Supposedly, students at some of our most prestigious universities find themselves confronted with existential challenges. Some are required to read books and watch films that could conceivably upset them emotionally. Hence many campuses are considering “trigger warnings” to alert the more delicate flowers against getting their little feelings hurt.
“The warnings,” reports Jennifer Medina in the New York Times, “which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University,” etc.
Apparently, we’ve come full circle if “feminist thought” now means shielding what fools once called “the weaker sex” from unpleasant realities. At Ohio’s Oberlin College, which in 2013 suspended classes due to an imaginary intruder in KKK regalia, they’ve circulated a “trigger” guide for professors.
“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the guide said. “Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.”
“Cissexism,” for readers innocent of the jargon, means hurtfully implying that most people are either male or female. “Ableism” is making persons with physical handicaps feel inferior, as if any decent human being would do that. Not that everybody’s decent, mind you. My objection’s to cant, not morals.
The guide stipulated that while, say, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” may be great literature, it could also “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide,” etc.
One would certainly hope so. Otherwise, what’s the point of teaching literature?
I can still remember my own moral horror at reading Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” as a Rutgers freshman years ago. Many classmates felt the same; we sat up half the night talking about it. Richard Wright’s “Native Son” made a similar impact.
What fascinated us was less Raskolnikov’s axe murder of an aged pawnbroker than his seductive rationalization of the crime. And while “Native Son” was set in Chicago, we understood that it could easily have been Newark.
But no, I don’t believe people suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from storybooks. And I have trouble believing Jersey kids have gone so soft as to demand to be protected from a damn novel. Back then, we thought growing up was what college was for.
Actually, I doubt many Rutgers students do demand “trigger warnings” — merely an impassioned clique of immature students and crackpot faculty that administrators find it easier to humor than to resist.
Meanwhile, an equally ludicrous fracas has broken out down at Princeton. There, a freshman named Tal Fortgang wrote a column for The Princeton Tory objecting to the allegedly common practice of admonishing people who stray from campus orthodoxy to “Check your privilege.”
It’s a curt reminder, Fortgang thinks, of his solemn duty “to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world,” and to conduct himself accordingly. Apparently by never contradicting anybody claiming the morally exalted status of victim — whether of racism, sexism, heterosexism … well, you know the rest.
Check my privilege? How about kiss my …
Well, you know the rest of that phrase too. Just don’t go treating me as an abstract symbol, and then expect me to feel your pain.
As Fortgang pointed out, “Check your privilege” amounts to an illogical ad hominem argument at best. You shouldn’t be heard because of who you are. Or, as the bleating sheep in Orwell’s “Animal Farm” explained: “Four legs good, two legs bad!”
Fortgang actually weakened his argument by explaining that his grandparents’ big privilege was arriving in America penniless after surviving the Holocaust in Nazi concentration camps. Even so, they did.
How you can tell the shot went home was that a college freshman’s article in a campus newspaper spawned eight full-length personal attacks in the increasingly ridiculous Salon.com, where the author was all-but equated with Cliven Bundy and that old fool Donald Sterling.
The New Yorker consulted Peggy McIntosh, a feminist scholar at Wellesley College whose seminal paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege” initiated this craze. It enumerates 46 measurable categories of privilege.
McIntosh could understand why Fortgang resisted seeing himself “systematically.”
“Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at,” she said, “starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background.”
None of which is crazy on its face.
And certainly not if your ultimate goal is increasing the number of campus Republicans.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.