Trigger Warnings are notices that a particular artistic work may contain material that some may find offensive. As Jennifer Medina explains in the New York Times (5.17.14):
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.
Feminists wanted to be sure that impressionable children were insulated from images that depict women as anything but heroic.
They wanted all artistic works with references to patriarchy, rape, social inferiority, pathological weakness, and male stereotypes of docility, complaisance, and subservience to be labeled appropriately: “WARNING! This text contains passages that may be offensive to women”.
This movement, of course, upset many in and out of academia. What should be done with The Rape of the Sabine Women or The Rape of the Lock? Should Titus Andronicus which depicts the rape and mutilation of Lavinia be labeled with a warning? What about Cymbeline, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and Troilus and Cressida where misogynist men rail on about women’s congenital treachery. Othello, remember, told those charging him with the murder of Desdemona that he had done them a favor. The perfidious woman would not be around to deceive them anymore. Or what about all the women in the Comedies who, despite their agility and wit, are forced to marry men far beneath them in intelligence and substance? Or the all-suffering wives of Julius Caesar, Richard II, and especially Lady Anne who is forced to marry the evil Richard III who has murdered her family?
The list of literary transgressions against women is endless. Women were indeed little more than reproductive chattel for centuries; rape, physical abuse, and mental cruelty were common. The best authors, Shakespeare especially, championed women while accurately depicting their inferior status. Tamora, Goneril, Regan, Dionyza, and Volumnia were his bloody heroines, beyond good and evil, rejecting male supremacy and authority.
So were Rosalind, Viola, and Beatrice who ran rings around the men in their lives. Margaret, Hamlet’s mother, is surely a feminist’s dream because she is her own woman and follows her sexual urges and political ambitions while her son dithers. Warning readers off Hamlet because of the Danish Prince’s abusive treatment of the innocent Ophelia would deprive them of Margaret. Warning readers against Pericles because Marina ends up as a slave in a brothel would deprive them of Dionyza’s absolute Nietzschean will.
Ivanov, the main character in Chekhov’s play of the same name is a callous, self-serving husband who abandons his dying wife for a younger, wealthier woman. Ivanov is Chekhov’s only foray into Nietzsche and Shakespeare country, and in the rest of his plays women are mature, strong, and resilient. A trigger warning on Ivanov would certainly put young readers off the rest of the playwright’s seminal works.
This is all bad enough, but the ‘progressive’ establishment asked why trigger warnings should stop at feminism; and why they should not cover all material that could be considered offensive. Any book that depicts slavery, war, genocide, inhumanity, animal cruelty, or wanton environmental destruction should be boldly and proudly labeled ‘UNFIT’. As in the case of woman-labeling, this is easier said than done. Huckleberry Finn would certainly get a XXX rating, although Twain’s characterization of Jim and the friendship between him and Tom and Huck reflects more humanity and civility than any treacle about post-racial harmony.
One of the main characters in The Sound and the Fury, Benjy, is severely retarded; and despite the fact that he has an almost preternatural sensibility to good and evil and senses the decline of the Compson family before any of them do, he is mutilated – castrated and neutered. A vulnerable member of a disadvantaged minority has been abused, and readers should be forewarned; but if they do not read The Sound and the Fury they will never get to appreciate Faulkner’s uncanny insights about family, perception, and humanity.
Trigger warnings are a form of historical revisionism at its worst; and ‘progressive’ attempts to insulate modern readers from the realities of the past is unalloyed ignorance. The greatest writers – Faulkner, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Chekhov among them – have dealt with war, venality, greed, brutality, jealousy, and aggression; but have drawn characters who think. War and Peace contains many disturbing images of battle and is by no means a pacifist tract. Wars are a matter of fact, concludes Tolstoy, and always will be brutal and savage; but his theories of the accretive nature of history – how Napoleon may well have lost the battle of Borodino not because he had a cold, but because of the social, cultural, and historical events which shaped him, his vision, and his strategies. Tolstoy muses that if in fact Napoleon committed strategic errors because he was feeling indisposed, then the loss at Borodino was at least the fault of his valet who had forgotten to give the Emperor a pair of dry boots.
Oberlin College, long a redoubt of Sixties liberalism and recondite post-modernism, has been among the most aggressive proponents of triggering:
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).
Oblivious of any irony or contradiction, the Oberlin activists went on to say that there is such a thing as good triggering – i.e., not only should we expunge all traces of demeaning material from library shelves, but we should restock them with politically acceptable books which will trigger positive thoughts and deeds:
“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.”
How did we become so sensitive and thin-skinned? Even a casual glance back through history will reveal unimaginable and horrific events that keep on happening. While there are unlikely to be any more Maos, Stalins, Pol Pots, and Genghis Khans, there is plenty of marauding, depredation, and slaughter to go around today.
Slavery of one sort or another has always existed and still does today. Multi-culturalism as a ‘progressive’ ideal is already tarnished as a model and from East to West societies are returning to separatism. Since the Paleolithic, people have always grouped together against The Other. There is safety and power in like-minded numbers. No matter how eager and spirited environmentalists may be over the issue of global warming, human beings will always act on the basis of national self-interest. No world leader is wrong or evil in his conservative energy policies. He is just following the dictates of realpolitik as it has been played out for a thousand years.
In other words, attempts to protect young students from historical determinism and to promote an idealistic and totally unrealistic view of social progress, are counter-productive at best. The more students are encouraged to live in a fantasy world, the less prepared they will be for the very harsh, insistent, and irreversible facts of history.