18 Jun 2014

VSNL: Trigger Warnings Coming To Books?



I find it hard to believe too but Trigger warning tags might be coming to literature books soon.

Over the last two decades in the Western world there has been increasing emphasis on the term ‘Political correctness, which basically is trying as much as possible to not cause offense to the beliefs or moral sensibilities of others whether deliberate or accidental. This has slowly pervaded all aspects of life there and trickled down here. Political correctness has seen the most fight from the Arts (film, music, visual arts and literature) who feel that the political correctness movement stifles freedom of expression. Trigger warnings in film and music became a sort of middle ground for both parties, a kind of buyer beware, so the audience still has access to uncensored work without being accidentally offended by its content.
Over the last decade the conversation about political correctness has slowly settled on
literature with many groups asking for the contents of books to be censored by the some official body. This has come in part from the psychiatric and pseudo-psychiatric communities of the west who believe that their patients receiving treatment for Trauma of some kind can be made to relive or experience anew the incident that damaged them through a Trigger ; a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch that reminds them of the traumatic event. In lay man’s terms, anything.  As the debate about trauma progressed, it grew to include historical trauma (slavery and the holocaust), gender based trauma (sexism and patriarchy). With the inclusion of such broad terms of trauma, books and film which routinely deal with these problems became the target of organisations seeking to ‘spare’ people of the possible trigger warnings of the contents of these books.
Now while film is a multi-billion dollar business with very strong players, they have been largely able to rebuff these petitions, same as the fiction publishing industry. The fight has now been turned to academic learning. According to a New York Times post (read here) student groups in several liberal universities across America have filed petitions that the classical and contemporary novels studied as part of their literature and English related disciplines come with trigger warnings to alert students about incidences of Suicide, Rape, Racism, War, Religious Bigotry and a handful of other themes and scenarios deemed possibly traumatic for students. In the University of Santa Barbara California, the student government itself has formally requested for trigger warnings to be included in the academic curriculum, and lecturers be formally requested to use them and allow students with problems with the study materials to skip the courses. While the universities have not officially accepted these suggestions or petitions, it has become a serious discussion.
Books like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Virginia Woolf’s Mr Dalloway, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and even Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and The Jewel and Sir. Chinua Achebe’s iconic Things Fall Apart are books already targeted for potential trigger warnings. Criticism of the idea of Trigger Warnings for Novels has far exceeded the support for it. Across the world, University professors and students have come up to voice their displeasure, citing that all good books tackle society’s controversial and volatile situations and allows students experience and form opinions on them. Some have gone as far to ask America’s students to ‘man up’ and stop forcing their hypersensitivity to everything on the academic system, others have accused the students of stifling freedom of speech and expression, imposing their ideologies on others. Literature confronts and sheds a light on troubling things and if there is such a risk of being traumatized then students should study less offensive disciplines.
Nigeria takes a lot of academic decisions from the West, if trigger warnings become a thing, then it would only be a matter of time before it trickles down here. The film adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of Yellow Sun was pulled from Nigerian cinemas for its exploration of the Nigerian Civil War especially now with volatile nature of the country’s political landscape. It only stands to reason that the book itself would probably have a hard time getting added to our academic curriculum for the same reason. So in that case would trigger warnings be a less stringent way of addressing the potential triggers in the book?
The idea of trigger warnings censures not just what the student will read and experience and discuss in the classroom but also what the writer is allowed to write. It sends a subtle but powerful message that to be read in universities and schools writers have to streamline their subject matter, sometimes avoiding personal experience to produce material that ‘non-confrontational’. But at the same time, this brings up the serious discussion of how different the viewpoints in classical literature differ from our viewpoints now. Slavery and racial segregation is so far removed from the cultural integration of our ‘modern’ world. It makes sense that being exposed to these would bring up strong emotions, emotions that the teacher needs to carefully guide towards a positive outcome. While Trigger warnings might be the wrong way to go about it, the sentiments behind the idea should be properly explored.
So what are your thoughts on Trigger warnings on classical and contemporary works of fiction on academic syllabuses; timely or pointless?


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