TRIGGER WARNING: FEAR OF TRAUMA AS A MAJOR OBSTACLE TO AN EDUCATION IN CITIZENSHIP

I’m flabbergasted by the article which Prof. Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of the forthcoming What’s Happened to the University?: A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation, published recently in The Guardian. “Too many academics are now censoring themselves” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/11/censor-lecturers-trigger-warnings-students-distressed) does not deal, as the title hints, with the pressure from conservative academic authorities to avoid certain issues in university classrooms. It deals, rather, with the students’ pressure to silence Literature teachers touching on topics and events that might upset them. The concept is so alien to me that I had to read the piece twice to understand what Furedi means.

It appears that American college students started requesting ‘trigger warnings’ a couple of years ago to avoid the potential distress of certain scenes in Literature. An article also in The Guardian by Alison Flood (May 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/19/us-students-request-trigger-warnings-in-literature) claimed that some US students were refusing to analyze rape and war scenes in the fiction they had to read. Among the books outed as likely to trigger trauma by these reluctant students are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The students requested, if I understand correctly, that teachers added a trigger warning to the books in the syllabus. Thus, for instance, students who had gone through a traumatic episode connected with suicide would be warned in advance that Woolf’s novel might be painful to read. The same applies to rape victims asked to read Titus Andronicus. This demand and its reasoning, logically, elicited a huge controversy. However, a later article by Jessica Valenti (of December 2015), reported that “a new study shows that the actual use and influence of trigger warnings are so low as to be almost nonexistent”. The issue, she says, was misrepresented and hugely exaggerated.

If this is the case, and I certainly hope that it is, then we need to take Furedi’s article with a pinch of salt. To begin with, he presents a situation in which British, not only American students, are increasingly demanding trigger warnings. He, however, refers just to some anecdotes, no matter how worrying they can be (students refusing to be taught about the Holocaust
), as a prelude to warning that “Shielding students from topics deemed sensitive is fast gaining influence in academic life”.

I have, nevertheless, seen for myself that, as Furedi points out, the 2015-16 undergraduate handbook of the University of Newcastle contains a “School Statement on Use of Sensitive Material in Undergraduate Lectures, Seminars, Reading Lists” (https://www.ncl.ac.uk/media/wwwnclacuk/englishliteraturelanguagesandlinguistics/files/ug-handbook-2015.pdf). Sensitive topics covered by teachers include, they warn, “the depiction/discussion of rape, suicide, graphic violence” and other themes. In the Humanities, they add, “it is inevitable that distressing life events and situations can and will be encountered in texts and assignments”. After guaranteeing students that there is sufficient information warning them in advance about the modules content, the Newcastle academic authorities “warmly” encourage concerned students “to use this information to consider how best they can prepare themselves to study challenging material in a way that is appropriate for them”. Next, they offer the “support and guidance” of the module/seminar leaders, personal tutors, and the Student Wellbeing Service. I am truly speechless.

Furedi wonders, as I’m doing now, what exactly is meant by “challenging material”. He is also puzzled by how the meaning of the adjective ‘challenging’ has changed from ‘hard to tackle intellectually’ to ‘potentially unsettling’. He concludes, as any Literature teacher would do, that “It is difficult to think of any powerful literary text that does not disturb a reader’s sensibility”–most are meant to do exactly that. In the last line of the article he bemoans that “Sadly, far too many academics have responded to the pressure to protect students from disturbing ideas by censoring themselves”. Perhaps this is the main problem here: that teachers in Anglo-American universities have started censoring themselves before asking students how they were actually reacting to certain ‘challenging’ issues.

I cannot say whether the handbook of the University of Newcastle is typical or atypical. It seems to me that the notice I have quoted is, rather, a misguided attempt at protecting themselves from trouble not yet arising. A case of ‘forewarned is forearmed’. My own experience of teaching these last weeks the at points truly violent Oliver Twist is that I was the one pointing out the potentially shocking scenes, as students struggled with Dickens’ old-fashioned prose. When I started a discussion about Dickens’s racist representation of the Jewish criminal Fagin, the students were the ones to defend the argument that his racism needs to be contextualized in the Victorian Age. I have read Chinua Achebe’s outing of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a racist text in class, in front of a black student and she reacted by offering a well-articulated response to the racism in the text and to Achebe’s reaction rather than by asking me to stop. Or dashing out of the classroom in tears.

I’m so surprised by all this controversy that I find it really hard to offer a minimally coherent argumentation. It might well be that Anglo-American society and its college students are so totally alien that I just don’t know what to make of the articles I am commenting on here. I find the Spanish/Catalan students sitting in my classes open-minded, interested in discussing absolutely everything, eager to break boundaries when I step into risky territory (which is quite often) and not at all hostile. I do not feel that I have to censor myself at all, perhaps because I work in an institution known for its liberal, left-wing ideological positioning and students know what to expect from us, teachers.

Having said that, I acknowledge that we, teachers, do not know our students well and, so, there is certainly always a risk that a student may be negatively affected by something we teach because s/he has endured a terrible personal trauma. I believe that in this specific case, teacher and student can come to an agreement and solve the problem through alternative assessment. This situation, which seems to be the basis for the demand of the inclusion of trigger warnings in the syllabus of US universities– exaggerated as the concern may be–has nothing to do with, as Furadi reports, a student adamantly rejecting to see photos of Holocaust victims because she feared being traumatised by them. One thing is dealing with a student who has endured a traumatic situation in his/her life, and a very different matter dealing with overprotected children unable to stomach the appalling truth of human behaviour.

That overprotection is understood very differently on both shores of the Atlantic, and not only regarding young persons, was recently demonstrated by Facebook’s decision to censor the famous photo taken by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim PhĂșc, the little Vietnamese girl running away terrified from the horrors of war. Since she is naked in that photo, Facebook censored it on the grounds that it was a form of child pornography. An indignant Norwegian newspaper editor shamed Facebook into correcting this gross error by pointing out that rather than protect children they were censoring historical truth. Now, suppose I show the photo in class and a student complains that it is distressing. I can see the rest of my class guffawing and/or open-mouthed. They would rush to explain to this person that we need to care about the trauma which the victims of history have suffered and not about the trauma we, privileged persons, might suffer. For without empathy we fail to be educated as citizens.

My concern, rather, is that a generation used to the ultra-realistic representation of carnage and sadism in current fiction, from videogames to Literature, may be too desensitized to understand personal trauma, both that of the Holocaust victims and that of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. Since the products that my students (and myself) consume come mainly from the United States I am wondering how and why US college students can claim to be so afraid of trauma. How does the same nation produce the brutal Django Unchained (no trigger warnings here) and also college students who will not discuss racism in Literature? It baffles me.

There is something else that these students and teachers are missing. Here go two personal experiences with traumatised students. A girl asked me specifically to work for her BA dissertation on a novel that narrated female self-abuse, leading to anorexia and which included suicidal tendencies. Why? She had issues to overcome and to outgrow. I initially panicked that her demand would entangle us in an impossible situation but in the end she used her BA dissertation in a way which can only described as beautifully therapeutic. I have immense respect for this young woman. In the other case, I asked students to write about their experience of reading Harry Potter for an online volume and a young man ended publishing an account of how he was abused and neglected as a child–much like Harry Potter. I was dreadfully nervous about publishing this but he reassured me: he felt happy and liberated by the chance to deal with his trauma.

So, here’s the lesson: reading Literature is an exercise in empathy which helps you to face your personal traumas and, above all, to understand the life of the traumatised fictional characters. This prepares you for the education in citizenship that you need to feel empathy for the victims of History and of life around you. May you never be one of them.

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