I read The Coddling of the American Mind in this month’s Atlantic online. Twice. I waded through the inane and insane examples of trigger words and warnings and their consequences that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt reported from American colleges and universities. My conclusion is that no matter which way you argue about triggers, you are reduced to being either a thoughtless jerk or an insensitive asshole.
The definition that the article provides is that “trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.” An ‘alert’ is therefore prescriptive, often slapped on works of literature. Can that single word really set fire to the limbic system, the fight-or-flight response? The ‘alert’ belies the descriptive power of words to create an objectionable scene, and that the image perceived correlates to subjective experience. A warning, therefore, is required. The operative phrase is ‘American colleges and universities,’ because the more you read the article, the quicker you realize that trigger warnings and words are a uniquely American phenomenon. This video mocks triggering in Literature 101.
The authors invoked Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, among other examples of literature, as traumatizing texts. Gatsby is indicted for its portrayal of domestic violence and misogyny. The inherent logic behind trigger words goes something like this: students will know in advance that the text contains material that may upset them and that they should prepare for it somehow. The therapeutic ‘somehow’ is mystical. The reality is that students, those consumers of an undergraduate degree earned at the cost of a princely sum, are demanding that their professors provide warnings or, in some cases, refuse to read literature they deem offensive.
Trigger warnings are conceptually similar to ratings that we see in previews on the movie screen, except everything is rated R and NC-17, and the descriptors are often a spoiler alert. The warning label on a book amounts to a pair of skull and crossbones on a packet of cigarettes, yet people will see the movie anyway, and we know all the Marlboro Men are dead. The inference behind the warning sticker is that ideas may kill or incapacitate you. Each of Shakespeare plays should warrant enough trigger warnings such that they obscure the title of the play.
Trigger words and warnings have subsumed in their wake a specialized vocabulary from sociology, and moral philosophy and psychology. ‘Microaggression’ is a new word for me. Microaggressions are “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” This sounds like a crime without fingerprints. The examples given are either of the thoughtless-jerk variety such as asking a non-white person his or her place of birth or the insensitive-asshole type, like ‘America is the land of opportunity.’ The former, we read, is racist; the latter implies a bitter inside joke, an unrealized truth.
As a writer, I’m sensitive to words because language is my only tool. Whatever I create at the keyboard uses the damn things. The thing itself does nothing, but the aggregate and order of all those words does. Lukianoff and Haidt are messengers, reporting a phenomenon. They offer a brief sociological theory about helicopter parents and how social media has become both a tool and weapon for mass communication. I get that. I see the argument that we might have a generation of hypersensitive young adults poorly prepared for Life and the workplace. I know the Snowflake Argument, the ‘I’m so special and you must accommodate me now.’ Psychology Today articles remind me that narcissism is on the rise, and that modesty is in retrograde. There is a beleaguered professoriate that has to do ‘shadow work’ (Craig Lambert and not Jung), in addition to endless administrative tasks. I am reminded that public education has been defunded and dismantled by the power-elites and that many of these teachers have no job security, no benefits and receive insulting levels of compensation.
I’m the insensitive asshole because I see all of it, understand it, but I’m not buying the full subscription, and here is why. Every generation has been found wanting, professors have never had it good, and I never believed, along with John Lennon, that America was “classless and free.” I do, however, think that there is an administrative caste within the Academy, made up of individuals who have sown the seeds of discord among their colleagues in order to keep their jobs and power intact. No, this last point is not conspiracy theory, but a Machiavellian truth about human nature. Humans in power cling to power, and do what they must to maintain it.
Only in America is the writer a public celebrity. Jonathan Franzen opens his mouth, Jennifer Weiner and others respond, and both Twitter and the Internet gapes open like a black hole. Franzen might be a poor example, because what he says in public does not help his image. Notoriety, however, may boost his sales. I don’t know. I do worry, however, that trigger words may become the new way of stigmatizing writers, a new form of blacklisting artistic efforts. Most writers toil in obscurity and see little money for their efforts. The list of artists with posthumous recognition is heartbreakingly long: J.S. Bach, Henry Darger, Emily Dickinson, Kafka, Nietzsche, Thoreau, John Kennedy Toole, and Vincent van Gogh. In other parts of the world, the writer is often an endangered species; and again the list is tragic. Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, was stabbed to death. Salman Rushdie himself and his Italian and Turkish translators survived assassination attempts. Naguib Mahfouz survived multiple knife wounds to his throat at age eighty-two.
The offended student is the big, bad wolf that makes no pretense to being a sheep; the predator is young, opinionated, and self-righteous; but the young are allowed to be opinionated and self-righteous. George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” The real problem is that the hypersensitive have blinded Oedipus before the critical question is asked, “Who am I?” The teachers at the lectern have become sheep.
Let me shift metaphors; let me wave a different freak flag for the snowflakes that refuse to melt, resist the slightest twinge of compassion for artists because I don’t believe that the majority of them can comprehend the amount of labor that it takes to write a novel, even in this age of the self-published author. What constitutes ‘Literature’ is not the issue, although that has been discussed for decades. The written word and what it creates and conveys is under attack. Content is controversy.
