Warning labels

I know I’ve been neglecting my blog the last few weeks.  I’m finding much of the news depressing and it is finally spring and who wants to be depressed by dwelling on disasters – current and potentially future.  But I’m aroused from my lethargy by a couple of recent stories, so I may well go on a blogging binge.

My first subject is warning labels.  “Cigarettes are Hazardous to your health.”  “Not gluten-free”  “Keep away from water [on my hair dryer]”  All handy and relevant for physical health and safety.  But now some students are agitating for warning labels on books for reasons of psychological health.  Classic books.  Like “The Great Gatsby” .  This follows a commencement season where students got various speakers removed because of something they’d done in the past or some opinion they hold.  Something very disturbing is going on here way beyond the protection of someone’s mental health.  I love the opening of Renee Loth’s column in this mornings Boston Globe

Warning: This column may contain material you disagree with or find offensive. It may provoke a strong reaction, making you feel angry or exposed. Of course, you can log off or turn the page. But this is the opinion section of a general-interest newspaper. Shouldn’t you expect to find provocative, even threatening ideas? And shouldn’t other readers be able to see this column without a cautionary note that it might do them harm?

She goes on to explain

Something similar is happening on college campuses, where reasonable concern for students who may have suffered terrible traumas has morphed into a serious threat to intellectual freedom. Increasingly, students are expecting “trigger warnings’’ to be issued before they are asked to read certain texts or view course material that may be troubling. It can be something as raw as a graphic rape scene or a bloody wartime battle, or more conceptual, such as themes of racism or oppression. At some schools, students want to be allowed to skip a class or reading if they fear it will trigger a stressful reaction.

The criteria for the warnings are varied and ill-defined. At Rutgers University, Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway” was targeted for a warning because it contains thoughts of suicide. At Oberlin College, students requested one for Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” — a hardy perennial on freshman reading lists — because of its treatment of colonialism. Trigger warnings have been proposed for “The Great Gatsby” and “The Merchant of Venice” because they depict violence, misogyny, or racial slurs.

Warning label

Excuse me if I thought that great writing was supposed to be thought-provoking and maybe disturbing.  In her column on the subject in today’s Washington Post, Kathleen Parker discusses a potential answer.

Without making light of anyone’s ethnicity, race or trauma, especially rape or stress disorder suffered by veterans (another specific group of concern), such precautions are misplaced in an institution of higher learning where one is expected to be intellectually challenged and where one’s psychological challenges are expected to be managed elsewhere.

There are, besides, other ways to inform oneself about a course or literary assignment that might be problematic for whatever reason. Then again, if reading “The Great Gatsby” causes one undue angst owing to its abuse, classism, sexism and whatever-ism, then one might consider that college is not the right place at the right time.

Moreover, part of literary criticism is understanding the historical context of a given work. Thus, when the egregiously offensive N-word appears in the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is it too much to ask that readers reflect upon the word’s usage when Mark Twain wrote the book?

Within that understanding is a world of learning, from the history of race to the evolution of language. Instead, we are enslaved to “responsible pedagogical practice,” as one sympathetic faculty member put it. Thus, a draft guide at Oberlin College suggests flagging anything that could “disrupt a student’s learning” or “cause trauma”:

“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [transgender discrimination], ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression. 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.”

I once co-taught a class on women and war.  We read some disturbing stuff, especially for some class members who were veterans or who had active duty spouses.  But we didn’t have an y”trigger” warnings on what we assigned to read.  What we did was talk.  One can learn from someone else’s experience.  Besides if there are all these warning labels, maybe someone won’t read the book and find out it really isn’t so bad after all.  And where does it end?  Do we not read about the civil rights movement in Mississippi because the murder of three civil rights workers might be disturbing?  Should be miss reading “The Color Purple” because it might be a trigger for someone?  Is talk of the plague in the Middle Ages also a trigger for someone’s trauma?  Parker is right:  the proper response is discussion.

Loth ends her column this way

Trigger warnings aren’t new; they are common on the Internet, where they alert readers to a range of potentially upsetting material from common profanity and insensitive jokes to depictions of drug abuse, eating disorders, even spiders. But they are especially worrisome on college campuses, where exposure to a free exchange of ideas is paramount. “When a student opts for a liberal arts education, they have opted to jump into the cauldron of life,” said attorney Harvey Silverglate, a fierce advocate for freedom of thought on campus. “You should expect to be occasionally very disturbed. That is actually part of the education.”

Much of the focus on content warnings grows out of a concern for marginalized groups, whether minorities, the disabled, or anyone not in the “dominant culture.” Feminist studies in particular have promoted them as a way to make women feel safer in a sometimes hostile campus environment, which can and does include sexual assault. But there are as many potential triggers as there are students. It’s a practical impossibility to protect against all of them.

Nor should we try. Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge and professor at Harvard Law School, says students have asked her to disclose whether an exam in her criminal law course would contain any triggers for rape victims. She has refused. “I have a feminist objection to the notion that women need to be inoculated against certain issues,” she said. “Women need to engage, to come to grips with these issues.” The university should prepare students for the rest of life. “There are no more trigger warnings the minute they graduate,” she said.

Let’s hope that this trend has a very short life.

Picture:  istockphoto/globe staff illustration

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