Monday, May 19, 2014

Hair On Fire

Well, it was a terrific weekend. The sun shined. The Milwaukee contingent arrived for an all too brief weekend visit. My shabbos dinner table was full, shul was a veritable senior son fest as so many people stopped him at the kiddush table it took them forever to get lunch. And brunch on Sunday was a great way to spend a few minutes lingering over bagels and lox before they headed back to Cheeseland. We don't get enough weekends like that. There are usually gigs involved and if there are gigs involved the whole band is here. I love when they arrive en masse and I love going to the gigs. But every once in a while it's particularly nice to have just the family around the table.  

So I was feeling all mushy and ready to write a charming little blog about the vagaries of spring and families....and then I caught this little article from Saturday's NY Times on line edition: Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm. It was all I could do not to set my hair on fire. If I'd have had a real paper in my hands, I would have flung it across the room.

Seems that there's a movement afoot to put 'warning labels' on literature. 
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.
Are these people joking?  Apparently not:
Bailey Loverin, a sophomore at Santa Barbara, said the idea for campus wide 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.
I understand the rating system for movies and even the labeling of music for explicit content. Hell, there was a little incident with a certain GREEN DAY cd, the junior son, and Best Buy because of the explicit nature of the lyrics. But where does one draw the line...and does it have to be drawn?

Part of being a parent is knowing when to let go, when to stop putting yourself, your tastes, and your sensibilities between your kids and the outside world.  You cannot shield up-and-coming adults from the world and expect them to be able to handle grown-up life. No matter how nice the intention, that "trigger warning system" is going to be used as an excuse to not read. It's a validation that someone gets to skip out because the material might challenge their world view. If THE GREAT GATSBY is too traumatic for a college student to read, perhaps the campus thought police should also put trigger labels the Bible as well as daily newspapers?

This is anathema. How can childish brains become adult minds unless they are confronted with the difficult, the challenging, and, if you want to know the truth, the unpleasant. Kids don't grow kept inside a bell jar. 

The whole point of college is to be exposed to that which isn't necessarily found in your own cupboards. You sign up for classes in stuff you don't know about so you can broaden your perspective. You read stuff you might not like. (Do not mention MOBY DICK to me. Ever.) If you feel you need to gird up your loins before tackling a book, do yer own homework: read the reviews on Amazon. No book goes unscathed there. 

I know there are readers who will feel I am insensitive to the needs of traumatized people. Baloney. I am advocating personal responsibility for college students. If a student is so fragile as to be traumatized by class material, why take the class in the first place? You cannot have two levels of for those able to read the books and one for those unable to face what's on the page. 

The whole concept is fraught with pitfalls. Does one tailor one's syllabus to the least likely to offend? Can one include UNCLE TOM'S CABIN without running the risk that someone might be offended by a book about slavery? Do you label books with dialogue written in local dialect because someone might be offended by a word once used and now no longer deemed appropriate....think Jim in ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN or Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND? Do you remove MILA 18 or THINGS FALL APART because of their depiction of war and genocide? What about TENDER IS THE NIGHT for its portrayal of depression and mental illness? How about THE JUNGLE or LORD OF THE FLIES? Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales? ALICE IN WONDERLAND? I can keep going if you want.

I vociferously disagree with Meredith Raimondo of Oberlin College who was quoted in the article:
"I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up,’...That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”
Respectfully and seriously does not mean putting a label on every single book in the library. Dealing with this respectfully means the student understands his/her own triggers and deals with it. Otherwise you are asking everyone else to set aside their own to learning just to match an "adjusted" version. 

Once you are in college, you are expected to do the classwork. If you cannot handle the material, pick a different class. Maybe offer "trauma free" classes for people that don't want face harsh literature. Perhaps that will lead to a degree in Trauma Free Lit for people who don't really want to know.

As a mother and a writer, I am so totally offended by this trigger concept. We have coddled our kids long enough; it has to stop someplace...and it had better be by the time they get to college. Life is not all pretty, kind, or nice. It is short, often brutal, and downright mean. Literature exposes the reader to the way things were, are, or may become. Do you really want leaders who have not read books like GRAPES OF WRATH? Or 1984?

I don't.

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Got a small child handy? Read to him/her.
They'll remember that forever. 


  1. While I've worked with victims of sexual assault and have seen the damage such acts can cause, I can't support these types of trigger warnings. If the warnings are supposed to be as broad as proposed in the article, why not just put one blanket warning? Something like "Life's tough. This book might mess with you. I think it's worth your time. If you disagree, see the registrar." Just as there are no losers in little league and every project at the science fair wins a ribbon, no college student should have to be UNCOMFORTABLE. That might result (gasp!) growth.
    If you can't open your mind then it will remain closed. I believe you've spent significant time pointing out what closed minds can do (see, e.g., Fox News).
    I didn't find those challenges to my point of view in college. It wasn't until I was sailing around the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska that I read Zinn, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, and others. I realized the world was bigger than me. I was thinking the things I'd been taught. But that's not teaching. Real teaching should show you HOW not WHAT.
    I hope the professors and academics at the highlighted schools continue to resist the students' efforts. Most students want it easy. The schools job is to make it hard.

    1. Or maybe one trigger warning in Freshman Orientation: College is meant to stretch your mind, and stretching can be uncomfortable.

  2. Very much agree with the writer above. Make it hard and stop coddling students and graduating them with no knowledge of the world or themselves.
    Bravo Susan for your words and comments.There should be no triggers on education.

  3. It isn't just about coddling students. I have long had a serious disagreement with a certain "feminist" blogger who puts trigger warnings on everything that might upset pretty much anyone -- all women, people who have been sexually assaulted, black people, fat people....whatever or whomever you are, you are supposed to have "triggers."

    I wrote a number of years ago about something that happened to me in college that at the time I called "Boy, was I stupid, I won't do THAT again", learned from it, and went on to function in society and be married for 27 years...but today would be called "rape", I would be expected to report it, go through all the hassles thereof, and be so damaged that lo these 37 years later watching Game of Thrones should drive me to a shrink's office to deal with the triggers. "Rape culture." Phooey. Are we really such fragile flowers that we simply cannot be exposed to anything that might upset us?

    I recently watched the movie "42." In it there is a sequence in which Ben Chapman, the racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, fires a stream of racist invective at Jackie Robinson. It was uncomfortable and upsetting to watch. It's supposed to be; that's what happened. But should that come with a "trigger warning"?

    Life has trauma in it. Terrible things happen. Some of them we can control (like not going to bedrooms in frat houses anymore), some of them we can't (racist invective). But at some point we have to acknowledge that despite our best efforts, the world is a rough place and we have to deal with it and live in it. And that's just things that happen in LIFE. If BOOKS are triggers, then I'm sorry, these people need serious psychological help.

  4. Gee, why didn't we get "trigger warnings" when we entered college in the late 60's: "4 years of trauma & turmoil highlighted by sit-ins, protests, Washington maches and lots of sex ahead -- enter at your own risk!!!"

  5. What exactly did the NYTimes article say was being suggested? Excluding books because they have "triggers" is one thing. Giving a warning, like the motion picture code, is quite another. And I don't see the latter as a slippery slope, or as harmful, or as limiting speech. And no one here as made the case that it is, other than a knee jerk reaction that it might be.

    Some people are just fine with gory horror movies, and some people (like me) are not.

    If you are a sensitive person, there are some things you may not want to read late at night. Is it too much to say "this book has violent beatings in it" (Uncle Tom's Cabin) "The French Revolution had beheadings." (Tale of Two Cities)? Is this a bad thing?

    1. Yes.

      Rochester MN