Roger’s Rules

Kierkegaard and 'Trigger Warnings'

“The Rotation Method” is one of the most amusing sections of Kierkegaard’s early classic Either/Or. The second most famous melancholy Dane has some good advice for dealing with irritating absurdity: cultivate arbitrariness when confronted with flagrant examples of  it.

There is someone whose conversation you find insufferable. Circumstances often throw you together. What to do? Kierkegaard’s narrator has some useful advice:

I discovered that he perspired copiously when talking. I saw the pearls of sweat gather on his brow, unite to form a stream, glide down his nose, and hang at the extreme point of his nose in a drop-shaped body.

Presto! What had been unbearably tiresome was suddenly transformed into an entertainment. Now, instead of avoiding that bore, you seek him and egg him on, waiting with breath bated for the drop-shaped pendant to form.

There is much about contemporary academia that can be profitably approached armed with the Rotation Method. Consider, to take one recent example, “Our identities matter in Core classrooms”. It’s a sad little effusion by Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe, and Tracey Wang in The Columbia Spectator, the chief student newspaper of that once-great university. Columbia still has a vestige of its famous Great Books “core curriculum” program, and one of the monuments of Western literature that students had the opportunity to read this year was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This was a problem for Mesdames Johnson, Lynch, Monroe, and Wang.

As they report, a student had gone before the university’s — wait, the sweat is beginning to coalesce — Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board on Literature (yes, really) to complain that reading Ovid made her feel bad.

To appreciate the formation of that little pear-shaped opalescence, however, you have to get the story in their own inimitable words:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

Time was I would feel alternately embarrassed and angry reading this tripe — embarrassed for these privileged twits, who are sufficiently ungracious and self-absorbed to fritter away the opportunity of a serious education on such exhibitions of romper-room feminist histrionics, angry that their bleatings should find a home at a serious university. I have since learned better. The proper response to such drivel is delectation, not debate or dialectic. Really, if you step back and contemplate it as a prodigy of fatuousness, what these skirling young scholars have to say is quite deliciously funny. Attend:

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

This cringe-making epistle has been treated to some small portion of the contempt and ridicule it deserves, both in the comments to the online version of the piece and elsewhere (here, for example). But the cri-de-coeur raises questions as well as offers diversion. For example, do you suppose the parents of these young ladies wonder, just a little bit, about the wisdom of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a college education for their delicately brought-up progeny only to have them behave like this while postponing their maternity? As I say, there was a time when I would have posed such questions. Now I am just grateful for the display of unalloyed fatuousness: the bulbous globule of rancid fluid poised precariously on the snout of this insufferable pretension. Really, the hilarity is nearly endless:

[A]nother student who attended the forum shared that her Lit Hum professor gave her class the opportunity to choose their own text to add to their syllabus for the year. When she suggested the class read a Toni Morrison text, another student declared that texts by authors of the African Diaspora are a staple in most high school English classes, and therefore they did not need to reread them. Toni Morrison is a writer of both the African Diaspora and the Western world, and her novels — aside from being some of the most intellectually and emotionally compelling writing in the last century — should be valued as founding texts of the Western canon.

The student’s remark regarding Toni Morrison was not merely insensitive, but also revealing of larger ideological divides. This would have been an opportune moment for the professor to intervene.

In a sane world, a professor in a course devoted to great books of the Western canon would have intervened to point out that Toni Morrison is, among all the admittedly stiff competition for the title, probably the most overrated novelist of the last thirty years. Her works may deserve a place on the curriculum of a course in sociology, one that examines how race or some other external characteristic can substitute for merit in the cultural metabolism of decaying liberal democracies. But if it is a choice between  Dostoyevsky , say, or Jane Austen or Henry James or Anthony Trollope or Dickens, Thomas Mann or any of 100 other serious novelists and Toni Morrison, well, you get the picture.

Lest you think these ladies are all whine and no wherewithal, rest assured that they come bearing some fairly concrete proposals. This, in fact, is where the entertainment they provide becomes truly surreal.

“Students,” they say, “need to feel safe in the classroom.” Remember, we’re talking about Columbia University in Manhattan, New York, circa 2015. Not some hellhole in Nigeria, Yemen, or some other place where the trigger warnings are generally about real triggers on real guns, not figments of a feminist’s fantasy.

Really to appreciate this stuff, you have to remember that we’re talking about one of the safest, most coddled environments in human history.

And if the student is poor, black, sexually non-Euclidean, etc., then you can be sure that Columbia will be there 24/7 to cater to and exacerbate their sense of grievance and entitlement, what the ladies here refer to as the “multiplicity of their identities.” Bottom line? They want the university to create a nursery — they call it a “safe space.”

To this end, they have a couple of proposals: First, that their center “issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students.” (“Triggered students?”) Second, “there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors.”

What, you wonder, are “identity-based disagreements”? Oh, right. You’re black/poor/Hispanic/female/whatever, therefore you don’t have to be regarded as an adult but are entitled to special treatment as some sort of intellectual or moral cripple.

And then there is the piece de la resistance: a “training program” (that’s feminazi for “indoctrination”) for all professors to teach them how to “facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.”

In my view, the “best practice” would be to rusticate Tracey and her whingeing sisters-in-arms, but in the realm of practical politics that is not possible. Instead, let me offer by way of consolation a recent poem I read in (mirabile dictu) the New York Times (not the paper itself, of course, but rather one of its blogs). It speaks to the soul of the angst these poor women feel for themselves. It’s a pleasing ditty by Jeffrey Kindley called “Surrounded by Disturbing Art.”

I was triggered at the Frick.
Those alarming Veroneses
may appeal to certain crazies;
I felt terrified and sick.
I was triggered at the Met.
“Los Caprichos” are disgusting
with their cheating and their lusting,
and those Schieles at the Neue
are at least as bad as Goya.
I was triggered at the Guggenheim,
the Whitney and the New.
I left MoMA in a coma
and I think that I might sue.
We need signs that give a sense of
what you’ll find in a museum:
“Works of art may be offensive.
Are you sure you want to see ’em?”

I suppose universities ought to come with a sort of all-purpose disclaimer, and the last two lines of this opus fills the bill admirably: “Works of art may be offensive. Are you sure you want to see ’em?” The moral? Enter here, and you might actually learn something new. If that prospect offends you, stay away. Achoo.