Friday, May 23, 2014

Pearls, Triggers, Exonians & Checker

The trigger warnings issue has now reached a massive level of pearl clutching all around.

What's the Issue?

We know that trigger warnings are a thing because the New York Times wrote about them last Sunday. The basic idea seems to be that certain works of literature, classroom subjects, even statues, should come with warning labels attached because they might trigger a traumatic memory or reaction of some sort. Trapped in a classroom and suddenly confronted with a graphic reminder of a traumatic personal experience, a student could suddenly be overwhelmed by panic, fear, discomfort.

On the one hand, there's a certain amount of common sense at play here. When I have a student who is suffering through the difficulty of a recent or imminent death of a loved one, I pay special attention to how any of the 482 death-related literary works that we study might strike that student's particularly raw nerve. I do anything from soften the discussion of the work to prepare the student ahead of time for what's coming. And I am always conscious of the fact that there may be other similarly raw nerves in my classroom that I just don't know about.  I don't really do this as a pedagogical choice, but as a human one.

Are Those Crazy Kids Out of Line?

On the other hand, some of the campus pearl clutchers seem a bit overzealous about stamping a warning label on any potentially upsetting content, and there seems to be a rather fuzzy zone between triggering a real personal trauma and just being kind of uncomfortable. I find it hard to imagine, as one advocate suggests, that The Merchant of Venice might trigger a serious episode of panic and distress because of its anti-Semitism (the presence of which is open to some debate anyway).

Fahrenheit 451 (a far more believable and hence scarier dystopic novel than 1984) posits a world of censorship that is not the result of top-down totalitarian mind-control, but instead censorship from the bottom up, caused by people demanding that anything disturbing or upsetting or uncomfortable be whisked away from public view. I think that's a fair comparison here.

But before I get my own pearls twisted up in my knickers, I remind myself that trigger warnings are a thing that some college students are asking for, and college students ask for a lot of things. We periodically hear about these movements sweeping campuses, and then it turns out, not so much. College faculties are not so excited about this idea, and colleges have an oft-effective means of dealing with troublemakers-- give them a diploma and send them away. So I'm not ready to get excited about this yet, and we can probably all calm down and---

No, Wait. Too Late.

The phrase "trigger warning" itself needs a trigger warning, because the term comes from the world of feminism, and you know how feminism gets some people's pearls all clutchified.

Like Chester E. Finn, Jr., currently head honcho at The Fordham Institute. Checker wrote a piece for Politico which has a url-based title of "Will America's College Kids Ever Grow Up" but which is headlined "America's College Kids Are of Mollycoddled Babies." And boy, if "mollycoddled" doesn't evoke some serious pearl-clutching, I don't know what does.

Finn is a smart man, an accomplished and prolific writer, and a conservative guy who often says things I quite agree with. But although he's a mere thirteen years older than I am, in this piece he sounds for all the world like my grandmother.

Poor dears. These are the same kids who would riot in the streets if their colleges asserted any form of in loco parentis when it comes to such old-fashioned concerns as inebriation and fornication. God forbid they should be treated as responsible, independent adults! After all, they’re old enough to vote, to drive, even (though it’s unlikely) to join the army.

Yes, we all remember those awful pro-fornication campus riots of.... when exactly was that, again? Well, it doesn't matter. Kids These Days, with the rap music and playing with their twitters and the backwards hats and not getting jobs and not joining the army. Pull up your pants and get off my lawn!!
Those Darn Miserable Stinky Fershlugginer Kids!

While I usually stick with mockery and avoid ad homineming it up, since Finn just ad hominemed all current college students, I'm going to make an observation or two. First, born in 1944, Finn would have come of age just in time to serve in Vietnam, yet curiously, I find no mention of that service in any of his bios. His bios do mention his education at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard. I did not attend Harvard, but I'm pretty sure that mollycoddling is tolerated there to a considerable degree; in fact, many students arrive pre-mollycoddled. But then, I think Finn knows this.

He goes on to contrast traditional four-year college students with good, solid, dependable job-holding, family-supporting, career-minded folks that you can find at community colleges, trade schools and the University of Phoenix (so, clutching some cyber-pearls). These traditional students have "been accustomed to getting their own way with just about everything, hovered over and indulged by their parents, praised (and grade-inflated) by their teachers and carefully cushioned from every form of risk, adversity and hardship."

