It’s getting so bad that even liberal professors are opposing it.
By “it” I mean that current academic mania about attaching trigger warnings to every text that might perhaps slightly hurt the feelings of a delicate student.
In place of trigger warnings they should all adopt Megyn Kelly’s line: “Toughen up, buttercup.”
This time, University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne, stalwart defender of evolution and atheism, has had enough.
Writing in the New Republic, Coyne denounced the Columbia University students who declared that Ovid’s Metamorphosis should contain a trigger warning because it portrays the rape of Persephone, among other horrors. Heck, it even includes the story of Narcissus and Echo.
Evidently, the trigger-warning mania is a stealth assault on the Western literary canon. Taken to its logical limit, it will lead to a college curriculum that is stuffed full of texts that promote the proper ideology.
As you know, the great totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century banned most of the Western canon. They only allowed people to read prescribed and politically correct texts.
And, socialist art was designed to propagate an ideology, not to edify or even to entertain.
The master of the game was Mao Zedong whose Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution forbade students (and everyone else) from reading anything but the little red book of his writings. Under the aegis of his wife, Jiang Qing, leader of the gang of four, people were only allowed to watch and listen to approved artistic artistic productions.
Anyway, Coyne lays out his argument:
After all, what body of literature, including the Bible and the Muslim hadith, doesn’t mention violence and sexual assault? The Bible even sanctions rape. Should divinity schools put trigger warnings on the Old Testament? I am sorry about the student who couldn’t abide the mention of sexual assault, but she should be getting help for her triggering from a therapist, not from a professor. Without such help, she’ll go through life triggered by every magazine and newspaper she sees.
The pathway of such trigger warnings—not just for sexual assault but for violence, bigotry, and racism—will eventually lead to every work of literature being labeled as potentially offensive. There goes the Bible, there goes Dante, there goes Huck Finn (loaded with racism), there goes all the old literature written before we realized that minorities, women, and gays weren’t second-class people. And as for violence and hatred, well, they’re everywhere, for they’re just as much parts of literature as parts of life. Crime and Punishment? Trigger warning: brutal violence against an old woman. The Great Gatsby? Trigger warning: violence against women (remember when Tom Buchanan broke Mrs. Wilson’s nose?). The Inferno? Trigger warning: graphic violence, sodomy, and torture. Dubliners? Trigger warning: pedophilia.
I have occasionally suggested that the mania about trigger warnings derives from the fact that more than a few professors do not know enough to teach certain canonical texts. Such is academic life.
One must also wonder whether the students who insist on taking all the insalubrious and offensive remarks and actions in great literature personally are really masking their inability to learn from the texts. Worse than that, they are refusing to learn from the great books of Western civilization.
This feels like the logical consequence of an educational establishment that believes, as an article of faith, that pupils and students should relate personally to what they are reading.
In this they are grievously wrong. Students should try to understand what Shakespeare is dramatizing, regardless of whether it falls within the rather limited bounds of their personal experience.
If you think that the story of Persephone is a feminist parable, you will have missed the point. If you believe that Romeo and Juliet is an adolescent love story, you will have diminished Shakespeare’s text.
As Coyne astutely points out, being hypersensitive to offense will limit you to hearing only thoughts that echo your own. Is there a better definition of narcissism?
In the end, anybody can claim offense or triggering about anything: liberals about conservative politics, pacifists against violence, women against sexism, minorities against bigotry, Jews against anti-Semitism, Muslims against any mention of Israel, creationists against evolution, religionists against atheism, and so on.
And he is quite right to see it all as part of the imperialistic encroachment of the therapy culture. It’s almost as though the educational establishment has gotten in the business of producing more psychotherapy customers.
Coyne offers a cogent analysis:
But the core [curriculum] is not a form of therapy; it’s a form of exposure to diverse ideas, and it should not have the aim of making people feel “safe.” In fact, that’s precisely the opposite of its aim.
It’s time for students to learn that Life is Triggering. Once they leave college, they’ll be constantly exposed to views that challenge or offend them. There are a lot of jerks out there, and no matter what your politics are, a lot of people will have the opposite view. If you’re an atheist, you’ll live in a world of people whom you see as hostile and delusional believers. If you’re a believer, you’ll encounter vociferous heathens like me. If you’re a feminist, well, sexism is alive and well.
That’s why one of college’s most important functions is to learn how to hear and deal with challenging ideas. Cocooning oneself in a Big Safe Space for four years gets it exactly backwards. “Safety” has been transformed by colleges from “protection from physical harm” to “protection from disturbing ideas.”