Considering Trigger Warnings and Our Biggest Offense

trigger warnings

Even though it’s only been three years since I graduated from college, so much has changed. I read works like Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cruse’s Stock Rubber Baby, and Keat’s “Leda and The Swan,” and engaged with my peers in heated discussions about these books with topics on rape, sexual exploitation, race, and bigotry. When we signed up for these courses, we were expected to read the works and participate in class discussions. Professors didn’t warn us of the content (okay, they may have offhandedly said that we’d be hating the world for a week) but they did provide a syllabus listing what we would be reading. If we wanted to know anything further, we’d research it. I went in blind on all my assigned readings, never knowing what I would have to talk about or how it would affect me until my eyes found the words lying on the page. No one challenged the material even if they didn’t agree with it, not in an academic setting anyway. So much as changed.

Trigger warnings, the term originating from the psychological term ‘trigger’ that dates as far back as World War I but found digitally in the back alleys of the internet on feminist forums, are devices warning of explicit sexual violence or graphic material contained in a piece of literature. Lately everyone’s jumped on the band wagon of inserting ‘TW’ before everything’s written, when in truth is excessive and thoughtless; yet in the academic setting, where students are taught critical theories and are exposed to unnerving content to prepare them for the ‘real world,’ using trigger warnings is tricky since professors never know what might trigger someone, but we’re now witnessing students opposing material that they deem offensive for whatever personal reason, thus, raising complicated questions about learning, cultural sensitivity, and censorship in colleges and universities.

The use of trigger warnings are exaggerated due to misinformed definitions and purposes. TW are devices that anyone can use but don’t necessarily apply to everyone. They’re intended to alert people who have undergone significant trauma and experience physical symptoms that hinder their daily activity. The confusion arises in people’s understanding of people who have suffered trauma; most, unless they’ve personally witnessed it, don’t believe someone could experience physical symptoms when the issue is mental. Although there are cases where someone will be unable to engage with the material due to the severity of the trauma, TW are implemented to better aid in a person’s recovery and shouldn’t be treated as a permanent evasive approach.  Gradual exposure to the content may help combat the physiological symptoms. Trigger warnings enable those to prepare themselves to partake in rational discussions versus having their own intense experience impair them.

While inserting ‘TW’ is mostly innocuous (but frustrating to see used incorrectly,) there are some people who abuse the intention behind them for their own reasons, creating a sheltered culture of intolerance and privilege. One recent example of this occurred at Duke University where some of the freshmen students objected to reading Alison Blechdel’s Fun Home as it compromised their Christian beliefs, but as Dianna Anderson wrote, “one is a physiological response; the other is a choice in the practice of religious belief.” The Atlantic released an article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which has been circulating and igniting the contentious debate of cultural sensitivity demonstrated in how much we apply TWs in our everyday lives or at how often we hear of students’ protests over written material. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write on the ostensible “movement…arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” and applying the term microaggressions, defined as the verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or. unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their. Although a dubious and perhaps an exaggerated claim, the article does point to some less than romantic ideas about academia.

From an economic standpoint, universities and colleges are places of business that try to maintain a constant flow of revenue; they can’t run on lofty ideals alone. Governing education falls more upon administrators than the professors and one of the factors influencing administrations are the students, i.e. the customers. If enough students ban together to have material removed from the course, then the administration, even when the students’ protest are unfounded, will more than likely submit and have the professors pick another topic, with the professors, afraid they might lose their jobs, do little to pushback. What’s arguably needed now is some pushback. Classrooms provide the appropriate context to discuss diverse and complicated issues. The academics aren’t a hodgepodge of obstinacy but a place fostering worldly perception of challenging ideas and reinventing ideas of culture. Having your own beliefs is acceptable but obstructive when absorbing the material that could possibly enlighten us.

I imagine I will continue to see stories pop up of students banning together to have a novel removed from class because it offends them—but that action is offensive in itself.  None of these works like the ones above are easy to talk about, but I absorbed them with the kind of necessary discomfort that we hold in us, a kind of vague unknowing feeling that sounds like a reluctant ‘maybe’ and scares us  from ditching the life map and driving. Staying in our comfort zone is safe but self-restricting stunts intellectual growth and maturity. We shortchanged ourselves and others.

Guilty Book Confession Corner: The Books I’ve Missed and Mean to Read–Someday

homer-confessionEveryone in the book world has been buzzing about Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to her acclaimed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’ve been following the much talked about debate on whether or not there aren’t other forces behind the book’s mysterious and unexpected release. There’s also a lot of questions on the author’s mental state, if she’s cognitively involved in all the marketing and publishing decisions. All these questions and controversies serve to generate even more publicity, which will end up bolstering the sales even more. It’s probably going to be the most talked about book of 2015, except for this blogger.

