Before adolescence, when I discovered science fiction, I didn’t read much fiction (a bit of Charlotte’s Web and Clan of the Cave being exceptions). But I did read a lot of Greek mythology. I quickly outgrew the “childrens’ section” of the library, and spent a fair amount of time reading from the adult stacks. This meant that I encountered a lot of weird material, which I was definitely not psychologically ready to process. Some of that stuff is seriously fucked up. It starts at the beginning, when Cronus eats his own children. And it ends with Orestes slaying his own mother, though perhaps more disturbing to me was the killing of Astyanax (though let’s be honest, you can pick your poison in The Iliad). Then there’s The Odyssey, which can be spun as an adventure tale. What’s not to like? But it definitely makes The Hobbit seem rated PG. For a pre-adolescent child the climax, where Odysseus kills all his suitors, was disturbing and confusing. Specifically, this seemed a major overreaction! But then at that point I didn’t understand the social context, nor did I really understand romantic feelings and jealousy in any concrete manner.
I bring this up because The Wall Street Journal has a piece out which is now a standard template form, School’s Out at Columbia, but a Debate Over Trigger Warnings Continues:
But students said the school is prioritizing an outdated, Eurocentric selection despite Columbia’s diverse student body, mandating works with overtones of racism and sexism and teaching them uncritically. Many of them have said that if the school insists on requiring works depicting rape then those books should come with a warning—either verbally from a professor or stated on the syllabus.
“Some people would prefer not to be blindsided by reminders of traumatic experiences,” said Charlotte Bullard Davies, a rising senior studying political science.
Some of the issue here is the standard demand for a canon that expands beyond “Dead White Males.” And some of the concern has to deal with people who have experienced genuine trauma. I’m not a psychologist, but there are two rejoinders that came to mind. First, there was a whole generation of Jews who survived the Holocaust and likely encountered disturbing literature. How exactly did they deal with being “triggered”? It strikes me that some of the premises of being triggered need be examined, in terms of the science. My mom was shot, “by mistake”, by the Pakistani army in the early 1970s, and nearly bled to death. But she’s never expressed being disturbed by the presence of guns and such in film or even on the racks of pick-up trucks. Perhaps there are individual differences.
A second response is that one way to avoid having classroom discussions which challenge and disturb you is to major in science. That way you can avoid all the social and political questions, and just be freaked out by quantum indeterminacy. Yes, it is true that there are aspects of the science curriculum which will challenge the beliefs of some students. Those who are Creationists, for example. But we all know that these sorts of students getting disturbed and overwrought with their beliefs being put under the microscope is not a major issue for academia (it’s a bug, not a feature). The sensitivities of religiously conservative students are irrelevant to most academics (well, unless it happens to be Islam).
Which gets to the heart of the subjectivity of all of this. How can one talk about the fact that “this canon represents a particular segment of the privileged population”, without acknowledging that Columbia University students are privileged and used to getting what they want? The average Ivy League undergraduate is from an upper middle class background. They’re achievers, they succeed, and they’ve been told they’re the best, and been validated all their life. Not only do they think they’re clever, but the university has told them they’re clever by admitting them. It is unfortunately likely that these issues will bloom indefinitely in a culture of quasi-egalitarianism, where the university maintains a pretense that student feedback is welcome. Not only do these upper middle class students think they are special snowflakes, but society has told them they are special snowflakes and the university has backed that up by admitting them out of all their applicants.
Finally, it is always ironic to me that those protesting the literature of ancient cultures offer up as an alternative contemporary authors of prominence (e.g., Toni Morrison in The Wall Street Journal Piece). The reality is that modern authors, no matter how “radical”, are of our time and place, and reflect our history and values. They are worth reading, obviously, but they don’t offer up a window into a startlingly alien Weltanschauung. Consider The Golden Ass. Though a broadly sympathetic portrait of the Roman lower orders, the narrative takes slavery for granted in a world where it was a relatively uncontroversial practice. Reading the The Golden Ass can be instructive in as an example of literature which sheds light on a our deep commonalities across millennia, along with radical divergence in values.
And it need not be “Dead White Males” or their ancestors. Recently I read with great interest the figures central to Bushmen mythology. When referring to marginalized authors outside of the mainstream of the Western canon it seems rare to me that the alternatives are as radically alien as this, though I would like to be corrected on that.