For the Love of Moral Philosophy, Black Lives Still Matter Amid the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

William Bairamian, ostensibly writing about the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in his recent article, “Armenian Lives Matter,” has many scores to settle: with Armenian academics and activists who have expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement through various news media platforms, such as The Armenian Weekly, The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, and Asbarez, with Kurds, with President Barack Obama, and more curiously, with moral philosophy itself.

Bairamian, however, does not speak only for himself. The acerbic tone of “Armenian Lives Matter,” which appeared in the online magazine, The Armenite, where Bairamian is both founder and editor-in-chief, is symptomatic of the chronic issue of racism in the libertarian political philosophy to which a considerable number of Armenian-Americans adhere.

Let us not forget that the backlash in the Armenian diaspora, especially from those in LA County, against the Black Lives Matter movement was triggered by exaggerated fears their property would be violated due to the riots in late May in Los Angeles. This wave of discontent reached a crescendo when an Armenian khachkar memorial in Denver, Colorado that was not deliberately targeted for being Armenian but rather for being at the State Capitol, was vandalized with graffiti that read, “Cops are evil,” during the protests that shook the nation. Many Armenians, by entirely disregarding the movement, its causes and participants, quickly conveyed their loathing for the protests they thought sanctioned property damage. It is unsurprising that LA County, a safe haven for a large Armenian community and first-generation Armenians who have escaped harsh economic conditions in their countries of origin, would adopt the libertarian principle that highly regards private property and individualism based on the “survival of the fittest” of vulgar social Darwinism.

“Each group,” writes Bairamian, “is responsible for its own well-being and Armenians must understand that they — and they only — are responsible as a group for Armenian affairs.” Curious minds might wonder whether Bairamian would apply the same logic to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide who were rescued by the League of Nations, individuals like Karen Jeppe, a relief worker in Aleppo during the Genocide, W.A. Kennedy and Emma Chushman in Istanbul, the countless Arabs who protected and fed orphans fleeing the death marches to Deir Ezzor in Syria and the deserts in Iraq, the French sailors that rescued roughly 4,100 Armenians trapped in Musa Dagh, and the countries that granted humanitarian aid and asylum to those who had danced with death during the execution of atrocious crimes against humanity, but survived.

Bairamian’s focus, however, is not the past despite the looming shadow of the Armenian Genocide in the current debates about the ongoing Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and the anti-Armenian sentiment it has fueled. Bairamian rather poses the question of why Armenians should care about others, when, according to him, others do not care about Armenians.

Despite all the generalizations Bairamian makes, he is, nonetheless, oddly specific about these “others” who have not come to the rescue of the Armenians: Barack Obama and black people. Bairamian conveniently fails to mention that neither has any other president before or after Obama or that Obama governed with a Republican Congress that tried to thwart most of the agenda coming out of the Oval Office. In continuing his cherry picking, Bairamian does not address the present efforts by Congressional leaders, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), and Rep. TJ Cox (D-CA), and Jackie Speier (D-CA) which resulted in the adoption of a key amendment for military activities of the Department of Defense requiring Congressional oversight of U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan, neither does Bairamian acknowledge the recent landmark that is the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the U.S. Congress.

Out of all the abstract claims Bairamian makes, the most astounding is the one on what ought to constitute morality for Armenians when it comes to human rights issues. An article which generously uses the terms “moral” and “moral imperative” fails to quote any moral philosophers in the process, making the reader wonder whether Bairamian is in the middle of concocting his own (a)moral philosophy or is simply airing his biased ruminations to be consumed by an audience that finds refuge in racist rhetoric couched under the headline, “Armenian Lives Matter.”

Bairamian scoffs at a pro-Black Lives Matter assertion by Razmig Sarkissian and Alik Ourfalian, “We should know that pain. Our ancestors felt that pain. We should empathize with that pain.” Bairamian asks, “Does such a moral imperative exist?” and his own response is, “Frankly, no.”

Adam Smith, an eighteenth-century moral philosopher, in the groundbreaking work on morality and ethics entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) writes about sympathy: “How are the unfortunate relieved when they have found out a person to whom they can communicate the cause of their sorrow” (Ch. II, “Of the Pleasure of mutual Sympathy”). Bairamian does not necessarily question the fact that one can sympathize with another and that pain can be communicable, but rather asks the question as to why we Armenians should sympathize with the pain of the other? The question of moral philosophy is why we as human beings should care for the other. From a young age, we cultivate our morality in order to be able to live in a civilized society. We know, for instance, that killing another is ethically wrong.

A subsection in Bairamian’s article, “Solidarity and its Discontents,” the title of which clearly alludes to the famous psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), is far from adopting Freud’s complex ideas on the tension between civilized society and instinct. In fact, Freud criticizes the distortion of Christ’s commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” which some people alter to, “Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee.” Freud goes on to deem such conditional “love” (i.e. I will feel pain for you if you feel pain for me) as an aggressive expression that he later terms, “‘Natural’ ethics,” which he states, “has nothing to offer here except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others.”

Bairamian’s appeal to Armenian exceptionalism is nothing other than “‘Natural’ ethics,” and his self-centered musings have nothing to do with moral philosophy. “Suffering injustice,” Bairamian states, “is not a choice and, thus, to say that because one experienced a misfortune involuntarily that he should be required or morally bound to support others who are suffering injustice is untenable.” The Australian philosopher of ethics, Peter Singer, would disagree. In his book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (2009), Singer introduces the “drowning child” hypothetical-moral exercise:

“Imagine you came across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes — in fact, most people think that would be monstrous. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!”

Armenians who have supported the Black Lives movement, have also, unequivocally, spoken and acted against Azerbaijani aggression. In fact, most of the journalists and activists Bairamian castigates in his article have organized and participated in protests against Azerbaijani aggression and are part of humanitarian organizations working to build a better Armenia. It is possible to care widely. Through his “drowning child” hypothetical, Singer, whose thought has been influenced by the Russian writer, F.M. Dostoevsky and his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov, is saying that given the opportunity, one must act according to moral conscience, for that is what ethics dictates. In fact, Bairamian’s claims to “new morality” have striking similarities to the theories of Dostoevsky’s anti-heroes (Ivan Karamazov, Rodion Raskolnikov, etc.) who cling onto the concept of “rational egoism” that was popular among the nineteenth-century nihilists. It is worth quoting from Dostoevsky’s monumental work in regards to Bairamian’s position: “There is only one means to salvation, take yourself and make yourself responsible for everybody’s actions [ . . . ] for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.”

Bairamian’s critique of “solidarity” and as he writes, “[N]umerous paeans to solidarity with blacks were produced in an amazingly short amount of time, emotional appeals resounded from social media, and scathing reproaches against Armenians who chose to not participate — or, audaciously, to disagree,” are fragments of a tirade which essentially suggest that Black lives should not matter until Armenian lives do.

I hate to be a downer, but moral philosophy disagrees.

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