24 May 2014

Trained Immaturity, or, the Problem with Reading

There are scenes in films, on television, on the internet, and in books, which can deeply disturb me. I have actually walked out of theaters, once less than ten minutes into a film, because the soundtrack accompanying killings made it impossible for me to stay. There are books I had to pause in the listening, often, before I could resume reading - one of those comes immediately to mind, Stephen King's novella Apt Pupil in his Different Seasons collection, another was Robert Daley's Prince of the City- because, yes, literature is a powerful thing.
Bailey Loverin, sophomore at the
University of California-Santa Barbara,
committed to "trained immaturity"
[Photo, The New York Times]

So I know, and you know that I know, what Oberlin College dean Meredith Raimondo is trying to say when she tells The New York Times, "I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up. That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously." But I know that dean Raimondo also completely misses the point when she suggests that - thus - all literature read on campus should come with "trigger warnings" about disturbing content.

Authors have a right to surprise and shock. We might even hope that they have a duty to surprise and shock. That's a duty which converts a simple "story" - the completely predictable world of, say, a Tom Clancy, into "literature," something which forces the reader to see the world anew.
"Should students about to read The Great Gatsby be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Things Fall Apart — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

"Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

"The warnings, 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 and other schools." (The New York Times)
A variety of issues collide here. Feminist Theory collides (perhaps) with Queer Theory and Disability Studies. The norms of Social Media collide with the purpose of the university. Individualism (and maybe Reader Response Theory) collides with the purpose and intent of literature and its authors. Attempting to become an adult collides with the contemporary American middle class/upper class norm of the prolonged childhood. Community Rights collide with Individual Preference.
"Trigger warnings, which originally started in online feminist and activist spaces as a way to warn community members that the topic being discussed might “trigger” unpleasant memories of sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, etc.," says professor Jade E. Davis on her blog, "have done that culture-jumping thing where they are no longer used in only those spaces. They are now somewhat ingrained in Internet culture as sort of the anti-troll, and they have become a standard that is used at times when the actual thing being discussed is not traumatic, but rather simply an uncomfortable encounter.

"What I find fascinating, and a bit odd, is that rather than entering the realm of popular culture, a place where a trigger warning might make sense, they’ve entered the realm of the university, a space where people are supposed to be challenged, pushed, and learn to think and understand in new, different and more diverse ways."
One of the biggest concerns I see is that certain issues seem to be afforded "Trigger Warnings" while others do not - a politically determined list created by elites. So, sexual assault, yes, the use of the term "Nigger" in Huckleberry Finn, probably not. Certain forms of violence, "Ms. Loverin draws a distinction between alerting students to material that might truly tap into memories of trauma — such as war and torture, since many students at Santa Barbara are veterans," but probably not the kind of street violence not experienced by "many" on a University of California campus. What about a story of absent mothers? What about, I wonder, a book like mine? What might I need to label... since none of it deals with Ms. Loverin's "many"?

The next biggest concern is the academic/political. I did not work within Feminist Theory, but I did/do work within Queer Theory and Disability Studies, or even a far left version of Disability Studies I have called "Retard Theory." In those there is a commitment to the challenging and the shocking. Those "Trigger Warnings" would compromise 'our' ability to attack the comfort of the status quo.
Man in his underwear. What do we censor?
National Geographic

Then there is what I might call, the "Trained Immaturity," the expectation of the eternal protection of perpetual childhood. This has changed dramatically since I was young, as I realized recently when I saw a librarian censoring National Geographic magazines before offering them to students, something unthinkable in the 1960s or 1970s. This problem comes from many things: the corrosive effects of helicopter parenting, television and film age-warnings, limited open play opportunities, and, yes, of the limited canonical reading list of many American Advanced Placement English teachers on not just their own students but, via the 'prep for AP mindset' which exists in many US high schools, on all the middle class children in those schools.

We screen for the "acceptable," we screen to "not disturb," we screen, all too often, to make the adults comfortable, to let the adults not have to deal with complex conversations. Oh how easy to let the concerns of 18th and 19th century wealthy white male novelists dominate our classrooms than to struggle with issues which challenge today's children.

But we do not have to. I have closely watched a seventh grade language arts class this year as they have read about the Holocaust, about American racism, about cancer and amputation - surely deeply disturbing topics for 12-13-year-olds, but I have seen them all rise to the complexities of the occasion. And I do not think, no matter what their personal issues, that they will need "Trigger Warnings" in their futures. First, they understand literary complexity. Second, they have enough Google skills to enable them to check out a book before they begin reading - at least to understand general themes. Third, they know how to advocate for themselves. Fourth, the are learning how to control their own learning environments - and thus know how to 'step outside' if they need to. These are all skills I wish those students at Oberlin and UC-Santa Barbara and elsewhere had learned in their K-12 school experiences.

As Dr. Davis says, "I would never give my students a “Trigger Warning,” but I do tell them every semester that we will be going over things that they might find disturbing, uncomfortable, angering, or upsetting. If this is the case, they are free to leave the classroom. The rule is they have to engage respectfully and openly, but only in the classroom. They can think whatever they want outside of the space, but inside the space, they are vulnerable, and I work with that. If things are too much, they are free to step out of the classroom as well. I only require that they email me and let me know why so we can make sure that the course will be okay moving forward."

So I guess I don't believe in "Trigger Warnings." Instead, I believe in  students learning the skills of mature adults, and I believe in the process of literature.

- Ira Socol