A Kind of Narcissism: Trigger Warnings Defining the Curriculum

A decade ago, a professor told me she was no longer able to teach Aristophanes’ Lysistrata without getting student complaints.

I was skeptical.

I doubted that any student at a Big Ten school would be shocked by the f-word in Lysistrata, a comedy in which the women protest war by refusing to have sex with their husbands.  This particular Big Ten school, of which I am very fond, has a reputation as a party school.  Trauma from reading Aristophanes doesn’t go with the Jell-O shots.

But I just read Jennifer Medina’s article in The New York Times, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” in which she says that students at The University of California in Santa Barbara, Oberlin, Rutgers, and other schools are demanding “trigger warnings” if books, movies, or other material in a classroom “might upset them or…cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.”

On the trigger warning list are Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

My guess is that students who demand trigger warnings are not readers.  When I was an adjunct, students read very little, and when they did it tended to be violent thrillers or mysteries.  (Nowadays it might be Fifty Shades of Grey.) Presumably the Greek tragedians, the Roman poet Catullus, Dante, Christopher Marlowe, Rabelais, Henry Fielding, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Nadine Gordimer, Harold Pinter, and Doris Lessing are no more graphic than the students’ usual reading material, and yet these would doubtless come with trigger warnings.

Isn’t it narcissistic of students to assume that a novel or poem that deals with, say, war or rape will send them spiraling into trauma?  Literature challenges readers and illuminates subjects outside  their comfort zone, but can also be surprisingly therapeutic. Antigone has been taught to vets with great success, I understand, and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, a contemporary version of Antigone, set in Afghanistan, would certainly fit on that syllabus.

A  group of my students in an elementary writing class appreciated Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Parker’s Back,” in which a down-and-out man with a dishonorable discharge from the Navy gets a tattoo of a Byzantine Christ on his back to woo a Christian woman.  In retrospect, the grotesque details in this story would have required a trigger warning, but they actually sympathized with the bizarre main character.  And, honestly, they didn’t need a trigger warning.

Medina quotes Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that advocates free speech, as saying,

Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives. 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.”

The students’ demands are not, as they were in the ’60s and ’70s, to read the literature of war because they were protesting the war and wanted to understand the history of war, or to read more books by women because they wanted to read great literature about women’s experience.  “Trigger warnings” restrict the students’ universe rather than expand it. And one can’t help but cynically feel that if a student doesn’t want to be bothered with reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, he or she might protest.  (Of course, many of these students are sincere.)

We read literature for the style, craftsmanship,  content, and emotional satisfaction.  Studies show reading fiction helps people feel empathy.

Teaching is always hard, but I now understand why my friend said she couldn’t teach Lysistrata.

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