Trigger-Warnings Undermine the Liberal Arts Mission
I RECALL IN THE LATE 80s I WAS TOLD THAT THE ENGLISH DEPARTENT OF WHICH I WAS PART MIGHT WANT TO REFREIN FROM TEACHING SHAKESPEARE’S THE MERCHANT OF VENICE BECAUSE OF ITS ANTI-SEMITIC CONTENT.
I OBJECTED, AS DID OTHERS.
THE CORRECT DECISION WAS TAKEN, ‘MERCHANT’ REMAINED.
IN LITERATURE, ANTI-SEMITISM, RACISM, MISOGYNY, AGE-ISM, ALL FORMS OF BIGOTRY, MAY BE COUNTERED BY GOOD TEACHING THAT TEACHES YOUNG PEOPLE HOW TO INTERROGATE A TEXT…INTERROGATE TEXTS ON THEIR OWN CULTURAL, LITERARY, HISTORICAL, TERMS, AND CONTEMPORARY ONES, EVEN ONES OPPOSED TO ONE ANOTHER.
Look at this piece from Michael Moynihan (in Politico). (I offer my take, below, and I welcome yours.)
Western Lit, shot to death by ‘trigger warnings’ American universities discourage reading of Ovid, Lolita and The Great Gatsby.
Boring… bien pensant …orthodox, correct-opinion in Europe has long maintained that low-brow American culture and schlock television — has done incalculable damage to highbrow European culture. And it has happened with the assent of the average European, who happily scarfs down a McRib, feet swaddled in Air Jordans, while queuing for the latest “Transformers” film.
But there is a more pernicious, destructive American cultural invasion, wholly immune from free market pressures. It was noticed in 1994 by a reporter for Reuters, who gravely reported that the scourge of political correctness, “an American import regarded by many Britons with the same distaste as an unpleasant virus, finally seems to be infecting British society.”
First it poisons the local universities, then within a generation, wends its way into the broader culture, wreaking havoc on the native intellectual ecosystem. It’s the most odious, implacable, and least remarked upon manifestation of American cultural imperialism.
And so here we are a generation after that Reuters report, with sensible Europeans now fretting over a mutated strain of that old ‘political correctness’ virus. Writing in the left-leaning magazine The New Statesman, British academic Pam Lowe worried that a new fad in American academia called the “trigger warning” would soon touch down in the UK, requiring professors to valiantly resist the boneheaded ideas of activist students. In his new book, “Trigger Warning,” British writer Mick Hume warns that trigger culture has already “spread across the Atlantic,” and supine European college administrators have given in faster than Marshal Pétain gave in to the Nazis in France.
The trigger warning allows psychologically damaged readers to opt out of an assignment, or at least steady a nervous hand while turning pages of a triggering book.
Trigger warning…a label on a work of literature, history, and memoir, designed to forewarn students that what they are about to read might upset them or “trigger” an episode of PTSD.
One particularly silly American college gave an example of how professors might warn readers that Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s celebrated post-colonial novel “Things Fall Apart” could send them into spirals of despair, explaining that “it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”
But last week witnessed a minor victory for the forces of common sense — and provided a glimmer of hope for Europe — when Columbia University, under pressure from its perennially aggrieved student body, ruled that it wouldn’t be affixing trigger warnings to classroom texts in the coming academic year.
Last year, multiple Columbia students objected to the inclusion of Ovid’s 1st century lyric poem “Metamorphoses” in a class devoted to classic Western literature, with one tallying that it contains “roughly 80 instances of assault.” All of them triggering.
Lest you think this is something promoted by silly students but resisted by clever professors, Columbia University last week conceded the point: “Metamorphoses,” that classic of Western literature, has been purged. No trigger warnings, sure…but no more Ovid. In its place, Columbia has selected Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel “Song Of Solomon,” which has frequently been the target of bans in the United States by prissy, anti-intellectual religious types, adding a touch of diversity to the Great Books canon.
But Morrison’s more famous novel “Beloved” was not chosen…because it’s full of vivid scenes of rape and racism that could be “emotionally problematic”.
