A number of years ago, I was living and teaching in a small city in south Georgia. I assigned a short story to my honors lit/comp students called “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers.” The story is by one of my favorites, Salman Rushdie. It is his typical mix of the magic and the real. The story is set in some sort of future where the lines between reality and fiction have blurred. All sorts of real-world people and characters from movies gather to bid on Dorothy’s magic slippers from The Wizard of Oz in hopes that they may use the magic found in the slippers. The story plays with concepts of “home” in really cool and interesting ways.
And then there is a moment when the narrator–a person at the auction of the ruby slippers–talks about an ex-lover and how, when they made love, she was quite loud. In fact, at the moment of penetration, she would welcome him “home.” They broke up because he caught her cheating on him with a “hairy escapee from a caveman movie.” Needless to say, he wanted to win the slippers and click the heels together so that he could go back “home” as well.
One of the girls in the class, unknowingly, had her much younger brother read the story to her while she was doing god-knows-what. This was a poor choice on her part, what with the loud love-making and talk of penetration and whatnot. People were offended and the conversation in class had to be a little different for a little while. Instead of discussing postmodernism and simulation and reality versus Reality, we had to discuss the sex scene and why it needed to be there. Certainly, this is an important conversation to have, but it should have been more organic than it was–and less defensive than it had to be.
About a week and a half ago, The New York Times ran an article called “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” The article addresses a student-led movement that would require faculty at colleges and universities to include “trigger warnings” in their syllabi when it comes to material that could offend students–especially those students with PTSD from combat or physical and sexual abuse. The article cites students who think it’s a good idea and faculty who feel it is crippling their academic freedom.
Now, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve representative articles and arguments from both sides of this debate. Here is what I think: there is absolutely nothing wrong with giving students a fair warning before something is going to be discussed that might serve as a trigger. I work in a military town now, and PTSD is a real thing. I feel like those guys have done a lot to preserve my “academic freedom,” so if I am about to discuss “The Things They Carried” and how Ted Lavender gets shot in the jungle of Vietnam by a hidden enemy, then I don’t see the harm in giving the class a brief disclaimer. If a trigger warning can give them a chance to prepare, then I don’t see the harm in it.
Certainly, some students may take this movement too far, but at this point it feels positive. Philip Wythe, a student columnist for The Daily Targum at Rutgers, writes:
Artistic censorship poses a serious threat to American civil liberties. The discomfort caused by these novels, while honored, should never act as a justification for universal censorship. By restricting educational access to controversial material, our educational system suffers as a whole — preventing students from reading works that truly question our society and culture.
Wythe is the first student cited in the Times article. So, at least for now, the movement is not to restrict what is being taught. The movement wants only for teachers to be more aware of the human beings that sit in front of us every day. I’ve never understood that portion of the Academy that insists on pretending that every student is the same empty receptacle ready to be filled with our knowledge. Every student arrives in our classrooms with years’ worth of experiences that will color the experience they have in the class. I don’t need to know who was abused or who saw their friend step on an IED in Iraq to understand that not respecting those potentialities could really hinder someone in my class.
But even after all of that, I find myself conflicted. In the Times article, Greg Lukianoff is quoted:
“It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”
And I agree with that statement so hard. It is important to be offended. In so many ways, offending people is the only way to make social progress. But isn’t there a difference between offending and challenging someone’s notions of the world and ignoring actual psychological issues? Isn’t this an issue of accommodation and access?
I am reminded of an ex-Marine I taught a while ago who said: “There are two things we shouldn’t write about–sex and war.” And I wonder now if that was a deeper psychological issue than he was willing to let on.
At the same time, I am also reminded of a fruitful conversation with that class a number of years ago after they read “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”–a story that surprised and offended them.
Of course we should write about sex and war! And of course we should talk about those things! Maybe, though, we could just give a little advanced warning.
What do you think? Is the idea of the trigger warning taking another step toward watering things down? Or is the trigger warning a sign of respect and awareness?