Post-Literary Traumatic Stress

The contradiction is fascinating: having completed, as Roger Kimball put it, the Long March through newsrooms and the entertainment world, in addition to academia, the result has been a forty year coarsening of the culture that’s apparent to everyone. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction contains, according to one reviewer’s estimate, at least 69 uses of the N-word. My local 24 Hour Fitness routinely plays rap music on the gym Muzak system containing the N-word amidst an endless variety of crudely sexual and misogynistic “lyrics.” My local supermarket occasionally plays on their Muzak “Pump It Up,” Elvis Costello’s rockin’ ode to masturbation. In the 1950s, CBS insisted that Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy, and famously refused their use of the word “pregnant” on the air while Lucille Ball was very much pregnant. Today, the gang on CBS’s Two and a Half Men routinely engage in sexual romps and use sexual and scatological language that would have caused William S. Paley an aneurism.


This is the pop culture environment that we all live in, and it’s inescapable, whatever your age, and however much TV you consume. Turn off the TV and the radio, avoid the movie theater, and the stuff is pumped into your supermarket Muzak. If you have teenagers, they’ve been exposed to all of the above examples, and countless worse, long before they audit their first college course. Which makes a New York Times article headlined “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” all the more silly:

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — 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 debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace. The warnings have been widely debated in intellectual circles and largely criticized in opinion magazines, newspaper editorials and academic email lists.


Short of an Iranian-style cultural revolution, it’s virtually impossible to put the Genie back into the bottle, once a pop culture begins to coarsen. If Scott Fitzgerald can cause “symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” then every song on the radio and every TV show post-Beverly Hillbillies should be preceded by similar warnings.

As for “Trigger Warnings” on Fitzgerald and Twain, when supermarket muzak returns to 101 Strings-style easy listening arrangements, and the Hays Office reopens shop in Hollywood, then the idea of “Trigger Warnings” for literature might almost make sense. (Actually, it would be still be awfully silly.) But you can’t make it your ideology’s self-styled goal to loosen language and mores and then invent “Trigger Warnings” simply to find yet another excuse to avoid reading the works of Dead White European and American Males. Or if you do, don’t be surprised if your ideological opponents begin to adopt the idea to dilute and ameliorate your cultural forms of expression.

Related: “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me,” Stephen L. Carter, a Yale law professor writes at Bloomberg View:

The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.


Or the culture of the Weimar Republic combined with the rigid intellectual conformity and race-obsessed tribalism of its immediate successor.

And don’t miss Mark Steyn on the cancellation of a Fargo first-grade class’s rendition of the Village People’s “YMCA” because of…

I don’t want to spoil it for you. Read the whole thing.



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