books.
This one was different.
When I read the description of Junger’s book, I couldn’t wait to get ahold of it. It deals substantively with the division of our society and with PTSD–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Junger explores why PTSD is a larger problem for us today even with a military much smaller than those of the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam eras.
The book fit well into class discussions that frequently included seasoned vets, some who confided in me that they suffered from PTSD because of their combat experiences.
When the number of vets in the room dropped, I quit using the book. Now I realize it might have been better for me to have kept it.
Now retired from the college classroom, I picked the book off my shelf this summer with an eye toward making it available for one of my high school students (with parental approval) to select for an Advanced Placement rhetoric project this year.
None of the students in my high school class will have experienced combat. Some of them have acquired, or know someone who has, PTSD.
All of us witness daily the division our society inhabits.
The compelling details of Junger’s text include discussion of factors we don’t often consider–our degree of comfort, our freedom from threat, and our lack of a shared experience. Those factors alienate us from each other.
I remember my mother telling me what it was like during World War II. Everyone knew the country was at war. Everyone’s life changed because we were at war. Everyone sacrificed.
Nearly everyone wanted to be part of the war effort–to contribute something, volunteering, donating a bicycle tire, buying a war bond.
Throughout the first two decades of the new century, most of America did not felt the pinch of war in the least. We did without nothing. Most of our lives didn’t changed–except for our awareness and fear of terrorism. We made an effort when soldiers returned, unlike the one those returning from Viet Nam sometimes suffered, that of public abuse.
But even though we are no longer officially at war, our society lives out no “shared public meaning.”
“Such public meaning is probably not generated by the kinds of formulaic phrases such as “Thank you for your service,” that many Americans now feel compelled to offer soldiers and vets [and sometimes police and firefighters]. . . . If anything, these token acts only deepen the chasm between the military and civilian populations by highlighting the fact that some people serve their country but the vast majority don’t” (97).
Veterans from our Middle East wars have settled back into life in the US. Many still deal with PTSD. Many are homeless. They seem to have vanished into the crowd.
But PTSD and its affects don’t just hit combat veterans. I know some of my students deal with situations, past and current, that cause them to feel divided from others.
Even without our young men and women going off to war, we are a divided country suffering from a lack of vision.
Junger presents our momentary unity after 9/11, but that cohesiveness was so short lived because of our lack of a common experience, a common vision. Instead Junger describes a moral superiority that replaced the unity of a nation attacked.
Now we have to ask ourselves: What kind of attack will unify us in a long lasting, significant way?
And is there no other way?
Note: Some Christians will find Junger’s continual assumption of evolution to be off-putting. But it’s not a big leap for readers of faith for readers to see sin as a contributing factor in today’s troubled society. There is rare inappropriate language in the book.