You would have to have a heart of stone and deficit of imagination not to sympathize with the lingering trauma, the reverberating aftermath suffered by combat troops and others exposed to violence, as well as victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
We all now understand that sights and sounds, smells and other stimuli can trigger panic, flashbacks, a reimmersion in the horrors previously endured. But acknowledging the problem doesn’t automatically mean endorsing any proposed palliative and I find myself dubious about the fad for so-called trigger warnings that have now begun to pop up on campuses across the country from Rutgers to Michigan to Santa Barbara.
The notion is that professors should be required to afix a warning label to any assigned reading or viewing that might reawaken such traumas and that perhaps they should even design their courses to avoid any chance of an innocent encournering such triggering material.
But many objections immediately arise. First, how is one to know what work of literature or historical episode might have the power to rekindle quiescent trauma? Victims of pedophile priests might be triggered by the smell of incense, the sound of Latin, the words of the catechism, the music of an organ. Other victims of predation might associate their trauma with a reading of Mother Goose or the music of Michael Jackson.
A policy to warn of any occurrence in the curriculum of sex or violence would put much of the canon off limits. No Greek tragedy would pass muster nor those of Shakespeare, chockablock with murder, suicide, torture, and sexual irregularities. If war stories were to be off limits everything from the “Iliad” to “War and Peace” to “A Farewell to Arms” would have to go.
And at the extreme end of the spectrum, all sorts of other trauma are to be off limits for scholarly attention. Guidelines, such as those being promulgated at Oberlin, seek to guard against anything that could trigger discomfort in those traumatized by racism, sexism, colonialism, heterosexism, ableism, classism.
But what doesn’t allude to all the many ways this old world is wicked and unjust and harsh? Mitt Romney’s campaign could easily have traumatized those sensitive to classism, and we have seen that a black president has been traumatic for many. Activists are demanding warnings on Huck Finn for the racially sensitive, Gatsby for alleged sins of misogyny, the Merchant of Venice for anti-semitism.
But if these masterworks, that hold up a mirror to nature the better to see the world, are intolerable, how can the world itself be borne? If people quail before the nastiness toward Shylock, they had better steer clear of any news from the Middle East or study of the history of the Third Reich or the pograms of Russia or of the Roman Empire for that matter.
In “Ulysses,” Stephen Dedalus said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Too true, and sensitive souls would be well-advised to avoid almost all if it. There’s barely a corner of it free from taint, including our slave-holding founding fathers. And since the subject matter of all literature is humanity, it inevitably concerns our corruption, violence, lust, cruelty and pathology.
Even if the wrong-headed plan to sanitize the curriculum were to work and every potentially disturbing moment could be given a warning label, like a dangerous drug, students world still find themselves in a dorm surrounded by TV shows, rap music, frat parties, football games, and spring breaks far more lurid, violent and perverse than anything covered in class. And the world comes without a trigger warning or a sympathetic professor to help make sense of it.
Short of becoming a recluse, there is no way to hide from life and the damage it can do to us, but it is possible to learn how to deal with it, how to understand it. That used to be thought one of the purposes of the liberal arts in a college education. They were viewed not as a possibly dangerous toxin but as an antidote.
One is reminded of “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” by A. E. Housman. A character who seems to be a bluff, rugby playing, beer-swilling fellow mocks the poet for writing gloomily of life. Eat, drink and be merry, he suggests. Write some upbeat dance tunes instead of dirges “moping, melancholy, mad.”
To which the poet replies that his business is more serious than just amusing people or distracting them from the world’s pain and sorrow. Rather,
“…since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.”
He then offers the parable of Mithridates, an ancient King surrounded by plots and poisoners. Little by little he secretly took small doses of the toxic chemicals until he built up a tolerance. When the poisoners attacked, he lived. They perished.
By analogy, history, literature, and the arts can help prepare us to live in the world and perhaps arm us against it. The trigger-warning folks, with the best of intentions, perhaps, are calling for disarmament.