Columbia apparently had considered adding “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece of Western literature, to the “Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy” course, though it, too, failed to make the final cut. Columbia wasn’t interested in traumatizing readers with the pedophilic effusions of Humbert Humbert, whose sexual compulsions are for a prepubescent girl whom he calls — trigger warning ! — the “light of his life, the fire of his loins.”
American and European intelligentsia used to ruthlessly mock this type of censoring masquerading as sensitivity. Because until the mainstreaming of political correctness, these anti-literary book-burners for the most part all inhabited the same side of the ideological divide — they were almost all religious conservatives.
I turned to the American Library Association’s 1995 list of banned books — literary works under attack by would-be censors and right-wing moral scolds — and noticed the inclusion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic “The Great Gatsby,” which was rejected from Baptist College in South Carolina because of “language and sexual references.”
Twenty years later, and with social conservatism on the decline, it’s still under attack — but by philistines on the other side.
Writing in the Rutgers University student paper, one particularly twitchy undergraduate suggested that professors plaster a trigger warning on “The Great Gatsby” — a book of “gory, abusive, and misogynistic violence”— that warned of the themes of “suicide,” “domestic abuse,” and “graphic violence”.
Allowing teenagers who know nothing of great literature the power to determine what should be taught as great literature seems .. .ill-considered.
Now that books are being vacated from syllabi and speakers blocked from campuses to protect students from some “ism” or another (racism, sexism, classism, able-ism, etc.) and the trauma of hearing dissenting opinions, the censors are getting a hearing that the religious never managed.
Last year Oberlin College caved to student demands for trigger warnings. And then in the face of widespread external ridicule, they backed off. But Oberlin is still eager to cosset and protect its students from the horrors of great books and controversial thoughts.
When the writer Christina Hoff Sommers appeared at Oberlin to debate the existence of “campus rape culture” (she’s a skeptic), students who disagreed with her were offered counseling in a “safe space.” A similar “safe space” was provided following a Hoff Sommers lecture at Georgetown University.
Likewise students at Brown University, who were exposed to two sides of a debate on the same topic, were offered a “safe space” equipped, according to an account in The New York Times, with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”
If a once-prestigious university like Columbia wants to hold itself hostage to the vicissitudes of Underdeveloped undergraduate minds, they are welcome to do so. But allowing teenagers who know nothing of great literature the power to determine what should be taught as great literature seems lunatic.
And when this Orwellian nonsense lands in the United Kingdom it will likely warn students off Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” (racism and anti-Semitism) and Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” (scenes of violent rape). Or a poem by that knuckle dragger Philip Larkin (racism, sexism, classism). Or that all-purpose hater V.S. Naipaul (you name it, he’s said something offensive about it).
So allow me to, just this once, encourage in my European comrades a healthy outburst of anti-Americanism: Reject this latest academic trend from the U.S. Refuse to plaster the great works of European literature with warning stickers.
And realize that the enemies of European civilization are not Hollywood moguls, Uber executives, and McDonald’s franchisees but the choleric, censorious American college student determined to undo the “Eurocentrism” of Western literature and make sure great books never again challenge readers or make them uncomfortable.
MY TAKE? I MUST AGREE. TRIGGER WARNINGS ARE 21ST CENTURY BOOK-BURNINGS. STUDENTS NOT EMOTIONALLY CAPABLE OF READING GREAT LITERATURE WITHOUT HAVING EVERY OTHER WORD BLACKED OUT…OR WITHOUT HAVING THE BOOK ITSELF MOTH-BALLED OR SHELF OF BOOKS SHELVED…SHOULD NOT BE AT UNIVERSITY.
AT THE VERY LEAST THEY’VE NO BUSINESS DICTATING CURRICULA.
IN LARGE MEASURE IT’S A CHEAP RUSE, AND UNIVERSITIES WHO KNUCKLE UNDER TO POLITICAL BLACKMAIL IN THE GUISE OF DEMANDS FOR EMOTIONAL SENSITIVITY…AND IN SO DOING SUBVERTING THE CORE MISSION OF A UIVERSITY…THE DEVELOPMENT OF KNOWLEDGE VIA FREE AND OPEN INQUIRY AND CRITIQUE…OUGHT TO DO THE DECENT THING…SHUT THE SCHOOL DOWN UNTIL SUCH TIME AS IT RE-ASSERTS EVERY GOOD SCHOOL’S MISSION.
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