Thursday 25 February 2016

Trigger happy

Last year a regular correspondent sent me a link to an op-ed piece in the online Columbia Spectator, co-authored by Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe and Tracey Wang (April 30, 2015). It reported a student's contribution to Columbia University's Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board on Literature Humanities, an advisory panel of which the co-authors are members. 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."

MAAB were concerned by what appeared to be happening in campus classrooms "where transgressions concerning student identities are common". Such a transgression occurred when a  student was instructed by her professor to read Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', including the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which involve episodes of assault and rape. The student in question was herself the survivor of sexual assault and described being "triggered" while reading Ovid's account. She was dismayed that her professor focussed on the language and imagery when lecturing on the text and as a result the student felt "completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class".

The co-authors add that "like so many texts in the Western canon, [Metamorphoses] 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."

These are serious matters, and unsettling. My immediate reaction was to sympathise with this unfortunate student and to wonder why she was not the real focus of the co-authors' concern, rather than 'Metamorphoses'. If the rape of Persephone is enough to prompt feelings of exclusion and oppression one wonders how on earth she manages to negotiate her daily life. If a two-thousand-year-old myth prompts such terrible memories of personal violation one can't help feeling she should leave Literature alone alone and study Science, or Technology, or Engineering, or Maths. And never go to the movies. 

In this case it is surely the student who needs careful handling by college authorities, not the curriculum. Of course this is about much more than one unfortunate student's background. It's about academic politics and the increased commodification and commercialisation of Higher Education. The learning contract has utterly changed since my day and students now feel they have the right to respond, to call the shots - they are paying for their education after all. But professors need to be able to function within their capacity too. It seems to be a show-down between the self-absorbed and the no-longer-relevantly-experienced.

It may well be the case that some of the Western Canon 'can be difficult to read and discuss' for some students, but that's hardly a question of ethnicity, or economic status, or being a 'survivor' - it's a question of difficulty full stop. And it's the difficulty that makes the effort worthwhile. 

I had quite a strange childhood and I suppose that makes me, in current thinking, both a victim and a survivor, although reading Gawain and the Green Knight never triggered a post-traumatic reaction in me. I don't have a history of exclusion and oppression so my views have less weight, and rightly. My concern is what will happen when, say, Eimear McBride's debut novel takes its place on college curriculums in the States and elsewhere? What impact will the visceral and harrowing prose of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing have on a student who thinks the rape of Persephone is a forensic report?

Art isn't about reassurance and consolation and it isn't about making people feel safe or 'empowered'. Art isn't about therapy or empowerment or counterweighting the horrors of history. Art isn't a bromide or a poultice or a sticking-plaster because, as Beckett put it: 'the syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation'. A combination of victimhood and entitlement has distorted a non-negotiable truth - that Daphne and Persephone are myths, that Ovid is a writer from another age and culture and that anyone who feels unsafe in a lecture hall might just be in the wrong place.

Later in the Columbia article the co-authors claim that Toni Morrison's works are 'founding texts of the Western canon'. Presumably they mean 'foundational' (itself a critical judgement open to discussion),  but I don't want to come across as pompously pedantic. 'Metamorphosis' certainly is a founding text of the Western tradition - so what are we to do?

There is a terrible moral vanity and condescension in judging past writers by our own contemporary standards and - predictably, inevitably - finding them inadequate or offensive. It's hard to think of any writer, of any artist at all from any era. who isn't in some way horribly flawed. Which is another way to say terribly human. T. S. Eliot was anti-Semitic (though not as nasty in that respect as Ezra Pound); Dylan Thomas was a spongeing drunk; Virginia Woolf an appalling snob and Ayn Rand a complete maniac. You'd have to dig deep into the past to find a writer who can escape our thin-lipped censure, and the chances are that he or she would be a complete bore. 

The MAAB planned to circulate "a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students." The assumption here appears to be that some unfortunate students have been brutalised into becoming, or have elected to become, mechanised, unthinking respondees to anything that challenges their highly developed (yet simultaneously fragile and unstable) sense of what is right for them, not what matters.

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