Thursday, May 22, 2014

Maybe this Post Should have a Trigger Warning...

Sunday morning-- well, afternoon, really, because who gets through the whole Sunday paper in the morning?-- I read this article in the New York Times about calls for "trigger warnings" on assigned literature in college classes.  


The way I understand it, students and some faculty members at colleges and universities across the country are lobbying their administrators for some kind of warning labels about content that could make some students uncomfortable.  My first question was, "what kind of pornographic, violent, or otherwise seriously offensive crap is required reading at these two-bit institutions?"  Then I read further and saw that there were references to books including The Great Gatsby, The Merchant of Venice, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some of the colleges named were Oberlin, Rutgers, and UC Santa Barbara.


Apparently there is some concern that students who have suffered trauma, such as rape, or the horrors of military service in a war zone, might be taken by surprise by violence or other elements in such books. Thus startled by literature, they might suffer symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.*  Trigger warnings would accompany texts which contained war, violence (especially against women), racist or sexist or antisemitic language, or other elements which could upset sensitized individuals.  While I sincerely believe that people do endure tremendous genuine trauma which may sensitize them for the rest of their lives, I can't agree with the notion of requiring literature to come with warning labels. 

I feel I can speak about this with some sense of what sensitized individuals must be going through, because I was the victim of repeated, life-threatening, domestic violence, which I narrowly escaped by sneaking out on one of the rare occasions while my ex-husband was at work. That was after secretly packing my children's clothes and toys in black garbage bags which were thrown over the side of  my second floor balcony to generous family members who were willing to help me get out.  Before I could file for divorce, I had to obtain a restraining order so that I could go in and out of my parents' house without encountering my screaming, crying, threatening, soon-to-be-ex.  I've also been the object of sexist and antisemitic language, including quite a lot by that husband. I hadn't ever considered myself traumatized by it, so I offer that only as a background fact to support my claim that this is a discussion I am qualified to take up.  I returned to my college studies after I left my abusive husband, so I could have found myself among those deemed potentially sensitive.  

Wow.  Just reread that.  Maybe what I'm really sensitive about is whether people will think I'm qualified to talk about something.  Maybe I'll take that up in another post.  Or with a qualified therapist...

All of that qualifying brings me back around to saying, emphatically, that the whole idea of lit with warning labels is something that's not only ridiculous, but in some sense, appalling.  I'm sorry, I thought that the purpose of literature was to touch human beings and affect them viscerally.  I thought the idea of studying literature was the opportunity to grapple with, discuss, interpret and deeply understand the human condition as it is presented on a page by writers who have done some of the same grappling and interpreting. Literature, in fact has been found to increase empathy in readers according to the study discussed in this NPR squib.  Though the study cites that the immediate effects are short-lived, the researchers conjecture that repeated literary reading will exercise "empathy muscles," and improve such social skills over the longer term. 

So, even if you ignore enjoyment and pedagogical value,  reading literature still has to be considered a good idea, even though it might trigger upset in some people. But really, what harm might come from requiring instructors to put warning labels on some books?  Well, it actually seems like kind of a lot, because once requirements starts, the nature of what might need a warning could grow exponentially.  If you think for a moment about all of the traumatic experiences people might have and all of the experiences portrayed in literature, you realize how gigantic the overlap is, and what a Pandora's box we might open if warnings are deemed necessary.  There's also a point raised by a professor quoted in the NYT article, who mentions the "chilling" effect such requirements might have on untenured faculty members who are concerned about how student complaints might impact their employment.  More and more classes are taught by adjunct, part-time and junior faculty than ever before, so this opens up the possibility that a number of important books will be effectively banned from the classroom because everyone is afraid to teach them.

One more thing.  And maybe this will make me sound mean and insensitive, but come on, how much can any of us expect to be warned about? Part of me wants to tell sensitized people to just suck it up.  I know that's wrong, but there is something about the call for trigger warnings that makes me think of it as an extension of the "helicopter parenting" which has become prominent in some socioeconomic groups in the last decade or so. There are parents who try to cushion every possible blow for their children, taking away their opportunities to deal with adversity and effectively impeding the kids' ability to handle life when the real shit hits the fan. 

David 3 Names 
And it will. Some way, somehow, because none of us entirely escapes adversity-- even if we are warned about it.  It looks like literature, at least literary fiction,  helps with this too, as noted so eloquently by David Foster Wallace: 

Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it finds a way both to depict this dark world and illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. (from Conversations with David Foster Wallace)

Wallace was no stranger to darkness within and without-- he ended up taking his own life-- but he was also a proponent and producer of literary fiction that opened up the world in the way he described.  Even if literature wasn't enough, in the end, he said it helped.  I believe that literature connects us to circumstances and to each other.  It seems that having to think too hard about what will upset some people might keep others from getting the help that literature gives us.  Losing that, even in the service of sensitivity, would be an incredible shame.  

*This is a summary-- the call for these warnings is much more nuanced on some campuses-- but here, I want to take up the general idea of these warnings, even though I know there are details I am eliding. Please read the Times article, and know that I read it too.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there! I'm Heather and I wanted to know if you would be willing to answer a question about your blog! If you could email me at Lifesabanquet1(at)gmail(dot)com that would be great!