Saturday, May 24, 2014

Trigger Warnings

The humanities have been besieged with political correctness for a long time. I'm hardly going to argue that some of it hasn't been good. Those who have insisted that we have a larger canon, for example, have in doing so managed to introduce many in the West to a wider variety of works of literature from around the world. One of the consequences of this is that people are brought into other minds, other ways of living, other cultures and beliefs through the characters of the works, in the safe play space that is literature.

Of course, the flip side of political correctness is that it precisely views literature as anything but a safe play space. Literature is considered dangerous, not safe; and literature is to be taken with utmost seriousness, not as a place of play. It is this tendency that results in the politicization of literature. It is this tendency that results in the reduction of literature to a few political points, and which has finally resulted in the idea of "Trigger Warnings."

Most ideas out of the politically correct crowd have primarily triggered only a handful of cranks on the right. But the mostly negative reaction to this idea of trigger warnings has come from every angle, from the right as well as the left, conservatives and liberals. Jay Caspian Kang has written about it in The New Yorker, Jennifer Medina has written about it in The New York Times, Jill Filipovic has written about it in The Guardian, Conor Friedersdorf has written about it in The Atlantic, and Kevin Drum has written about it in Mother Jones. These are hardly right-wing outlets.

What, exactly, is a trigger warning? It is a warning that a work may contain scenes of rape, incest, murder, racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, violence, war, etc., so that those who don't want to read about such things can opt out. The fear is that if you have been raped, you may not want to read about someone being raped, because that might trigger a negative response in you. Many are treating this like the supporters are saying that the last thing on earth anyone would ever want to do is make someone even the slightest bit uncomfortable. What they are saying is much more ignorant of what literature does to and for the reader than that.

Since at least Aristotle we have known that literature has a cathartic effect. One way to understand this effect is to understand that works of literature act as a safe play space. You are in a place of pretend, where nothing is real, and where you can experience things -- danger, joy, fear, love, hate, outrage, hope, wonder -- in a safe place. There is nothing real at stake, so you can experience a variety of actions and emotions, ideas and beliefs in a place you can enter into and exit out of at will. By experiencing these things, you learn how to deal with them -- or not deal with them. You learn what it feels like to be a woman if you are a man, a man if you are a woman, someone of another race or ethnicity or culture or belief system. You experience different times and different ways people treat each other. Thus, literature acts to create greater empathy for others. More, it trains our emotions, so that we are in more control of those emotions.

This latter is exactly why, if you have been raped, you ought to read works of literature in which a rape has occurred. Why, if you have experienced racism, you ought to read works of literature in which racism is presented. Why, if you have experienced colonialism, you ought to read works of literature in which colonialism is a theme. By raising those emotions in the safe play space of literature, you learn to deal with those emotions better. You learn to be in more control of those emotions.

In other words, if you understand the cathartic role of literature, you cannot be in favor of trigger warnings. But I suspect those who favor them have probably not read Aristotle's Poetics (his being a DWM makes reading him un-PC). Had they read and understood Aristotle, they would understand that the best thing that could happen is if you read things that make you uncomfortable, and evoke an emotional response. It is then that literature has its transformative effect (one of them, anyway). If you warn people away from works of literature that might trigger the very emotions literature needs to trigger to have its cathartic effect, then you are preventing them from reaping one of the great benefits of literature. You are ensuring that those people will remain delicate, fragile, emotionally immature.

I cannot imagine the emotional wreck I would be had I not read works of literature that dredged up -- and, subsequently, made me deal with -- some quite negative emotions. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe would have perhaps gone unread by me had I been warned off -- and, as a consequence, I wouldn't have dealt with a number of emotional situations I was faced with in the mid-1990s. I could say the same of Crime and Punishment by Dostoevski. Or The Immoralist by Andre Gide.

And those are works that had a personal effect on me, helping me deal with a variety of emotional and personality issues. I could go on and on about works that opened my eyes to different ways of living, different ways of being, different ways of believing, that have contributed to my increasing liberalism. That is the effect of literature -- to liberalize and emotionally mature the reader. And it is those effects that "trigger warnings" seek to ensure people avoid. Thus, the politicization of literature has finally come around to realizing its true intent: to eliminate literature from our lives, so that we won't be liberalized and emotionally matured.

If we reduce literary works to political talking points and "triggers," then we lose the beauty of the works, the complexity of the works, the role those works play in developing the soul. But losing those things is of course exactly the point. The mostly negative reaction to this idea of "trigger warnings" is a good sign, though. Let us hope that this is indeed the step too far, and that it does not become widely used and gotten used to. For if we do get used to it, we will lose literature itself. And we will have done it voluntarily.
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