You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Life Is "Triggering." The Best Literature Should Be, Too.

A few Columbia students want warnings on Ovid. What's next? Here's what Literature Fascism would look like.

Sadly, the decline in free speech at American universities, and the proliferation of ludicrous “trigger warning” mandates for books and courses, are topics covered largely by the right-wing media, so often I must hold my nose as I examine their sources. But even a right-wing venue can get stuff right, as Legal Insurrection does on the latest bit of nonsense from American campuses: a request from students at Columbia University (a great school, by the way) to put trigger warnings on the work of Roman poet Ovid.

In an op-ed in the Columbia student newspaper The Spectator, four student members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board (MAAB) declare that “Our identities matter in Core classrooms.” A “core” curriculum, of course, is a slate of courses all students are required to take, usually comprising humanities courses designed to expose people to great thinking, writing, and a diversity of opinions that will inspire discussion. But, according to the MAAB students, one course had some inimical effects on a student:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

That professor was clearly wrong to dismiss the student, and perhaps he or she might have mentioned beforehand that there is violence and sexual assault in Ovid, but that’s as far as I’d go. After all, what body of literature, including the Bible and the Muslim hadith, doesn’t mention violence and sexual assault? The Bible even sanctions rape. Should divinity schools put trigger warnings on the Old Testament? I am sorry about the student who couldn’t abide the mention of sexual assault, but she should be getting help for her triggering from a therapist, not from a professor. Without such help, she’ll go through life triggered by every magazine and newspaper she sees.

The pathway of such trigger warnings—not just for sexual assault but for violence, bigotry, and racism—will eventually lead to every work of literature being labeled as potentially offensive. There goes the Bible, there goes Dante, there goes Huck Finn (loaded with racism), there goes all the old literature written before we realized that minorities, women, and gays weren’t second-class people. And as for violence and hatred, well, they’re everywhere, for they’re just as much parts of literature as parts of life. Crime and Punishment? Trigger warning: brutal violence against an old woman. The Great Gatsby? Trigger warning: violence against women (remember when Tom Buchanan broke Mrs. Wilson’s nose?). The Inferno? Trigger warning: graphic violence, sodomy, and torture. Dubliners? Trigger warning: pedophilia. 

This is the road that Literature Fascism leads to (from the letter):

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

In the end, anybody can claim offense or triggering about anything: liberals about conservative politics, pacifists against violence, women against sexism, minorities against bigotry, Jews against anti-Semitism, Muslims against any mention of Israel, creationists against evolution, religionists against atheism, and so on.  This ineluctably leads to a bland homogenization of all literature, and a stifling of challenging viewpoints. As someone who’s culturally Jewish, I’ve deliberately read anti-Semitic books like Mein Kampf, watched movies like Triumph of the Will, and read “triggering” material like The Diary of Anne Frank (trigger warning: anti-Semitism). I’ve deliberately visited Auschwitz to see what it was like (immensely disturbing and unforgettable; everyone should go), and I’ve read accounts of its inmates, like Primo Levi’s moving Survival in Auschwitz (see the extract I published here).

All of that saddened me, deeply upset me, and brought me to tears. But I am glad I did it, for in a way it’s enriched my life. It’s awakened me to not only what “decent people” are capable of under the right circumstances, but also to how humans can, in impossible situations, function and survive (or die) with bravery. Such literature shows us the full panoply of the human psyche, from its heights to its depths—and, after all, isn’t that what Shakespeare and Dostoevsky were about? 

Don’t get me wrong: For too long, colleges overlooked a wonderful body of literature by minorities, non-Anglophones, and those outside the Ancient Greek–Modern Democracy continuum. The “core” should include that other literature. But the core is not a form of therapy; it’s a form of exposure to diverse ideas, and it should not have the aim of making people feel “safe.” In fact, that’s precisely the opposite of its aim. And that’s what these students get wrong:

The MAAB, an extension of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, is an advocacy group dedicated to ensuring that Columbia’s campus is welcoming and safe for students of all backgrounds. This year, we explored possible interventions in Core classrooms, where transgressions concerning student identities are common. Beyond the texts themselves, class discussions can disregard the impacts that the Western canon has had and continues to have on marginalized groups.

By all means, work towards avoiding a hostile environment for learning, but also promote a challenging environment for learning. The MAAB isn’t concerned with that last part; their main goal is to make students feel “safe” by deep-sixing what offends them.

Finally the students tender three recommendations:

First, we proposed that the [Center for the Core Curriculum] issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students. Next, we noted that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.

Yes, of course students can anonymously complain to professors; I have no problem with that, although such interactions are best done in person (most of us are not hostile to students, or we wouldn’t be teaching!). But professors do not need “sensitivity training classes.” We professors are not therapists, for proper training of that sort takes ages. What we can do to support triggered students is to refer them to professionals who can sensitively deal with and, perhaps, defuse their anxieties. And if some of us do transgress with inappropriate remarks to students, then we should be called out and perhaps punished. But most of us, after all, know how to comport ourselves in the classroom. Training us to “embrace all identities” smacks of Big Brotherhood—and there are some identities, like homophobia, I don’t want to embrace.

It’s time for students to learn that Life is Triggering. Once they leave college, they’ll be constantly exposed to views that challenge or offend them. There are a lot of jerks out there, and no matter what your politics are, a lot of people will have the opposite view. If you’re an atheist, you’ll live in a world of people whom you see as hostile and delusional believers. If you’re a believer, you’ll encounter vociferous heathens like me. If you’re a feminist, well, sexism is alive and well.

That’s why one of college’s most important functions is to learn how to hear and deal with challenging ideas. Cocooning oneself in a Big Safe Space for four years gets it exactly backwards. “Safety” has been transformed by colleges from “protection from physical harm” to “protection from disturbing ideas.”

A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.