Don't be afraid of the dark

2nd January 2015 at 00:00

For more than a year, there has been debate on US campuses about whether or not teachers of literature should issue disclaimers - or "trigger warnings" - because certain texts could traumatise students.

Proponents point to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example, as possibly upsetting to readers who have been victims of racism. Or to F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in which allusions to suicide and domestic abuse could cause some readers to relive similar personal experiences.

To the dissenters, this seems condescending and infantilising. It presumes that students are so fragile, or so frightened by the printed word, that they need to be protected from the corrosive aspects of life as communicated through literature. The problem is that almost anything could trigger an unpleasant memory. I can't imagine the long list of warnings that I would need to add to the Bible or to the works of Shakespeare.

Great writers tell us something about the way we live, from the vilest faults in our souls to the most glorious triumphs of the human spirit. Their works allow us to experience situations that we would likely shrink from in life.

As an undergraduate, I discovered that whenever I felt uneasy with someone's writing - with William Golding's, for example - it was probably a sign that I needed to carefully reread and rethink. No one likes to be reminded, as I was when reading Lord of the Flies, of the potential for barbarism within the human heart. Yet ignoring such qualities does not expunge them from the world.

Nevertheless, it makes sense to rate movies and to precede some television and radio programmes with warnings. I can understand the need for an alert when topics being discussed might set off memories of sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence or homophobia. Further, I can appreciate the importance of being sensitive to veterans in our classes who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But should trigger warnings be mandated for all literature? Isn't the purpose of our kind of education to challenge students to think in new and diverse ways?

During my four decades in the classroom, any objections from students to an assigned reading have usually been the result of a misreading of the text; I have responded by trying to turn their dissonance into teachable moments. I had to explain, for example, that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is not a racist book but a satire on those who espouse stereotypes, and on inequality and the denial of basic human rights.

I do not include alerts when I'm teaching, but that does not preclude the possibility that sensitive topics may be part of my courses. I believe that what is important is not the warning itself but the teacher's awareness that subjects could affect students in different and deeply personal ways.

The solution, then, is rather simple: individual teachers, who know their students better than most, should make the final decision.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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