Monday, June 02, 2014

Trigger Warning: this blog post may offend someone

I am, apparently, not the sensitive type.

When I read “The Great Gatsby,” I wasn’t bothered by “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.” I just got caught up in the beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing.

When I read “The Merchant of Venice,” I recognized that Shylock was a stereotype of a Jew, but, frankly, I was more focused on Portia. Hey, a woman who actually did something. And I recognized that Shakespeare was writing 400 years earlier, and that a portrayal that might have been okay in the 1500’s wouldn’t fly in the twentieth century.

When I read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, I knew that it was a period piece, and that decent people no longer used the “N word.”

But the world these days is a more sensitive place,

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools. (Source: NY Times)

Maybe it’s because I have nothing to be post-traumatically stressed about that I am somewhat bothered by this trend.

We’re not talking about porn here. We’re talking about literature, history, cinema, art.

And we’re not talking about kindergartners, either. We’re talking about college students.

If someone is too fragile to be reading about things that are disturbing, then maybe they should be studying something less fraught, like computer science or physics.

There probably aren’t many things in “the canon” that wouldn’t set someone off.

“Of Mice and Men”: clichéd portrayal of the mentally challenged.

“Jane Eyre”: hideous treatment of Mr. Rochester’s insane wife.

“Ethan Frome”: love as a suicide pact. This is romance?

“Moby Dick”: what would PETA say?

“The Glass Menagerie”: Laura is a cripple. Can we even say that any more?

Let’s face it, literature devoid of sex, violence, good people doing bad things, bad people doing bad things, crazy people, archetypes, stereotypes, loss, betrayal, evil, villainy, etc. would be pretty Bobbsey Twin-ny, and not much worth reading.

Read Margaret Atwood’s dystopic Oryx and Crake novels if you want to see what “people” would be like if they were manufactured to be perfectly nicey-nice.

And how can one approach history without being open to learning about all sorts of bad stuff?

Sure, some of history is fun – who hasn’t had a bit of a chuckle about, say, Edward VIII abdicating the throne for Wallis Simpson – but most of it is violence. And while we may want to pretty that violence up, and couch it in all sort of glory, if we’re going to study it, we maybe should know about the gouged out eyes and blown off limbs.

I guess I can draw a distinction between reading something, and being shown a gruesome film in class. But even then, can’t you just do what I do when some bit of nastiness I don’t want to see comes on the screen: just close your eyes?

I realize that academic life is different than “real life”, in which you’re not required to finish the book or watch the movie.

The most “triggering” thing I ever read was an article in The New Yorker on Philippe Petit, the high wire walker who once took his act to the World Trade towers. Just starting to read the article triggered a complete and utter anxiety attack, and I had to put the article down.

What if that article had been required reading?

Would I have forced my way through to the end, or told the professor that I just couldn’t hack it?

I don’t know.

Oberlin College drafted (but has tabled enacting for now) guidelines:

… that would have asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabuses.

“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [transgender], ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the guide said. “Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.”

Classism, eh? Does this mean that we can’t have a poor character who’s evil, and a rich character who’s good?

What happened to characters just representing themselves, and not standing in for their entire demographic?  An individual Irishman, can, after all, be a drunk.

I don’t want to be unsympathetic to people who have been traumatized by events in their life, but doesn’t studying literature and history and psychology and sociology and everything else that’s not a hard science provide the opportunity to get it all out there, to put things – ideas, experiences, perceptions, feelings – on the table in a safe environment?

I can’t see trigger warnings having anything other than a chilling effect on campus.

There’s always something that’s going to offend someone. One man’s innocuous is another man’s freakout. (I suppose that was sexist: make that one person’s innocuous is another person’s freakout.) Where does it all end?

I think it’s okay to expect college students to look out for themselves. If they really don’t think they can hack a course, well, let them work it out with the instructor, or take something else.  And, please, if there are things in your life that have been so traumatic, please get the mental health care you need.


Frank Orren said...
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Frank Orren said...

I'm glad I've found a post about this subject. Trigger warnings are good for some things sure, but putting a label literature just feels...wrong to me. Plus, at a certain point, labels would have to be as long as about half of the read itself, considering if we start marking down what might offend people. What if the publishers leave something out? What if an unsuspecting, recovering agoraphobic cracks up a piece of classic literature and didn’t know that half of the book takes place in the forest? Or something like that. Obviously that’s an extreme example, but you see what I mean. Would that same agoraphobic then be entitled to a lawsuit of some sort? If we start doing this, where does the line get drawn?