Trigger warnings: a gun to the head of literature

Once authoritarian regimes deemed students too dumb to read novels, now it is students themselves.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, the Iranian author and professor Azar Nafisi recalls how, when living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, she secretly brought together seven female students in her living room every Thursday morning so they could read and discuss forbidden classic works of Western literature. These books were considered ‘anti-revolutionary’ and ‘morally harmful’ by the Iranian authorities. Nafisi and the girls put themselves at risk so they could enter the worlds created by writers that included Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Nafisi’s passion for literature and her defiance of the authorities is inspiring, as is the determination of the girls who attended her class, but Reading Lolita in Tehran is an upsetting read. Books – ideas – are powerful, of course, and deal with difficult and sometimes questionable ideas, but they are not so powerful that we should be prevented from studying them, and it makes me angry to think that those wonderful, if tragic and complicated, worlds of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, are not available to everyone in many parts of the world. All because those books are considered immoral, and because women, especially, are deemed too susceptible to negative influences.

But at least we in the West are enlightened. We wouldn’t separate students from works of literature, or see books as endorsing the worlds they help us imagine. We know the difference between words and actions, right? Apparently not, as evidenced by the growing trend for trigger warnings: warnings which are placed on books and reading lists to alert university students to the potentially distressing topics, such as rape or war, which may come up in their courses.

What’s remarkable about this development is who is calling for these alerts. It’s not religious extremists, or fusty old male professors worried about the weak minds of female students; it is coming from the students themselves. This is unusual. When I was a teenager, one boyfriend and I raided our parents’ bookshelves for so-called inappropriate books – as you might expect, these ‘inappropriate’ books were most often about sex – and I am convinced that our behaviour was perfectly normal. Tell someone they cannot or should not read something and they will usually want to read it. That students are telling their teachers they should be protected from certain books and ideas is alarming.

Triggers warnings all began, as documented by Jennie Jarvie,  in the blogosphere, springing from feminist discussions about the problems of sexual assault and how best to warn people about difficult content. Trigger warnings spread quickly through internet forums and are now used in major universities. The New York Times reports that students at universities including the University of Michigan, George Washington University, the University of California in Santa Barbara and the Oberlin College at Rutgers University have requested trigger warnings be placed on certain materials.

So, what books are they worried about? Well, in literature classes, tomes that have been named as needing warning signs include Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested the alert for The Great Gatsby should read: ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.’

Apart from the demeaning attitude towards students trigger warnings project, this is a strange and unfortunate way to approach complex novels. Any good book, in fact any bad book, will deal with potentially distressing ideas. Many children’s books begin, for instance, with the death of both parents (just think of Harry Potter), and that’s pretty upsetting.

Literature reflects on life in all its complexity, with plots that involve decadence, idealism, death, adultery, passion, hate, betrayal, longing, self-delusion and regret. The Great Gatsby is about all of these, as well as the promise and the failure of the American dream. But even that evaluation is reductive. A good novel is always about more than these single issues – that is what makes them great. To say that The Great Gatsby can be reduced to these mere components misses how Daisy, Tom and Jay’s world is created by Fitzgerald, and how he draws you into their lives so that you can begin to understand them. This is precisely what Nafisi tried to explain to her students when teaching at a university, before The Great Gatsby was about to be deemed off limits and she had to resign: 

‘A novel is not an allegory… it is a sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathise, and empathy is at the heart of the novel’, Nafisi writes.

One thing a novel never is is simple. That’s why we read them, because they are challenging and thoughtful. You don’t read The Great Gatsby or any other book to learn about whether it is good or bad to betray your husband, or long after a lost love, or make loads or money, or to hit your mistress, or commit suicide, you read to explore how complicated, and human, these desires, wishes and acts are. And there is no such thing as the ‘last word’ when it comes to a novel. The ongoing conversation between readers and writers shouldn’t be curtailed, or deemed too difficult a task for us. What we know or think is never complete or final.

As someone who has taught many students, I can say that most lecturers have faith in their students and know how to help students with issues navigate difficult material. What the students calling for trigger warnings fail to realise is that these are issues that will never be addressed by a warning sticker.

This is a generation of students, it would seem, that does not want university to be a place of free thought, of experimentation, and of reading the best that has been known and thought. This is a generation that sees knowledge as dangerous and themselves as incapable of dealing with it, who seem to want to erase from the world any written words that address complexity, difficulty, nastiness, or the depth of human feeling. These students don’t want to be disturbed, stretched or challenged, and nor do they want others to be. It is a generation that just wants to be sheltered from the world, from one another and even themselves. These are students who, if they are not careful, will find that members of their classes are forced to organise private reading groups in their own homes in order to experience a world of literature that is being denied to them.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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