Did I say pearl clutching? Finn has grabbed his pearls and is swinging them around, flailing angrily at these damn kids. They go to barely fifteen hours of classes a week. They gorge themselves on copious food options. They dare to protest speakers they disagree with. They use elaborate exercise and recreation facilities. They are awash in political correctness, self-absorption and "spoiled bratism." They are prissy. They are "schizy and spoiled." They will make terrible leaders in the future.

What are we to make of this child of privilege so filled with rage at the children of privilege? When he says that they've been "carefully cushioned from every form of risk, adversity and hardship," what exactly is he gauging that against? Because I am pretty sure that Chester E. Finn, Jr. has not spent a lot of time developing grit out on the mean streets. I don't know-- maybe Harvard was a tough go for Checker. But clearly, young people complaining about things are a huge trigger for him. I mean, seriously-- I've read his stuff before and I have never seen him so angry and ranty. You would think that Kids These Days are the softest, whiniest, most terriblest students ever in the history of ever. Spiro Agnew on his worst day did not dismiss a chunk of young America so completely, and Spiro didn't even go to Harvard.

Surprise Personal Insight

True story. My father is also a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, but he attended as a townie. His wealthy classmates went on to Harvard, but he went on to the University of New Hampshire. My father was the son of a general contractor; Chester Finn, Sr. was a prominent Dayton attorney. My father was the only member of his family to ever attend such a prestigious school; Chester Finn, Jr. is a third generation Exonian. So I guess if anyone had cause to be bitter and cranky about the children of prep school privilege, it would be my father, but he's not. Never has been.

More true story. My folks sent me to Phillips Exeter for a six week summer session. It was one of the great experiences of my life. The library was a gorgeous dream, the theater building the envy of most colleges.

The summer session brought together people from all over; most of us were nicknamed by our home city or state. I learned much. I learned that rich kids don't always have it easy, and poor kids don't always have it hard. I learned that rich is a relative thing.* I learned that when you have people from many backgrounds, it's good to think before you open your mouth because you might trigger someone's anger or hurt without even meaning to.

At the end of the day, the whole trigger notice brouhaha appears to be a bunch of folks just clutching pearls at each other. Am I being too simplistic when I suggest that just being kind and considerate and thoughtful, that just listening to people without scolding them for whatever imagined slights you think they have committed or are about to commit, that just treating each other decently would allow all of us to just put down our pearls and take a break? Because that looks like a path forward to me, even if I never went to Harvard or the University of Phoenix.

*This is my best Phillips Exeter summer school story, and while this piece is already way too long, I never get a chance to tell this one. So here it is a s a footnote; you can skip it all you want.

It was the summer of 1973. We would hang out in the dorm lounge and tell stories about home. We regularly made fun of one foreign kid who kept telling us about his country where every single citizen was rich, and every citizen got a share of the oil money, free health care, free college, free everything. We teased him and accused him of making it all up. He just laughed and said we could believe him or not; he would own us all one day. We had never even heard of his country before; we thought he made the name up, too. The country was Kuwait.

1 comment:

  1. Great insight. This is the first I've heard of trigger warnings coming into academia. I regularly use these warnings on social sites like Tumblr because you never know where someone is coming from and a lot of the Tumblr blogs I follow are people who fight oppression and have many tales of horror in their lives.
    In real life, however, many of my kids have had many triggering moments, but not from the curriculum. From things said by other kids or a faculty member. Even when talking about mircoaggressions, I have some very real triggers that set me off on my kids or other staff members. But as you said, we just need to learn to treat each other decently and realize that hitting someone's trigger is not a personal slap on you, unless you did it on purpose.
    Now for things like rape, incest, abuse, etc - yes, there should be some warnings for teachers to make sure they broach that subject cautiously, because you never know. You shouldn't run from the subjects, but you should brace the people in the room to prepare to feel and go through an uncomfortable journey, especially if your life draws some parallels. Then, provide students with a safe way to harness that trigger or a safe place to talk through those emotions so that they don't harm themselves or someone else.