Milk-fed veal calves.
Do you know what a trigger warning is? I didn’t until recently. A trigger warning is a note at the entry point to a book, film, trailer etc warning of potentially disturbing material contained therein that might “trigger” a negative, potentially damaging response in an individual “consumer” of that product. Apparently, the use of trigger warnings (TWs) is very common in fan-fiction, possibly because so much fan fiction is tripe, full of bizarre, and often unpleasant, couplings and uncouplings of other people’s characters— a phenomenon known as “Lemon” for boring reasons I can’t be bothered to go into.
Now, I don’t have any deep-seated objection to TWs. Why should I, it’s really none of my business, and in some instances it’s a good idea, no different from age limits on films and parental advisories on music labels. If I were choosing a book for my young kids, out of all the tens of thousands available, and if my husband were a child-beater or a drug-addict, I might be very grateful for a TW stating that these issues were addressed in the book. Then I might opt to buy, or not buy, as my parental judgement suggested.
However, when students in dozens of America’s top Universities start asking for TWs on the books selected for English Literature courses, surely that’s a step too far. The link to the Guardian article below is just one of dozens you can pull up at a click.
Some of the books that the students want advisories on include The Great Gatsby and– extraordinarily– The Merchant of Venice. Might I suggest that anyone who fears their suicidal tendencies may be triggered by Scott Fitzgerald’s 80 year old masterpiece, or their anti-semitic tendencies by the very play which gave us the phrase “the quality of mercy is not strained” is not ready for a third-level course of study of literature?
What is great literature for, if not to hold a mirror up to mankind and to warn “Here be monsters”— to provoke fear, loathing, shame, redemption and hope? I have no problem with people reading comfortable, enjoyable commercial fiction, I read it myself, but to be somehow afraid of the powerful, gut-wrenching, punch in the solar plexus that comes during the suicide scene in Jude the Obscure, is to deprive oneself of a chance to learn, to grow, to empathise, to weep, and perhaps, to heal.
One of the most distressing modern books I have ever read, is Chris Cleave’s “Little Bee” which I read under its original title of “The other hand.” I read the book in two horrified, transfixed, marathon sessions. The only reason I didn’t read it all in one epic sweep, as usual, is that I was simply unable to continue. I wept. I gasped. Snot fell onto the pages. I couldn’t eat or even swallow. I don’t know if I will ever be able to read it again, although I tend to read books over and over until their spines give in. Is it distressing? Horribly so. Is it full of triggers? Packed full, you name it, it’s in there. Should students of English literature be protected from it? Definitely not. I would argue that the themes of this book are so vital, so real, so desperately important to the lives of those of us in the Western World and to our understanding of our place on the planet we share, that it should be required reading at senior High School level in every developed country. And if the students cry? Let them cry. And if they find it distressing? Let them be distressed, that’s what important literature does. And if they have flashbacks to certain scenes? They won’t be alone, I’ll be right there with them, flashing-back, pondering, living, learning and growing.
And if the idea of Trigger Warnings does get a hold in the English departments of America’s top universities, among a generation who feel they deserve protection from the realities of life as she is lived?
Then, to steal a phrase from a facebook conversation on this topic, (oh how I wish I could claim this remark as my own) we run a real risk of allowing our young people to grow up, not merely as mindless, flock-following sheep, but as milk-fed veal calves.