Reading is not just about spelling and grammar, and understanding sentences. That is the most basic sense of literacy or the ability to read: understanding literal meaning of strings of characters. But reading is more complex and deeper than that; for one thing, it’s not just about words. All kinds of meaning-making practices are used by humans to communicate messages or arguments to other humans. An example I use with my rhetoric and composition to illustrate the rhetoric of clothing: imagine that you go to a church that is very casual. Everyone wears jeans, including the preacher. Now, imagine that a newcomer to your church comes every Sunday in a well-tailored suit, complete with jacket, tie, and dress shoes. What kind of argument is he trying to make? Some of my students immediately understand this man’s dress as rhetorical, and usually claim he is trying to argue that the current congregants at the church are not be respectful enough, or are not taking church and religion as seriously as he is.
Reading requires the ability not just to parse words, but to parse clothing choices, haircuts, makeup, posters, YouTube videos, movies and TV shows, decoration choices, music, logo designs, commercials, art, scientific studies, hand gestures, buttons and bumper stickers, ad nauseum. These are texts that require interpretation. They all have intended and unintended audiences, specific authors, and social contexts that need to be understood before they can be interpreted well.
And that’s what I mean when I say literacy is more complex and deeper than being able to read literal meanings. Reading that goes beyond literal meanings and takes into account the author and hir background, the context (social, cultural, national, economic, etc.) of the argument, the audience(s) intended and unintended, and medium of the text is what I’m going to call deep reading or deep literacy. My students performed a deep reading of the man in the suit at church. A shallow reader could tell you what the man is wearing, and maybe even what contexts you normally see those clothes in—business environments, church, weddings, funerals. But a shallow reader can’t interpret the argument that my students identified.
A pattern I’ve noticed is that people who do not have deep literacy are often people who devalue humanities and liberal arts educations. Which makes sense, because most high school humanities classes don’t teach this kind of reading, and the place most people first encounter it is their college-level humanities courses, although many of these courses assume you have these skills and don’t teach them explicitly. So if certain people don’t see value in the humanities, and they are not forced to take many classes in those fields, they will avoid them. They will devalue what they learn in them, or do their damnedest not to learn anything at all. There has been a lot of hostility towards the humanities lately, in part because of tight budgets, but also because of a culture shift that values knowledge only insofar as it makes money. Further, the classes that generally explicitly teach deep literacy (freshmen year rhetoric and composition classes) are often easy to test out of (without having the necessary deep reading skills) and are usually taught by graduate students who are underfunded and underprepared. As a graduate student who has taught this class, I’ve experienced my own incompetency in teaching this subject first-hand, and know that my university put me (like thousands of graduate students in hundreds of programs) in the classroom with very little preparation. And as humanities budgets are slashed, more and more of these classes will be taught by underpaid graduate students in larger and larger classes. The skill of deep reading will be lost for many people in the coming generations.
So that’s depressing.
What happens when you don’t have deep literacy? Well, for one thing, you come to completely erroneous conclusions about many of the things communicated to you. Let’s look at an example from the 40 Days for Life protests:
The abortion industry REALLY doesn’t like 40 Days for Life! Here’s what I mean. A mom and her three daughters were praying at the vigil when the abortionist angrily approached them, cursing at them and shouting, “You’re going to hell!”
The mother was astonished. When she was able to get a word in, she responded, “YOU’RE killing babies in there!”
“Yeah?” replied the abortionist. “AND I LOVE EVERY MINUTE OF IT!”
After that shocking display, she took her daughters into the nearby pregnancy resource center. This story takes the mask off “choice” and is a sobering reminder of the evil were [sic] are fighting in the abortion industry. Please keep praying!
The person writing this didn’t understand what was communicated to her. She interpreted the “abortionist” clinic worker’s claim that she loves killing babies as sincere, instead of as mockery. I don’t think that these kinds of misreadings are normally on purpose, because then they couldn’t be very convincing to a large audience. This author probably actually believes that this is an illustration of how heartless clinic workers who provide abortions are, and she expects her readers to misread the confrontation in the same way she did. There is a chance she is being willfully self-deceptive, but if she is, it’s a pretty bad way to convince other people.
What this author is missing is an ability to dissect the position of the clinic worker. The clinic worker doesn’t accept the rhetoric being used by the anti-choice protesters (“killing babies”), so her response that she loves doing so cannot be sincere. The anti-choice author seems unaware of how the rhetoric of her opposition works; she doesn’t know that the clinic worker is very unlikely to accept “killing babies” as a definition of what she does for a living, nor does she seem aware that pro-choice activists often enjoy shocking or offending anti-choice activists. She doesn’t know anything about the pro-choice movement, so her conclusions about why the pro-choice family planning clinics hate 40 Days for Life (hint: it’s because it results in the intimidation and harassment of clients) is that pro-choicers are evil. She reads “I LOVE EVERY MINUTE OF IT” as a straight-up declaration of the love of murder, rather than a mocking statement intended to show how ridiculous the rhetoric of anti-choicers is.
You can’t interpret argument without context. If you don’t know anything about where a person comes from, you generally can’t accurately identify the arguments they are making. If you don’t understand the general context of a statement (in this example, why an abortion-provider would be angry or irritated with 40 Days protesters), then you will misread. In this case, the misreading will seem ridiculous to many of my readers, since you are all mostly pro-choice, so you are familiar with the context here. But we can just as easily misread the arguments made by conservatives, though I would argue more progressives (especially progressive writers and analysts) have more deep literacy, because they tend to value and thus benefit from humanities educations.
Deep literacy is a skill that has to be taught and practiced. And it requires us to do our research, understand the rhetorical strategies and tendencies of communities and authors, and be aggressively contextual in our interpretations of texts. And it is vitally, enormously, excessively important if we ever want to be able to have dialogue and communication between the combatant sides of the culture wars. And even if we don’t want dialogue with a group, we can never communicate without both sides have these literacy skills. Hell, this clinic worker didn’t want a real dialogue with these protesters (and I don’t blame her), but she couldn’t even communicate fuck you to them, which is pretty astonishing.