No, this isn’t about a threat to life and limb from guns on campus—thank heavens!—but about a threat to the life of the mind: calls for “trigger warnings” on college syllabi and assignments to caution students that assigned material may be disturbing.
A proposed guide at Oberlin college suggests warnings for a broad range of triggers:
Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic…
The list is fascinating. Can you confidently define cissexism? (I had to double-check.) Notice what’s not on the list: anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, xenophobia, for example. It’s a race-class-gender list . . . almost as though we were back in the 1980s and the heyday of political correctness.
And it’s not just Oberlin. A New York Times article describes calls for trigger warnings at a wide range of colleges and universities, both public and private: UC-Santa Barbara, the University of Michigan, Rutgers University, and The George Washington University.
Should Jewish students be exempt from reading, or at least cautioned, before reading The Merchant of Venice and Oliver Twist, so that they aren’t traumatized by the authors’ treatment of Shylock and Fagin? Or Catholic students cautioned before encountering John Stuart Mill’s scorn for Catholicism in On Liberty?
To the contrary, to suggest that students can’t encounter disturbing ideas without trauma is to conceive of them as Milquetoasts who want their college years to be the equivalent of listening to a top-40 radio station for four years, never asked to listen and respond to anything that they haven’t read or heard in the past.
The chief concern of those calling for trigger warnings, as the Oberlin guide suggests, is sexual relations. If we really want a more intelligent, nuanced conversation about the sexual culture on campus, including date rape, some of the most helpful readings might be classic texts that contend with the ambiguity of he said/she said, courtship gone awry, and seduction.
Although it would require a trigger warning under the proposed guidelines at Oberlin, what better text than Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady? Or, if Richardson’s Clarissa is too long (at 1,534 pages!) or too dated, what about Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, a twentieth-century masterpiece on the complexities of race, religion, and the question about whether or not there was a rape or consensual sex? Or, even more simply, John Donne’s “The Flea”? But wouldn’t it be a shame to hide this beautiful poem—with its suggestions of seduction but also of violence—behind a trigger warning?
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.