When I attended college back in the 1400s, no one had time to protest whatever it was fashionable to protest at the time. But then again, there were no “studies” departments. No gender studies, no black studies, no queer studies, no feminist studies, no “studies” at all. We all just…studied. There were, to be sure, some professors of a rabidly leftist bent, but even they carried full course loads, and because I attended a small Midwestern college, a state supported school, they, rather than graduate students, tended to actually teach their classes. No one really had time to work up outrage about Israel, accuse every male in sight of rape, or complain about much of anything except the latest batch of homework. I guess we weren’t very trendy or sophisticated. We were in college for reasons having to do with being able to learn enough to support ourselves in the future.
But in the enlightened age in which we live, professors and students seem to have unlimited time to demand that nothing to which they might ever object be allowed to exist. More than that, there should be nothing that anyone might find the least bit annoying or uncomfortable. To that exalted end, students are now demanding “trigger” warnings for their classes lest the mere mention of, well, anything, might “trigger” hurt feelings.
Should students about to read ‘The Great Gatsby’ be forewarned about ‘a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,’ as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Things Fall Apart’ — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?
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.
Should we be surprised? We live in a society where the President of the United States is dedicated to turning America into a never-ending womb where everyone goes to college on the public dime, where children are on their parent’s insurance until they’re 27, where the loving embrace of government provides for every need. What’s the point of being a fully functioning adult?
Interestingly, some academics are fighting back, not necessarily to preserve academic integrity, but likely because they always fight any imposition on their absolute freedom to do as they please, and resent having to do actual work:
The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace. The warnings have been widely debated in intellectual circles and largely criticized in opinion magazines, newspaper editorials and academic email lists.
‘Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,’ said Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at the university here, who often uses graphic depictions of torture in her courses about war. ‘Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.
Today’s students are surprisingly fragile and must be protected from even imaginary threats or discomfiture:
Bailey Loverin, a sophomore at Santa Barbara, said the idea for campuswide trigger warnings came to her in February after a professor showed a graphic film depicting rape. She said that she herself had been a victim of sexual abuse, and that although she had not felt threatened by the film, she had approached the professor to suggest that students should have been warned.
She almost makes sense, until:
We’re not talking about someone turning away from something they don’t want to see,’ Ms. Loverin said in a recent interview. ‘People suddenly feel a very real threat to their safety — even if it is perceived. They are stuck in a classroom where they can’t get out, or if they do try to leave, it is suddenly going to be very public.
Imagine the horror: trapped in a classroom, unable to escape imaginary threats, or worse, people will actually see them leaving! When I went to college, we weren’t chained to our desks. I guess things really have changed.
The most vociferous criticism has focused on trigger warnings for materials that have an established place on syllabuses across the country. Among the suggestions for books that would benefit from trigger warnings are Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (addresses suicide).
And what are these exquisitely sensitive students demanding?
Here at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in March there was a confrontation when a group of anti-abortion protesters held up graphic pictures of aborted fetuses and a pregnant professor of feminist studies tried to destroy the posters, saying they triggered a sense of fear in her. After she was arrested on vandalism, battery and robbery charges, more than 1,000 students signed a petition of support for her, saying the university should impose greater restrictions on potentially trigger-inducing content. (So far, the faculty senate has promised to address the concerns raised by the petition and the student government but has not made any policy changes.)
Ah! Could there be a political component to this? Is there such a thing as a right never to be exposed to anything one might find annoying? Aren’t college teachers that attack teenagers and destroy their property annoying?
At Oberlin College in Ohio, a draft guide was circulated that would have asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabuses. The guide said they should flag anything that might ‘disrupt a student’s learning’ and ‘cause trauma,’ including anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair (or ableism).
‘Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, 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.’ For example, it said, while ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe — a novel set in colonial-era Nigeria — is a ‘triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,’ it could ‘trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.
By all means, take the link and read the entire NYT article. It’s truly amazing what some people allow to occupy their thoughts and efforts in this all-too-brief life.
Obviously, there are so many potential “triggers,” it would be virtually impossible to teach anything. It was only in this article that I discovered “cissexism,” something of which I must surely be guilty since I haven’t known to avoid it until now. But since I’m a white male and therefore highly privileged, I doubt I can be redeemed.
Let’s use Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (yes, that’s the actual title) as an example. There are few books more people—from the right and left—want to ban. Name the “ism,” and it can be found—or imagined—in this masterwork by Mark Twain, a book Earnest Hemingway said was the inspiration for all American literature that followed it. Considering he won the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for literature when such things actually said something about writing talent, one might reasonably take his word.
Leftists want to ban the book, foremost, because it often uses the word “nigger,” but many find “indian” objectionable too, so much so that a leftist professor published a revision of the book excising those words and replacing them with “slave,” which I’m certain would be a trigger. You just can’t win. I mean, wouldn’t former slaves be “triggered” by that? And what about people who had an unsatisfactory consensual S&M experience, or people who imagine they were slaves in a previous life? Talk about bad karma!
Some on the right want to ban the book because Huck often gets the better of adults, and there are several scenes they interpret as homosexual, such as when Jim says “c’mon down to the raft, Huck Honey,” or when Jim and Huck, floating down the Mississippi in the summer, are naked while washing their clothing—the only clothing they have—and bathing in the river. Just think of it: a little white boy and great big black man—nekkid! I don’t know about you, but my trigger is going full-auto at the thought.
There are, of course, far more complaints, from violence to, well, the number of potential triggers is unlimited in a book the length and depth of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If this is so, if the book is so offensive to so many, why bother to teach it? Teachers have enough targets on their backs without all those triggers being pulled.
I doubt there is any book that has done more to encourage more people to see blacks as human beings than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is in the top flight of anti-racist books ever written. Apart from Huck’s mild attraction to a young lady, there is nothing resembling sexuality in the book. And when Huck outsmarts adults, they deserve it, but everything Huck does always turns out for the best and is morally right. It’s a grand journey into human nature, which again, will certainly trip all manner of triggers, people being what they are and all…
It almost seems too easy to note the danger of imposing contemporary, transient political correctness on the masterworks of the past. How can we learn from the past, how can we avoid repeating its mistakes if the past must be sanitized to avoid giving the slightest offense to the most easily offended? If every hard-won lesson must be removed from literature, what remains?
I could go on, but the response to those feeble souls that require warnings lest life cause them the slightest fret is the most easily pulled trigger: grow up, move out of Mom’s basement and get a life.