I am Gohar and I teach composition, literature, and film. My primary goal in the classroom is critical analysis by examining a text as an object of study while keeping in mind its contexts of production and reception.
Haidt’s examples kept making me think of the TV show Dexter and I kept wanting to apply what he was saying to the show but for now I am going to curb my impulse and focus on reflecting on readers of a text and on ourselves as readers.
So, how about we think about the readers to whom Haidt is writing as well as HOW he writes in order to persuade them about his argument. I (as a self-conscious reader) approached it in two ways and I would want to know your thoughts about your reading experiences as well.
I. I will use myself as an example of ‘a’ reader. I grew up in India but have been living in the US for more than a decade now so I thought I would be able to relate to the book. But, as I started reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, I immediately realized that I am not the target reader for this book. The reason for that, however, is more than the given intention of the book where Haidt is clearly invested in US political leanings towards the left or the right. I relate to the book quite differently than, say, a proponent of American liberalism or someone who is affiliated with the conservative party in the US. My distanced point of view provides me with a critical approach that is perhaps different from each of you. Or perhaps you see overlaps where you also relate differently.
For example, when Haidt uses the example of an experiment done in Orissa to talk about moral and social conventions, he gives the example of a widow eating fish. Asking the same questions from American children elicits responses of reason whereas the children in Orissa all agree that it is morally bad. At one level, this is just one more international example in a line of many that Haidt provides to prove culturally constructed values. At another level, this construction of Orissa as the place where children see nothing wrong in women being punished ends up constructing America and the West in a certain favorable light. His examples of non-Western cultures seem to come up as ‘others’ from which the American readers learn about cultural differences. So my point of entry into the text was particularly of not being able to relate even though I did immediately pick up on the example from India. I wondered why he did not analyze that more to provide the wider diverse cultural context instead of letting one example stand for the state and the country. Perhaps I was overthinking it. Still, the point remains that I engaged with it at the level of critical thinking by focusing on what was not there because I could not relate.
Your experiences might be completely different so I am interetsed in knowing how you relate or do not relate to this text as readers? Who would you think Haidt is addressing in his book? Are there multiple intended readers for his book? We all know that the author tries to speak to as many kinds of groups in his or her work there might still be some core groups towards whom it might be pitched. Would you have picked this book up in a bookstore to read? If you were not its intended reader, would you relate to it differently? Different readers will occupy different positions vis-à-vis a text. You may want to find your points of entry, be they certain examples Haidt uses or his metaphors or the theories he analyzes to develop his arguments and convince you (his readers) about trusting in his conclusions. So how do you place yourself as a reader of this book? Feel free to engage with any or all of these questions and feel free to use these as a guide and add more here. Your critical analysis of the experience would be an added plus!
II. And then there is another level of thinking about ourselves as critical readers. Haidt does what any good writer does – he provides proof (through data or interviews) and then analyzes that to reach his conclusions. I will give an extensive example here.
He titles his second chapter “The Intuitive Dog and His Rational Tail” as a metaphor for his argument, which is that moral reasoning is “mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made” (47). The funny, quite memorable, image of the intuitive dog and his rational tail sets up a progression where intuition leads and rationality follows. The experiment used a story about incest where subjects were asked if it was wrong for a brother and his sister to have sex if they were adults and had used protection to avoid any possible chances of conception. Haidt then lists the answers of one particular subject as an example of how people try to find reason to justify their gut instinctual response. He then uses these answers as further proof that even if the subject cannot find a rational reason for their moral outrage, they will not change their answer. The subject in this case was looking for a reason. He/she mentioned the danger of a deformed kid in case the girl got pregnant. When the interviewer debunks that by saying that the couple used protection, the subject asks a question about their age and finds out that age cannot really be used as a reason because both are adults. The subject is frustrated because he/she cannot explain rationally why incest is wrong but the absence of a reason does not make his/her abandon his/her belief. So they come back to the same question of why it is wrong. Here is an extract from the end of interview after the subject ran out of logical reasons:
EXPERIMENTER: Was it wrong for them to have sex?
SUBJECT: Yeah, I think it’s wrong.
EXPERIMENTER: And I’m trying to find out why, what you think is wrong with it.
SUBJECT: I don’t know, I just…it’s not something you’re brought up to do. It’s just not—well, I mean I wasn’t. I assume most people aren’t [laughs]. I just think that you shouldn’t—I don’t—I guess my reason is, um…just that, um…you’re not brought up to it. You don’t see it. It’s not, um—I don’t think it’s accepted. That is pretty much it.
EXPERIMENTER: You wouldn’t say anything you’re not brought up to see is wrong, would you? For example, if you’re not brought up to see women working outside the home, would you say that makes it wrong for women to work? (47)
Haidt analyzes this example to prove that:
a. the subject had no reasons for his/her response and that their response was that of immediate judgment, a result of instinct or gut feeling,
b. the subject kept trying to find reasons to justify his/her instinctual moral response that incest was wrong,
Would you agree with Haidt? Would you disagree with him maybe partially? I think he does have a point. This is not one example he has used but one among many interviews that yielded similar results. The subject certainly seemed to be at a loss for words and kept trying to find reasons to convince Haidt why his response is the correct one.
But I am also interested in seeing how we can push his analysis further.
When the subject says, “I was brought up to it” as a response, does that need more scrutiny? What If we think of being “brought up to it” as not just an effect of what family or parents teach but everything that surrounds us and shapes our thinking (school, family, friends, TV, social media, etc.). Can our morality and disgust be shaped by cultural conditioning?
And then, what about the comparison of incest with allowing women to work outside the home? In some ways the comparison does its job. It is meant to convince the readers that simply being “brought up to” certain ways of thinking is not enough. But then Haidt uses an example that the subject already knows is wrong. Would the subject have responded the same way had Haidt used a different example? Or would the subject have responded differently if he/she could actually imagine living in a world that believed that women should not be allowed to work outside the home? I mean, we don’t have to go very far in history to know about women’s movements and their fight for equality, for work, for equal wages, etc…. Right?
And let’s go back to the example we started with. The study done in Orissa revealed that children there thought it was acceptable for a man to beat up his wife because she defied him (and I know for a fact that this is not true for the whole country or even the whole of Orissa but just the small community in which these children were raised – perhaps not all of that either). But still, doesn’t that example sort of suggest that yes, moral instincts can be learned…?
These are just some thoughts that model a certain kinf of critical approach. What do you think about Haidt’s examples and his conclusions? As a reader, how do you relate to Haidt’s book? Haidt uses several intriguing examples and metaphors, which he then analyzes. Which ones convince you or persuade you to agree with him? Where are the points of disagreement? Why do you agree or disagree?