The latest politically correct fashion on college campuses is just insipid enough to catch on.
It is the so-called trigger warning applied to any content that students might find traumatizing, even works of literature. The trigger warning first arose on feminist websites as a way to alert victims of sexual violence to possibly upsetting discussions of rape (that would “trigger” memories of their trauma) but has gained wider currency.
Yes, the Chinua Achebe anti-colonial novel Things Fall Apart is a “triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,” according to the guide. But there’s a downside — it could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”
By this standard, most of literature is “triggering.” Beloved is triggering for anyone who has lived in a haunted house. Mansfield Park is triggering for anyone who has been sent to live with wealthy relations and subsequently encountered messy romantic entanglements. Les Misérables is triggering for anyone who has ever shoplifted bread. The Aeneid is triggering for anyone who has ever been caught in the whirlpool of Charybdis, or on the island of the Cyclops.
Moby-Dick must be considered able-ist, with its unflattering depiction of a peg-legged captain, and highly species-ist (just ask the whales). Where would the trigger warning even begin for The Confessions of Nat Turner or Absalom, Absalom!, twisted, deeply disturbing works about the American slave South that are transcendent works of literature?
Needless to say, there’s always a role for good taste. If a professor is going to show, say, a film depicting graphic violence, an informal heads-up to students is only common sense. The problem with the trigger warning as conceived by its most fervent supporters is its presumption that people can be harmed by works of literature; that every student is a victim of something and on the verge of breaking down; and that ultimately students have to be protected from anything departing from their comfort zones.
It is profoundly infantilizing. If someone can’t read Crime and Punishment (warning: includes scenes of near-madness, violence, sexual exploitation, cruelty to animals, and smoking) or Hamlet (warning: includes poisoning, drowning, stabbing, and intense intra-familial conflict) without fear of being offended, he or she should major in accounting.
Of course, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an obvious candidate for a trigger warning — for anyone who has experienced strong racial language while floating on a multiracial raft down the Mississippi River. Before the novel starts, Mark Twain includes a little note for readers, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
Just imagine what he would prescribe for anyone attempting a trigger warning.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]. © 2014 King Features Syndicate