How do Readers Read?

Hi Everyone
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?

88 thoughts on “How do Readers Read?

  1. Brandon Langton says:

    Haidt’s was really the first book I’ve read in this style. after the first few dozen pages I was able to understand his writing incredibly clearly. Clearer than anything I’ve read for a class before. metaphors are a simple way to take something complicated and make them… simple. At that point I found it was easy to write my own sort of metaphors that I could relate to my life.

    • Sabrina Pinto says:

      I personally did not enjoy reading this book. I understood though that the focus of this book was on the morals of people, but it did not grab me much as a reader.
      This book though can be very interesting for certain people and it may change them as a person or how they may think.

  2. Kelsey Sullivan says:

    I could not recommend this book to anyone, maybe my dad, but that’s only because he likes weird books with unrelatable facts for this generation. This books seems to mature and seems to go on and on about the same issues. I know the whole point of the book was to discuss morals and to question what’s right and wrong, but did Haidit really need to drag it on? Personally, i would never read this book again, nor would i recommend it to anyone. Though i did find some of his creative situations very funny.

    • zandalee mcfarlane says:

      I understand where you’re coming from but its not that bad the book will do great for someone who needs self growth. This book can probably change someones life while the next person it doesn’t do anything for them, so it just depends on whom is reading the book. Also you have to be into philosophical readings to enjoy this better.

  3. Roberto says:

    I personally dislike book like these as I’m more an avid reader of fiction. I read to enjoy the story and that’s why I have trouble with nonfiction.

  4. Mackenzie Bernard says:

    I believe that Haidt did a really good job relating the book to the American reader. To others, I agree that it is very vague and not as shed upon as the American examples. There are multiple people intended for the read. But more so Americans. I honestly wouldn’t pick up this book in a bookstore to read. It is very hard to explain how the mind is morally good, but Haidt did a pretty good job at that. If I was not the intended for me my thoughts would of been different. I mean, it focuses on American customs and examples, but that is what Haidt is familiar with. If he were from India, or somewhere down in South America, the Americans would most likely not be the intended reader. I believe it focuses well on the differences that we have with other cultures.

  5. Richie Isom says:

    Haidt’s writing is directed to people who can relate his words to themselves. To read the book and understand it’s components, you must not read the book for mere pleasure. Expanding your mind is necessary to grasp values the author tries to portray. I didn’t focus too much on Haidt’s political or religious leanings, but more-so why it’s so difficult to talk about the two subjects together… in public. I know it’s uncomfortable for myself because I don’t like to encounter conflict, so the only way to avoid it is to not talk abut it. It should be socially acceptable to be able to talk about any subject without someone getting offended. At the end of the day, I don’t feel as if I am a particular target for this book just because I’m a pretty open person– I rarely get offended. This book explains why people disagree and have varying views on two of the most controversial subjects. However, If the book had addressed ways in which others could communicate without getting defensive, then communication would’ve been set as tool that the readers could build skill around; a skill to understanding and communication.

  6. Corina Delerme says:

    Haidt has some good points to support his arguments, however I think this novel try’s very hard to be right at all times, which makes it extremely difficult for me to read personally. Instead of allowing the readers to form their own opinions, it makes one feel that he/she has no choice but to accept his ideas. Some of his metaphors, I feel just aren’t as accurate as the novel try’s to make it be. Overall, it’s a good book if you don’t want to argue with it.

  7. Ariel Eloi says:

    Based on the context within the novel “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt, where two common social conventions are discussed, most readers such as myself find difficulty finding things common within the text because of the modern views that most individuals have with this era whereas others in other generations and eras would find this text more relateable do to their theocratic ways where religion and politics were intertwined.

  8. Allison Burke says:

    Haidt does a good job addressing such a sensitive and broad topic in the way that he does. From the start he goes into writing the novel with a very open mind. He also forms opinions right in the beginning of the book allowing readers to get an idea on his point of view. Forming these opinions definitely helps readers like us students because we’re at an age where some of us know where we stand in the world of religion and politics and some of us don’t. He allows us to get a sense of the different views and opinions on such a complex topic. His opinions are easy to accept and respect.

  9. Hayley D'Auteuil says:

    When reading The Righteous mind you must be very open minded. some of the metaphors in this book can be offensive to some, if you begin reading this book with your own morality views embedded into you head it would be hard to understand. I believe that the Haidt does a good job of portraying morality from different cultural standpoints. Although at certain points in this Novel I felt that Haidt was one sided, and wanted to make it seem as if his way of thinking was the right way. The Righteous Mind is a book that could spark controversy and, unless you are open minded and understanding of other views of morality the book would be hard to understand.

  10. Makenzie Reynolds says:

    I believe readers read searching for something they can relate to and Haidt made that difficult because I felt he was so determined for the readers to agree with his opinion. If you agree with Haidt’s opinions to begin with, then the book could be an enjoyable read, but for anyone who found it difficult to relate with Haidt probably had a harder time reading/enjoying the book.

  11. Jerry Laakso says:

    In my opinion Haidt’s book was repeating itself a lot. The book did have very good points about morality and the metaphors made them pretty easy to understand. I agreed with Haidt most of the time and I found the book somewhat educational but if you ask me, Haidt did go on with the same issues again and again and the book could have been a lot shorter and still having the same message in it.

  12. Keegan DeVoy says:

    I felt Haidt just rambled on till the in sum sections, but personally i’m not a fan of psychology, I like to build a story off the rest of original, I mean I would recommend it to some one interested in the topic or use the information I gained from the book

  13. John Roche says:

    I like ike many others really enjoyed this book. Personally I am not the reading type, I just find it tedious and boring. However, this book really entranced me for the style and way Haidt wrote his ideas and beliefs. It was done in such a simple style yet the words had such depth. The main aspect of his work that led me to this conclusion was his use of metaphors to help people grasp his concepts and truly grasp what he trying to say. It allowed the reader as well as me to understand his ideas.

  14. Tyler Hemingway says:

    I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in psychology or someone who needs a bit of self growth. I would not have picked it for a class assignment. However, I do understand that this book was picked to try to get the incoming freshman comfortable with a different style of writing.

  15. Anwar Sabir says:

    I believe intended this book to be for people who are open minded and ready to think about the world through a different lens. Also people who are interested in psychology because Haidt does refer to many different leaders in the study of psychology also he reveals his own views and beliefs of the subject.

  16. Nicanor Sanderson says:

    Although the “The Righteous Mind” was not the most accessible book, it serves it’s purpose in moral psychology. It gives multiple perspectives on what can be defined as morality and how we develop it. I believe this book will remain a milestone in mortality for years to come.

  17. Reid Garrant says:

    As a fairly open minded reader I can honestly say that this book was not for me. I have interests in all the things that the book touches upon such as the moral dilemmas we are faced with, However, I found to be very dry and hard to read. I found myself forcing the concepts Haidt was trying to deliver into my head.

  18. Dashaya Toney says:

    I appreciate and respect Haidt’s opinions and conclusions, but I don’t agree with the hypocritical way he writes a book about appreciating others’ viewpoints while forcing his on the readers.

  19. Mariam Khanani says:

    Reading this book was quite a different style of writing for me. I enjoyed the book at some parts and the other parts were not so interesting. I found the rider and elephant metaphor most appealing. It had great reasoning behind the metaphor and I loved reading the Elephant Rule chapter. It held really interesting rules that got me thinking and exploring different aspects about life.

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