Can We All Get Along?

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon, 2012, 419 pp.

“This book,” writes Jonathan Haidt in his introduction to The Righteous Mind, “is about why it’s so hard for us to get along.” His core premise is that moral psychology can sort out problems that moral philosophy and political theory cannot. In the end, however, the problem of getting along is not sorted out. Maybe it’s Haidt’s cheerful view of humanity that explains this failure. Some of us, especially on the left, believe that class inequality, poverty, greed, corruption, prejudice, orthodoxy, and ignorance divide us no matter how hard we try to see the other person’s point of view.

The Righteous Mind is not a recipe for ideological convergence. Still, it merits our attention as a plausible and interesting explanation of how we came to have moral categories—quite apart from which ones we have. It is best at making us think about the capacity of psychology to explain the evolution of moral norms. Haidt surveys the historical landscape, explaining how various institutions (mostly religious ones) evolved to regulate our behavior for the sake of the group. We are an inherently “groupish” species; here his argument is most persuasive, replete with insights, anecdotes, and case studies.

He takes his cue from Spinoza, who in 1676 wrote in his Tractatus Politicus: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.” In practice, anyone who would abjure laughing, weeping, or hating must hew to a very narrow investigative path. Every word we utter is a subjective choice; and the tortuous history of the regulation of human conduct doesn’t lend itself especially well to objective certainty. Analyzing without judging is a worthy goal in many contexts; but moral psychology alone cannot solve the problems that two and a half millennia of philosophical work have exposed.

Haidt admits to having studied philosophy as a young man in order to learn “the meaning of life.” No wonder he was, as he says, disappointed. Yet his reductionism entangles his theory in the philosophical thickets of his misspent youth. He has particular contempt for the approach to moral development in the rationalist tradition, from Plato to philosophical psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. Instead, he embraces the emotivism of David Hume—the elegant Scottish avatar of eighteenth-century empiricism.

Hume’s writing is a model of reasoned argument, albeit for a theory based more on experience than reason per se. It’s a better model for observational knowledge, and perhaps for eighteenth-century science, than for the interpenetrating realms of mind, value, and reality that are now considered philosophy’s purview. And Hume’s mor...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.