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The American sensitivity lobby gets trigger happy.

The Sensitivity Lobby in some American universities have been twisting their collectivist knickers recently over something they call “triggers”. These are nasty things that crop up in literature, such as descriptions or discussions of violence, sexual assault, racism, sexism, any ism or phobia you can come up with, that could trigger an adverse reaction in students who may have suffered any of these isms.

Lecturers, administrators, universities, colleges and anyone who makes students read these books should, according to the sensitives, provide “trigger warnings” to avoid potential freak-outs and attacks of the vapours. And possible litigation, of course.

Proponents of the idea in the UK (such as Laurie Penny in The New Statesman), say that we already have warnings for distressing films and that news reports often use vague language to describe sexual or violent incidents, so it makes sense to have a similar approach to books. Perhaps Ms Penny hasn’t realised that news reports and films are not the same as books. There’s a big difference between reading something violent and seeing it depicted visually. And if you want to have an idea of a book’s content without suffering the trauma of actually reading it you can either consult Wikipedia, read the entry on Amazon or even scan the blurb on the back of the damn thing. Or consult Coles Notes.

Sarah Ditum, by the way, writing in the same journal as Ms Penny, manages to jump the whole shark, saying we need trigger warnings to act like road signs informing travellers of the evils ahead. In this way we can start to “make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence”. That’s because because the literary canon is male and white and blah blah blah, if you hadn’t realised.

A few years ago I ran a writing workshop with some arts students. During the discussion someone described a female character as a bitch. One student, mature but definitely not elderly, was visibly shocked. “How could anyone use such disgusting language about another person?” she said. It left the rest of us wondering how can anyone with such a febrile view of life could possibly get through a single day in the world without suffering a complete mental breakdown.

So I’m afraid I’m definitely in the “toughen up” school on this one. I don’t remember anyone freaking out at school or university because of something on the reading list and don’t see why we have to expect it now. I did disturb a friend at college once by getting him to read A Happy Death by Camus: he was an electrical engineer, though, and wasn’t used to such things. I don’t think he suffered long-lasting trauma from it, but that’s probably because he was a white member of the patriarchy and therefore evil.

Re-reading the Iliad  recently I came upon a disgusting piece of patriarchal, imperialist violence that would definitely require a trigger warning at Rutgers. A young Trojan called Ilioneus gets speared by Peneleus, a Greek. The spear goes in through his eye socket and out at the nape of the neck. Homer says the spear “dislodged the eyeball” (this is the Rieu translation), which is suitably graphic and would have the milquetoasts retching over their Kindles. Peneleus chops Ilioneus’s head off with his sword and lifts it aloft on the end of his spear for everyone to see. That’s gory-ish, but the best bit is Homer’s description of it as like a poppy-head. Peneleus then makes a terrible joke, saying that Ilioneus’s mother will never having the joy of seeing her son again.

A stunningly brutal image encapsulated in a brilliant and unexpected image, combined with a bad joke. I can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe that deserves another type of trigger warning: great literature – not for wimps.

Michael Blackburn.

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