Trigger warnings strain credulity and satirize assumptions. An anecdote – a friend of mine was tasked to purchase books for a well-known organization that cares for, educates, and houses orphans, the displaced and unwanted children. The books that traumatize those kids are not Sapphire’s Precious or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but stories in which families are kind and unconditionally loving; but these are children. Students in college are young adults, who are supposed to be figuring out how to get their shit together, as the expression goes.
Now let us invert the logic of trigger warnings. Is there a warning for the Paleo-Diet inclined, or the gluten-insensitive because War and Peace has numerous descriptions of wheat fields? Are there labels for guilt for the traumatized southerner who knows that his ancestors had owned slaves? The door opens to the House of Mirrors.
Was Faulkner a racist or was he conveying the unresolved legacy of race in American history? That is the kind of question that belongs in the college classroom. Let students learn that he used the N-word, just as his educated contemporaries did. It is insensitive, but an unfortunate historical reality, just like small white children would call a grown Black man ‘Boy.’ Students should not whitewash that fact (pun intended). Students should also learn that Caroline ‘Callie’ Barr, the former slave who had raised Faulkner, to whom he dedicated Go Down, Moses lived in a cottage on his estate. He provided for all her material needs to the day she died. Faulkner had arranged her burial, had paid for the marker, and had given the eulogy. Human beings are contradictions. One last note, a rebuttal, to students in the Atlantic article who suggested that Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway should have a trigger warning for suicidal ideation. It is fallacious logic, a retrospective judgment because the writer drowned herself in 1941, sixteen years after she had penned Dalloway. What were these students reading in high school? Were they offended then?
Then there is the argument that the ‘Customer is always right,’ that college presidents and administrations have to cave and force trigger warnings onto faculty and their syllabi because students are paying stunning sums of cash, mortgaging their futures.
According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014–2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.
Education in America has turned sideways, shifted to the mythical yellow-brick road to enhanced job prospects and upward mobility sometime after World War II. While degree-bearing students do make more than their non-degreed counterparts (and let’s gloss over the inherent class distinction there), 66% of Americans do not have a college degree. Education is Big Business. Enrollments are rising, lenders are drooling, and colleges and universities have become veritable cash cows, with the same legal protections and rights as corporations, using legislation such as the Eilberg Amendment to keep faculty wages suppressed. There is a lot of money to be made, so management will cut to the bone, work the faculty to death and terrorize the rest with job insecurity. Does this mean that the student as customer is always right?
No. To label an intellectual work of any kind as traumatizing is offensive to the men and women who created it. Mein Kampf is certainly not art; it is an odious creation but it has value because it allows students to understand why Nazism came into existence, from several angles. Mein Kampf is a traumatic text because it became historical fact. And to placate a potential Harvard Law student’s objection to teaching “rape law” in an environment that uses the Socratic method is ironic. The snowflakes are asking their professors to drink Socrates’s hemlock for ‘corrupting the youth.” Students should come to learn, to develop a critical mind. A trained mind has the means “to take arms against a sea of troubles.” A critical mind knows how to deliberate and form an argument; it does not react; it does not use thumbs for a Tweet. Answers to life’s difficulties are not limited to 140 characters.
As for Trauma, nobody is immune to it and nobody should discount mental illness and abuse of any kind. The best insight that I can offer is from Sophocles’ play Philoctetes. The legendary archer acquired a foot wound so bad that it was putrid and he was shunned. Odysseus had him thrown overboard. Philoctetes swam to an island, where he became embittered, but learned, over time, how to deal with his physical and emotional pains. Long story short is that Odysseus needed the skills of the master archer. Philoctetes was prepared and answered the call without recriminations. The Trojan War ended because of his arrows. He did what he had to do in private so he could function in public. It was wrong that Odysseus abandoned him, unfair that Philoctetes had a terrible condition, but the moral of the story is heal thyself, conquer one’s emotions and fight to win the war.
Intellectual curiosity will always remind you that The Other exists. Wisdom is a life-long process. The educated person searches, finds it, and evaluates it; and often that method is non-violent, as simple as a library card. Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History or Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors. We grow from what challenges our norms and perceptions. Truly think that you have it bad because your professor aids and abets the heteronormative and patriarchal paradigm by having you read Dead White Males? Compassion International offers this sobering and humbling fact:
Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income.
Why do we learn? Why do we read? Why do we write? It is an ancient question. We do all these things to learn about ourselves, about our culture, for better or worse, to reach across time, to reach near, to understand the different, the strange, the frightening. The most noble of acts is not that of understanding but compassion. Writers write because they are mirrors of truth, heralds of social injustices, and because they have imagination, and they write because they want to tell a story to entertain us. That deserves to be celebrated, discussed, honored and studied. Human creativity should not be labeled. Artists do not threaten humane, educated people; they threaten ideologues with a unique vision of reality. This is why they created the KGB, the Stasi and Brown Shirts to quash opposition. A label qualifies and describes the thing contained and betrays the fears of the individual who does the labeling. To live in fear is a rejection of the precious gift of life, to render a life as one “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” The solution?
Love. Love of wisdom, or as the Velveteen Rabbit, love until “you become Real.” If you are not inclined to take wisdom from a children’s story, then savor these lines from Raymond Carver, a writer who wrote about daily, relentless traumas:
I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.