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Student organizations at many liberal U.S. universities have demanded that English departments start putting warnings on canonical works of literature, as long as students have to read them as part of a syllabus. (Jetta Productions/Getty Images)
Student organizations at many liberal U.S. universities have demanded that English departments start putting warnings on canonical works of literature, as long as students have to read them as part of a syllabus. (Jetta Productions/Getty Images)

The literature backlash of trigger warnings requires simple human decency Add to ...

The discussions of trigger warnings that I have been reading on newspaper forums and in social media should come with their own trigger warning: Inflammatory language will burst out in the first few exchanges; “You are a bunch of white guys” is never far below the surface of this debate, and after that, it’s Stalinist this and feminazi that. This is a larger ideological debate. And why not? Are we not living through a time – since the banking debacle and the fizzling of Occupy – of necessary ideological reconsideration?

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Here’s some background on the trigger-warning dispute. For some years, it has been common in therapeutic circles, particularly in group-therapy sessions for trauma of one kind or another, to believe in “triggers”: reminders that might cause an instant reliving of one’s trauma. A trigger could be anything; it could be the smell of strawberry ice cream. It became common for leaders of therapy sessions to warn of potentially disturbing discussions beforehand, so that the most fragile of the participants could choose to avoid them.

The idea spread to all discussions, though, therapy-based or theoretical. And the concept of trauma has expanded massively, too. In current left-wing thinking, trauma is a welcoming, big tent. It does not necessarily refer to the personal experience of violence. It could refer to historical trauma inflicted on a group. One could be suffering from trauma by association or metaphor.

The issue has come to a head since student organizations at many liberal U.S. universities (the University of California in Santa Barbara, Oberlin, Rutgers, and others) have demanded that English departments start putting warnings on canonical works of literature, as long as students have to read them as part of a syllabus. The books include Mrs Dalloway (talk of suicide), Things Fall Apart (colonialism), The Great Gatsby (domestic violence) and The Merchant of Venice (racism).

The backlash against this idea has been louder than the movement itself. English profs from all over the world are lining up to denounce the students’ strict ideological orthodoxies, their hypersensitivity, their general weakness. Literature is about troubling things, they say, and if you can’t face them, don’t study literature.

Formal trigger warnings in literature are indeed a silly idea: Any good book is going to deal with troubling issues and situations. That’s why we have books. But the gleefully mocking reaction to this student movement, I think, misses the point.

The desire for trigger warnings does not address any practical problem. It is symbolic. Symbolic of an attitude and a set of beliefs. Symbolic of a desire for generalized change. It should be seen against a backdrop of a number of similar campus battles across North America – particularly the commencement-speaker protests that have rattled a few liberal establishments lately. Here, student bodies have organized protests against visiting graduation-day speakers or honorary PhD recipients who hold ideas they disagree with. (Targets recently included Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund; and Robert Birgenau, former head of University of Toronto, and also of Berkeley, where he annoyed Occupy protesters.) This, too, has provoked much sputtering about freedom of speech and overly arrogant kids these days.

Radicalization and polarization happen for a reason. There is a climate of anger among educated young people, and that anger often expresses itself as inflexible positions that are not reasonable or useful. The Occupy movement was a similarly inarticulate expression of dissatisfaction that the devastating banking crisis led to no significant reform of the economic system. Six years after the crash of 2008, nothing has changed. Student radicalization therefore develops apace.

It is a little scary that Marxist language among graduate students and cultural bloggers alike is again back in vogue. Whenever you see the phrase “late capitalism,” for example, you are in the presence of Marxian thought, whether its user knows it or not, and everyone I know is using it. You can roll your eyes at the naiveté of this. Or you can wonder what problem is pushing young people into extremism.

The demands of left-wing students are a reflection of their unhappiness. They are unhappy not just about their economic prospects. They are unhappy that their fixation with inclusiveness and diversity – not in itself an unhealthy preoccupation – has not seen much concrete manifestation in their universities’ administrations or in the corporate world they are expected to graduate into. They are unhappy that there still are literary canons – some of them are probably unhappy that they still have to study The Great Gatsby and Mrs Dalloway at all.

You may want to argue with these students, but at least do that, rather than dismissing their argument out of hand. Let’s not forget that there have actually been some grounds, even recently, for encouraging a greater empathy in the teaching of literary classics in diverse classrooms. If you are going to teach Huckleberry Finn to a classroom of black students – to choose just the most explosive example from the last 10 years – you are going to have to think very carefully about how the language in it is going to make them feel. You just can’t teach it in the same lighthearted way you would have when your university classroom contained only privileged white kids. This is just common sense.

And in fact it’s a common sense that every teacher intuitively feels. There’s actually nothing very new or radical about informal trigger warnings. Every teacher of literature has at least one student sitting in a head scarf or more conservative religious gear who may or may not be uncomfortable talking about the sex scenes. To be sensitive to such a person is simple decency. It has actually always been a part of teaching. And if you have a class made up mostly of women – as most literature classes now are – you are going to think very hard about whether to teach the story with the rape scene and how you are going to discuss it. This is not political correctness run amok. It’s just humanity.

 

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