Warning: This Column Will Offend You
Should students be warned that reading The Great Gatsby might “trigger” a past trauma? The campus censors think so. But they are only protecting your feelings.
At the University of California, Santa Barbara, the student senate, which appears to be staffed by the only people in the solar system dumber than actual senators, passed a resolution to “begin the process of instituting mandatory ‘trigger warnings’ on class syllabi,” flagging books that could make students feel uncomfortable. One student arguing in favor of the measure commented, with all the grace and wit of Soviet bureaucrat, “I’ve been in this kind of situation before — it sucks; we should pass it.”
The poison is spreading, with even less intelligent students across the country demanding their schools take action. At Rutgers, an opinion piece in the student newspaper demanded that “trigger warnings” be affixed to various great works of literature, fearing the tender souls sleeping through English classes might confront difficult social issues:
For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence. Virginia Woolf’s famous cerebral narrative, Mrs. Dalloway, paints a disturbing narrative that examines the suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic experiences of an English war veteran. And Junot Diaz’s critically acclaimed work, This is How You Lose Her, observes domestic violence and misogynistic culture in disturbing first-person narrations.
And this stuff isn’t dribbling only out of the mouths of undergraduates. Oberlin College codified the trigger warning into its teacher guide, telling professors to “avoid” triggers in their classrooms. “Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma,” faculty are told. “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”
The idea was shelved last week, pending further debate. Shielding students from the cissexism of the Western canon was too silly even for Oberlin.
I have often argued with conservative friends that the final ledger on political correctness wasn’t all negative. The casual racism once found in polite company, while certainly not eradicated, is almost unthinkable today. But my unilateral declaration of an end to the kulturkampf was depressingly naive. Because language cops are like pornographers: The stuff that was once seen as extreme has become quotidian, demanding that it be replaced with something even more extreme and confusing.
All of this is the unsurprising result of teaching soft-headed but well-intentioned college students that if we can control language, we can control behavior. But these handy phrases-as-argument both skirt and ultimately suffocate real debate, often demanding feelings be valued above reality.