Monday, May 26, 2014

Trigger Warning: This Blog Post May Cause Some Pansies to Whine

In grad school I took a class in "The Teaching of Literature."  It was a fine course, the only problem with it was that the professor was obsessed with racism. It should have been called "Teaching Racism in Literature" because that was her only concern, it seemed. One of our assignments was designing a lecture and teaching a class on a work of literature. My work was Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness which I chose because I was interested in narrative structure, particularly in works of literature that had an unreliable narrator. I was planning on writing my graduate thesis on the subject so every class I took, I tried to work that into my projects. I did my lecture, about a half hour, and got some great feedback from my fellow students. The only feedback I got from the professor was that I "didn't mention racism." This was maddening of course because, I do agree that racism is an important subject in colonial literature like The Heart of Darkness, but it is not the only aspect of the book. If you talk about the narrative structure for a half hour, you could easily not bring up racism. This story has become my anecdotal reason for the problem with American liberal arts education ... the American left are really fucking it up.

It is becoming more and more difficult to be left wing in America. I am left wing, aka a liberal, meaning that I do believe in the ideals of being liberal, but I am not so sure anymore about the movement. People who call themselves liberal are getting more and more annoying ... and some of them ... seem outright insane. The eyes are not only not on the prize but have turned inward. The self-righteous a-hole has replaced the selfless hippie as the poster child of the left. Protests are cliques. Discourse has become therapy. Education is becoming a politically correct circle jerk. I used to be proud to say that I was on the Left.  I am still proud, I cling to the ideas, but not so much to the movement. The latest madness: trigger warnings.

Triggers warnings are statements that some professors are being asked to put on syllabi on certain works of literature and/or film warning students of their content. An example would be a warning that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains racism or that The Great Gatsby contains domestic violence. Apparently, this started to accommodate students with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Stressful events in books and films can trigger trauma in the victims of PTSD. But I would think that if you had PTSD and you were attending a college course, shouldn't you go in prepared that perhaps everything you read or view could contain a trigger? If the trigger warnings stopped with PTSD, it wouldn't be so absurd, but being extended much further. 

The first problem I have with this is that knowledge comes from being challenged. You go into college believing the world to be a certain way and you are challenged to think something else. You shouldn't be prepared or warned for this challenge. You should be knocked over the head with it. College is the place where the world should be in your face challenging your every fiber of belief.  If it makes you cry or scream so be it, you are young, you will get over it. Students at Oberlin College, University of California (Santa Barbara), University of Michigan, Rutgers University and George Washington University among others have asked for trigger warnings to be put on syllabi. When I was in college we asked our colleges for really stupid things too. It was a great learning experience to be told NO. College is a great place to mature. 

This brings me to my second point, what kind of pansies are we bringing up in this country? Huckleberry Finn was read by slaves. That's right some of them could read! Their victimhood (violence, rape, racism etc.) is far greater than any of us had to face. Mark Twain toured the country with other abolitionists reading his work. Former slaves attended these readings. If they didn't need a warning, you shouldn't either.  Regardless of how traumatic your experiences have been, it pales in comparison to these people. The first step to higher learning ... get over yourself.

My third point is where I really lose patience with the left. Labeling anything, however well intentioned and innocuous is censorship, even if you are doing so only on a syllabus. You are changing the perception of the reader. If you label The Merchant of Venice with a warning of anti-Semitism, the reader is going to read it differently than if you didn't see that label. In doing so, you are altering the experience of the reading, tainting the discourse and worst of all, destroying the text. You are putting your perceptions of the text over the readers. If I am warned that Mrs. Dalloway contains a suicide, I am going to reading it expecting suicide on every page. You might as well rename trigger warnings, spoiler alerts. A trigger warning ruins this book for all the readers, just in case, there is someone in the class that was traumatized by suicide. The left is usually against censorship, unless it is the left that is censoring, then they are fine with it. Actually, they are gleeful in their righteousness.  Stamp an R on that movie, stamp an M on that video game ... the left know better than you do on what you and your kids can be exposed to. This is what the left spends their time on. You really have to wonder how the left will respond when a right winger comes along and demands a warning on a Leaves of Grass because of their homo-phobia or on Things Fall Apart because of their xenophobia. No, that isn't allowed. Censorship is only allowed when the left does it!

Where does this lead? Warnings on syllabi surely will lead to warnings on books. The pansies will graduate and wander into a bookstore with their new expendable income. They might buy a book that has sexism in it and they weren't warned about it (insert dramatic music here). Bookstores, Amazon and libraries will have warnings on books. Once there is a rating system on books, then publishers will publish for the rating. Presently Hollywood test screens films and will often send them back to the director saying they need more sex to get the R rating or remove a word or two to get the PG13 rating. Is this where publishing is going? 

I am grateful that most professors are fighting this.This is where the strength of tenured positions come in. Young untenured professors are afraid to fight this because they fear retaliation. Freedom to pick and chose what is in your course and how to approach the subject, should be in the teachers hands ... not the students. If you fear being challenged as a college student, perhaps college is not the right place for you. If you can't handle Huck's racism, you are probably not ready for the workforce and world outside your campus.

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