Trigger warnings are important — and so are books on sensitive subjects
If you haven't already heard (or read), writer, actor and comedian Stephen Fry made some seriously insensitive comments about child abuse victims and trigger warnings preceding his opinion of rape and its effect on an individual's choice of literature.
In short, Fry said in an interview on political correctness for The Rubin Report, that "there are many great plays which contain rape... if you say you can't watch this play, you can't watch Titus Andronicus, or you can't read it in a Shakespeare class, or you can't read Macbeth because it's got children being killed in it, [or] it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place, well I'm sorry."
As a student who is about to receive a bachelor's in English literature, I have to agree.
When Fry said he feels those who have experienced these situations personally should get over their self-pity, he upset a lot of people. One Twitter user even feels that he should be arrested for hate speech:
Another user even believes that Fry doesn't understand sexual abuse, and that his statement was appalling.
Fry explained that "it's a great shame, and we're all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place — you get some of my sympathy — but your self-pity gets none of my sympathy because self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity."
His choice of words is quite possibly the worst way to explain his opinion. Still, I admit I agree with his basic premise.
No, I do not feel that victims of child abuse should get over their traumas because that is absolutely impossible — and heartless — for me or anyone else to say. I also do not feel that those who are victims of child abuse live their lives pitying themselves. I can only imagine living with that unimaginable trauma is a difficult weight, and I am truly sorry for anyone who has to endure it. I am saddened that there is potential that a victim may have to relive these traumas due to assigned literature or class discussions.
However, I sincerely hope that this factor does not discourage college professors or teachers from assigning works of literature that contain these taboo subjects, just to avoid trigger warnings in their classrooms.
And that may be happening. A professor named Edward Schlosser wrote an essay on Vox last year, citing a situation in which he witnessed an adjunct professor not get his contract renewed because he exposed his students to "offensive" texts in his class. Those texts were by classic authors Edward Said and Mark Twain. That motivated Schlosser to cut out different pieces of literature from his syllabi that would upset his undergrad students, and he claims "[he] wasn't the only one either."
A fair share of professors have come out to say that trigger warnings are counterproductive and can negatively affect faculty and students. A group of seven professors collaborated on a personal essay in Inside Higher Ed in 2014, warning against trigger warnings and introducing their own take on how touchy subjects should be approached.
The group notes that "there is simply no way for faculty to solve for this with warnings or modified course material." In other words, taking the course material out as a whole would be completely impossible and not the right way to handle touchy subjects.
There are so many works of literature out there that have impacted society in infinite ways. We have Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Frank Norris's McTeague and many others that have opened society to an entire new realm of literature. And without these remarkable plays and novels, we would have never experienced such beautiful language, love stories and tragedies. Yet, all of these works contain rape, sexual assault or child abuse. Is taking these works out of a college course the right response to prevent the need for trigger warnings? Absolutely not!
Having read each work that has been mentioned, I can attest to the fact that they need to be taught, and we shouldn't let ourselves be controlled by what is in the context. We must value and appreciate the language and the care that went into these works and the overall meaning behind them. In my college career — having taken a surplus of literature courses — one novel impacted me the most and is the main reason why I agree with Stephen Fry. That novel is Nabokov's Lolita. If you are not familiar with Lolita, it is a book that delves into the mind of a pedophile who is infatuated with having sexual relationships with girls as young as 9 years old. Moreover, he doesn't desire anyone who is older than 12.
Although the context of the book is completely taboo, I'm still glad I was able to read it in an educational setting. The language Nabokov uses is so beautiful and detailed that to be told it couldn't be assigned to the class due to the potential of emotional distress would be an abomination to literary education.
The professor who assigned my class Lolita may have the answer as to how we can avoid tossing great works of literature, while at the same time protecting students who may be sensitive to certain topics. LIU Post's professor of English, Dr. Dennis Pahl, gave my class an entire list of books — including Lolita — on our syllabus in the beginning of the semester. When we reached Lolita, he decided to add that the context of the story is not something that we are used to, and it may make us extremely uncomfortable. He finally told us it was about a pedophile and said nothing more, warning us of what was to come. Dr. Pahl tried to instill in us that Nabokov was being satirical, and we must appreciate his language and not take the context too seriously.
I did not feel like Dr. Pahl was coddling me, I thought he was simply giving me background on the text before I react with my own opinion. Although we all had a lot to say about the novel, my class as a whole — myself included — was more comfortable in class discussion than I think we would have been if he didn't give us the background in the first place.
I believe that this approach — in literature, in class discussions, etc. — is the happy medium we need at universities and colleges to avoid emotional stress within students without completely depriving others of great works of literature.