Archive for March 25th, 2015

Trigger-happy readers

I try not to be too censorious on this blog. When I find myself disagreeing vehemently with any stated position, I do try – on the grounds that nothing in all this unintelligible world can ever be so clear cut as to preclude some trace at least of ambivalence – to see if there is anything, anything at all, that may be said for the other side. But it’s not always easy. When I read, for instance, that students of literature, people who have actually chosen to study the subject at university, and who, one might reasonably assume, had some idea of what they were letting themselves in for, request that works with potentially distressing themes be marked with a “trigger warning” to protect their delicate sensitivities, I find myself thinking hard whether there is anything at all that can be said for their viewpoint.

I tell myself that, after all, sensitivities are indeed fragile things, and I would not care to have them belittled. Those who have been on the receiving end of, say, racist abuse (or worse), may indeed find it mortifying to read the depiction of racism in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Those who have had suicidal tendencies may indeed find it traumatic to enter the suicidal mind of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway. Some may counter that what you may read of made-up characters isn’t really that big a deal, as it’s all “made up”, but we who value literature know better: we acknowledge, as these students do, that it is a big deal, that literature does have the power not only to affect us, but to affect us deeply, to our very core – in some cases, indeed, to traumatise us. So let us grant the students this: in our age, when anything of cultural worth appears systematically to be sidelined away from the mainstream under the pretence that it’s not really that important, it is good to have some acknowledgement at least of the often overwhelming power that books may exert upon the reader’s mind. Better surely to acknowledge the potentially traumatic impact of Mrs Dalloway than to pretend it is but a trifle, a bauble, to while away a few lazy hours when we have nothing more important to do.

So far, I think we’re agreed, and on the same side. It’s the next bit that I have problems with. For the students in question are requesting that books that have the potential to cause distress be marked with what is known as a “trigger warning” – something to let potential readers know that the book may cause distress, so these potential readers may then, should they choose, avoid the book. It is when we come to the word “avoid” that I have a problem. Of course, as a general principle, one is under no obligation to put oneself through something that one finds uncomfortable, let alone distressing or traumatic. But should this general principle extend also to those who have, of their own free will, chosen to study literature? Did they really not understand what they were letting themselves in for?

For literature is the least abstract of all the arts. It is unambiguously about life. Life isn’t, admittedly, all distressing and traumatic, but much of it is, and so, literature has no option but to depict those things that may distress or cause trauma. Literature may also present ways of looking at the world that are disturbing, ideas that may challenge, provoke, and, indeed, traumatise. Perhaps the requested trigger warning should apply to the entire range of literature rather than to just a few books; perhaps all literature faculties in all universities should have engraved over the gate: “Abandon all comfort ye who enter here.” Comfort is for the heritage-style costume-drama adaptations of the classics, not the classics themselves.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – which, I guess, has been around long enough now to be regarded as a “classic” – may, we are told, “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more”. I am a bit unsure from the phrasing what exactly the book may “trigger”: thoughts? feelings? emotions? new ways of perceiving things? new perspectives? If so, are not these triggerings to be welcomed rather than avoided? Some of these triggerings may indeed be distressing, but in literature, as in life, distress is all too often the price one has to pay to experience the wonders on offer.

I also can’t help wondering: is Things Fall Apart likely to “trigger” only those who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide? (And more?) Can the rest of us not be triggered also by this book? Were we to be triggered only by what we have personally experienced, any individual book is unlikely to trigger much at all in any individual, given how minuscule any individual’s personal experience must be in comparison to the sum total of human experiences that literature encompasses. And I don’t know that it’s a good idea – at least for those who have voluntarily chosen to study literature – to avoid those books that trigger our mind into absorbing into our own perspectives the perspectives of others, distressing or even traumatic though they may be. The alternative is to close discourse, to close debate, to close, indeed, our very minds. We have the freedom as private citizens to close our minds, if that is what we really want to do, but perhaps that option should not be made available in institutions of learning.

So, while I am, up to a point, sympathetic with these students, I cannot say I am wholeheartedly in agreement. It’s not that I am asking them to “toughen up”: far from it: to experience literature, you have to hold on to your unhardened sensitivities. And I most certainly am not saying that the distress that literature can cause is but an affectation: it is very real indeed, far more so than is, perhaps, commonly recognised. What I am saying, I think, is that unless you are prepared to have your sensitivities battered, unless you are prepared to accept the distress and the trauma as a price to be paid for seeing the world in new and wondrous ways, then it’s best simply to steer clear of literature altogether. It makes as little sense for those who seek mere comfort to study literature as it does for those who are squeamish about handling animals to study veterinary science.