STUDENTS TURN THE TABLES
ON POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
Start of the new academic year brings an interesting twist to the controversy over trigger warnings.
If you don’t follow trends in higher education you may assume I’m talking about some advisory to “Lock your Glock” so a child who comes across that 9mm in your nightstand can’t fire it accidentally.
But no — nothing so prosaic as handgun safety.
Trigger warnings are alerts that a certain literary work or lecture or instructional material or classroom discussion might involve language or allude to ideas which students could find offensive, unduly provocative, even just upsetting.
Things being as they are on college and university campuses these days, this usually refers to assertions that are highly charged politically. For instance: suggestions that all men might not actually be rapists; or that females really don’t earn substantially less than males in all professions; or that members of non-white minority groups might not be fatally blocked from success in our irredeemably racist society — that sort of thing.
And so it came as a shock that some incoming freshmen (or freshpeople) at Duke University have objected to one of the titles included on the pre-semester summer reading list. The book in question is Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. This work is what’s called a graphic novel (which is to say, a very long comic book) by Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist known for the lesbian comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
Not being an aficionado of lesbian comic strips, I know nothing of this feature. Nor had I ever heard of Fun Home before the current flap, but it’s described by the gay online journal, New Civil Rights Movement, as…
“an award-winning, New York Times best-selling graphic novel and memoir that was adapted for the theatre and recently won five Tonys, including the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical.”
Well, congratulations to Alison Bechdel for her accomplishments and recognition. I guess this is a good time to be an author of lesbian comic strips, graphic novels and off-Broadway musicals.
It appears, however, that Bechdel’s artistic triumphs have not impressed certain incoming Duke students. News reports, beginning with Duke’s campus paper, The Chronicle, have characterized those who refuse to read Fun Home as Christians whose religious beliefs are at variance with the book’s content, especially the illustrations.
The Chronicle quoted a Facebook post by Brian Grasso (Class of 2019) to the effect that…
“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it.”
Grasso elaborated on his position in a guest commentary for the Washington Post…
“After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide …. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral ….
“I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflicts with the inherent sacredness of sex ….”
New Civil Rights Movement noted that Grasso wasn’t alone in his objections, citing comments from other incoming frosh…
“‘The nature of Fun Home means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature,’ Jeffrey Wubbenhorst wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
“Freshman Elizabeth Snyder-Mounts also objected, writing, ‘I thought to myself, “What kind of school am I going to?”’”
At a time when academics are turning themselves inside out to shield the tender feelings of young people, one would think that the summer reading selection committee would have offered a trigger warning that Fun Home might not be quite as chaste as the latest Christian romance novel (according to senior Sherry Zhang, a student member of the committee, the book was expected to be “contentious”).
In fact, Duke had special reason to take care. The university found itself under scrutiny back in 2010 when the media got hold of a PowerPoint presentation in which a recent grad catalogued her, shall we say, romantic exploits with 13 Duke athletes — including graphic details about the sizes of their sexual organs.
But then, after that episode, it may not have occurred to the committee that students who take their Christian faith seriously would come to Duke at all.
For my money, this controversy represents a perfect opportunity for the intellectual elite to reevaluate the rationale for protecting students from ideas that are out of step with dominant leftish orthodoxies (that’s what trigger warnings are about, really).
Alas — obvious as it is — this doesn’t seem to be the conclusion which commentators are drawing, although some come close. Writing on the lefty literary site, Book Riot, attorney and book reviewer Jessica Woodbury advises the Duke dissenters…
“Until now you’ve had people screening things for you, holding things back from you, and protecting you because you were young ….
“For the rest of your life, adults will show you things and tell you things that you don’t like. You’re going to find things that conflict with your beliefs, people who disagree with them, systems that go against what you stand for ….
“When something makes you uncomfortable, it also makes you think. It helps you evaluate your beliefs and your opinions ….”
Jessica Woodbury is, of course, entirely right about that. This is what higher education is supposed to do: prepare young people for life.
Unfortunately, academia has taken a very different direction. At all too many colleges and universities today, education isn’t primarily about preparing young people for life. Under the sway of progressivism, education is mostly about training a cadre of young ideologues for the next wave of revolution by making sure thy never encounter a non-progressive thought.
This aim has given rise to the so-called Safe Spaces movement. New York Times opinion writer Judith Shulevitz described this trend back in March…
“Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material.
“Some people trace safe spaces back to the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s, others to the gay and lesbian movement of the early 1990s. In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.”
I would quibble with Shulevitz’s assertion that the Safe Spaces movement is student-driven. I think it reflects the “long march through the institutions” which academic radicals have been carrying on since the 1960s. Young people have been fed the notion that only some ideas are acceptable — those ideas deemed “politically correct,” that is — while others are “unsafe.”
This reservation aside, Shulevitz notes several troubling examples of Safe-Space thinking run amok, and identifies the essential problem…
“But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer ….
“…while keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?”
The issue here is not “safety.” Rather, it is political correctness — the domination of academic life by an ideology that refuses to acknowledge any idea that doesn’t conform to its own catechism. As I wrote in my post of July 10…
“‘Political Correctness, is itself a novelty — an alien ideology that has no legitimate pedigree in the history of American thought. It is a pretense: narrow-mindedness masquerading as compassionate concern. Yet those imbued with it have the gall to assert that their opinions are the prevailing wisdom, their way of thinking the only one that’s acceptable.”
Now the tables have been turned. Conservative Christian students (and, I suspect, even a few non-Christians) have declared their unwillingness to read a book about lesbian sex — complete with illustrations — because it offends their moral scruples.
The academic world is shocked.
How narrow-minded of those kids! Who would have thought a young person could have such a hair trigger?
In a sense, the students’ objection is narrow-minded — though in a way the modern, post-moral Left has a hard time understanding. But then, it was the Left that came up with the concept of political correctness in the first place.
Like the man said (Galatians 6:7): You reap what you sow.
Here’s a link to the original story in Duke University’s Chronicle campus newspaper…
…along with one to freshman Brian Grasso’s follow-up explanation of his views in the Washington Post…
…as well as to Jessica Woodbury’s analysis on Book Riot…
Greg Lukianoff, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of NYU-Stern School of Business, believe that shielding people from disturbing ideas and experiences is actually dangerous, in that it can promote serious cognitive problems. Writing in The Atlantic, they assert…
“…there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia.
“But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy.”
Science notwithstanding — trigger warnings and the Safe Space movement are defended vigorously (if rather obscurely) in certain circles. Back in May of 2014, feminist writer Soraya Chemaly responded to another New York Times article that looked at efforts to shield students from challenging ideas. Writing on the Huffington Post, she insisted that…
“Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy, which is informed by epistemology, status and stereotypes. People with higher status, wealth, race and/or sex, for example, have the least amount. This is a consequence of living in a culture optimized to reflect their perspectives and address their needs. When it comes to trigger warnings, the prediction and acknowledgement of pain are salient.”
Her somewhat esoteric arguments (heavy on lefty jargon) can be found here…
I know it’s silly and apropos of nothing at all, but this “trigger” stuff puts me in mind of Roy Rodgers’ famous horse.That Trigger gained a certain pop-culture immortality when his carcass was stuffed and put on display at the now-defunct Roy Rodgers Museum in Branson, Missouri.