There’s no protest going on here. No financial reason why I haven’t preordered/bought the book. It’s just—and here it is—I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s on my Kindle, and it’s definitely a book I plan on reading someday, but I just haven’t yet.

That’s right. I haven’t read Mockingbird. It’s always been a book I’ve been meaning to read, but somehow it just didn’t happen. It’s just one of the many book guilty baggages I carry around with me.

A lot of us have that one book, or in my case, several books, we haven’t read. Usually these books are Classics that we should have been exposed to as a child. If for some reason we were deprived reading them during such time, then we should, at some point in our adult lives, voluntarily read these books for no other reason except for our personal benefit. It’s like going to exercise: you know it’s good for you but you keep putting it off.

Part of the reason for the paucity of Classics in my repertoire is due to the school I went to growing up. Now I don’t know if the school was possibly underfunded (but probably) or if it had to do with the region (again, probably,) but I do know that there wasn’t an emphasis on reading Classics in and outside of the classrooms.

It’s not to say that I had bad teachers. I had wonderful ones, but I can only recall rare instances when my classmates would actively participate in discussions. A glut of what we were taught, what we were assigned to read, was mostly Colonial literature. No idea why, but as a kid, that literature was some of the driest material I’d ever come across, even though as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the rhetoric of essay writing and epistolary. Just as we’re being introduced to Nathanial Hawthorne, my teachers decide to only teach his short stories. Yup. I haven’t even read the The Scarlet Letter. I want to, but I just haven’t made my way there yet. For whatever reason—bad timing or poor curriculum planning—the teachers I had from elementary through high school all seemed to agree on teaching the obscure works of authors and poets. Maybe there was a convention that year that I didn’t hear about initiating a new reading list? No idea.

I understand not teaching some of the most popularized Classics, but at some point, I thought at least one of my teachers would give in and teach The Great Gatsby, which I wouldn’t read until I was in college. [Note: There’s nothing sadder than an English major who’s never read The Great Gatsby. My professor looked at me like a hungry puppy for the rest of the semester.]

Finding these Classics in our school library was not an easy task. Considerably small, my school’s library had all their books categorized into these sections: Fiction, Non-fiction, and Sports. Yes. Sports. Try not to let it get you down too much. There was also a section called ‘Current/Political Topics,’ which I couldn’t make sense of, other than it housed the books on eating disorders and the psychology of serial murderers.

Below are the top ten books that I someday (soonish) plan to read that I somehow missed reading growing up, along with the humorous reasons or lack thereof:

  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R.R. Tolkien
    • It was on my dad’s shelf for years! All three books! I think it was their bulky size that scared me off.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol
    • This book seemed perfect for a misfit like me; yet I was never introduced to it. Know the references. Inspired one of my all-time favorite Anime. Just didn’t happen…
  • “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare
    • The teacher said we’d never have any use for reading Elizabethan language, so she popped in a VHS tape for us to watch. We only made it to Act III before she said we’d never have any use for Shakespeare either. Turns out, I would study English Literature and take a class on Shakespeare, which skipped R&J.
  • Gulliver’s Travel by Jonathan Swift
    • It was never on the syllabus. Ever. Not even in college!
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabovok
    • It’s seriously on my book shelf right now. Classic edition. Beautiful cover. It’s a book I’ve always wanted to read. It’s been on my shelf for a year now.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    • I started to read this one, but then put it down after I was hit with a black hole that vacuumed up any ounce of joy in me, i.e. Depression. Admittedly, it probably wasn’t the best book to be reading post graduation while jobless.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
    • In high school, I was in the English Honors class with more of an emphasis in writing than reading. It was the regular English Class that read all the classic literature. Go figure.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
    • It was on my dad’s book shelf…and now I have a copy of it on my shelf, but someday I hope to say, “Yes, I was reading “Ulysses” the other day. ..”
  • 1984 by George Orwell
    • English Honors Class again.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
    • I literally don’t know how I missed this one or why I never bothered to pick it up. I’ve read Jane Eyre. I love Jane Eyre, but I’ve heard that Jane Austen’s books and Charlotte Bronte’s books are completely different. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading this one. But who knows? I may just need further convincing.

The major reason though I haven’t tried to read these Classics that I missed is this: I’m afraid I might not ‘get it’. It’s a silly reason, but fear and anxiety are rarely ever rational. I worry that I won’t understand it, that the book is too smart for me, that the book is too boring for me; thereby, making me inferior in some way. I know from experience Classics are not necessarily harder to read, but they can seem intimidating, especially if you don’t read a lot of them. That’s okay too. While there are possibly things I won’t understand, it shouldn’t deter me or anyone from reading them, and, not to mention, that’s what the internet is for! Going in with an open mind and working at your own pace is all anyone should expect: sage advice that can be universally adapted and applied to everyday life.