Mar 12, 2014
The Righteous Road to Ruin
Posted on Jun 28, 2012
By Chris Hedges
One can write such a passage only if he has never been on a battlefield. Those who are most detested in combat are the “heroes,” whose pathological love of glory and violence get other soldiers or Marines killed. The upper echelons of the military are top heavy with self-serving careerists and cowards who gleefully send out their troops in an effort to burnish their unit’s combat record and get promoted, while they remain safely in the rear or a fortified compound. Many combat veterans, from Erich Maria Remarque to James Jones to Anthony Swofford, have recounted how this works. It is estimated that as much as 25 percent of the junior officer class in Vietnam was fragged or killed by its own troops. War is not a John Wayne movie. Carrying out violence is a dirty, venal and horrible job. And the tragedy of post-traumatic stress disorder is that, however much Haidt might want to label someone who has spent a lot of time in combat as a hero, it becomes very hard and sometimes impossible for that “hero” to feel love again. Haidt mistakes the myth of war for war.
His transformation from a liberal to a conservative, he writes, took place on 9/11 when “the attacks turned me into a team player, with a powerful and unexpected urge to display my team’s flag and then do things to support the team, such as giving blood, donating money, and yes, supporting the leader.” In short, Haidt became a lover of conservatism and nationalism when he became afraid. He embraced an irrational, not to mention illegal, pre-emptive war against a country, Iraq, that had nothing to do with 9/11. And if there was ever a case for reason to conquer fear and the emotionalism of the crowd, the Iraq War was it. But Haidt, rather than acknowledge that fear had turned him into a member of an unthinking, frightened herd, holds this experience up as a form of enlightenment.
Haidt repeatedly reduces social, historical, moral and political complexities to easily digestible clichés. He argues that the human mind is divided, “like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” This peculiar metaphor, which in short posits that reason is in the service of intuition or passion, dominates his thesis.
Haidt like E.O. Wilson, whom Haidt calls “a prophet of moral psychology,” believes that evolution has constructed us to be selfish. We rationalize selfish behavior, he writes, as moral. He asks whether moral reasoning wasn’t “shaped, tuned, and crafted to help us pursue socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us, or our team, in disputes?” The moral glue that holds us together, Haidt writes, is concern for our reputations. But in a world like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia the primacy of reputation means, at best, silence and often complicity with repression and murder. Those who make moral choices, who defy the crowd, even in open societies, are always outcasts. Their reputations are shredded by those in power. They find their worth in an unheralded and unrewarded virtue. And they grasp that the collective emotions of the crowd are the enemy of moral choice.
In a very revealing anecdote—which he titles “How I became a pluralist”—Haidt writes of his three months in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar. He has servants. He visits the homes of male colleagues and is waited on by their wives. He writes that “rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent.”
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Pantheon, 448 pages
His embrace of rigid social hierarchy and oppression, which makes him sound like the apologists for racial segregation, is a window into the entire book. He does not speak Oriya, the local language, and so is dependent on an educated, wealthy elite. He, by the standards of India, is rich. He makes no effort to explore the lives of the underclass. He celebrates what he calls “a moral code that emphasizes duty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires.”
If there is karma—a concept Haidt mistakenly equates with Social Darwinism to argue that the poor, or “slackers” and “cheaters,” get what they deserve—Haidt will return in another life to the streets of Bhubaneswar as an “Untouchable.” He might think a bit differently about what constitutes the moral life if he has to survive in Bhubaneswar on the bottom rung rather than the top.
Haidt approvingly quotes Phil Tetlock who argues that “conscious reasoning is carried out for the purpose of persuasion, rather than discovery.” Tetlock adds, Haidt notes, that we are also trying to persuade ourselves. “We want to believe the things we are saying to others,” Haidt writes. And he adds, “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
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