Rich Lowry: Warning - literature ahead

The latest politically correct fashion on college campus 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.

The student government of the University of California at Santa Barbara passed a resolution calling for professors to include trigger warnings in their syllabi. The New York Times reports that students at schools from the University of Michigan to George Washington University have requested the warnings. A student at Rutgers University proposed a trigger warning for “The Great Gatsby” about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence” (not to mention binge drinking, reckless driving, profligate spending and gross social climbing).

Oberlin College, long the nation’s leader in the earnestly ridiculous, seeks to be the FDA of political correctness, with warnings about classroom material nearly as comprehensive as the litany of side effects included in advertisements for a new drug. The school’s Office of Equity Concerns published a document for faculty (since pulled for more work after professors complained) urging them to “understand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings.” It exhorts professors to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [i.e., prejudice against the transgendered], ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

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 Miserables” 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 specie-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 can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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