"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Literature in the News: Trigger Warnings on Literature

Ok, this post has a political edge, and I apologize if you get peeved by it and my commentary, but this has to do with literature.  It’s important, and I think even most who would be in political sympathy with those proposing this will probably agree with me. 

Can it be they are considering putting what amounts to warning labels on literature?  This comes from a piece this week by Conservative columnist, Rich Lowery, who by the way I would not consider an irresponsible “bomb-thrower: or even a reactionary.  I would say he’s very much a deliberative columnist.  He wrote this piece, titled, “Warning: Literature Ahead” taken here from National Review Online. 

The latest politically correct fashion on college campuses is just insipid enough to catch on. 

It is the so-called trigger warning applied to any content that students might find traumatizing, even works of literature. The trigger warning first arose on feminist websites as a way to alert victims of sexual violence to possibly upsetting discussions of rape (that would “trigger” memories of their trauma) but has gained wider currency.

I guess it arose innocuously enough, but now taken to the academic level, it amounts to putting warning labels on every work of literature.   

The student government of the University of California, Santa Barbara, passed a resolution calling for professors to include trigger warnings in their syllabi. The New York Times reports that students at schools from the University of Michigan to George Washington University have requested the warnings. A student at Rutgers University proposed a trigger warning for The Great Gatsby about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive, and misogynistic violence” (not to mention binge drinking, reckless driving, profligate spending, and gross social climbing). 

I think that last parenthetical comment is Lowery just being snarky.  But whoa.  Are they kidding me?   

Yes, the Chinua Achebe anti-colonial novel Things Fall Apart is a “triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,” according to the guide. But there’s a downside — it could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.” 

I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.  This is absolutely absurd.  This is the Nanny State taken to the ultimate, idiotic conclusion.  College students don’t crumble if they are exposed to real life drama.  They are adult enough to be given be given free contraception, practically induced to go have sexual experiences, and abortions without any parental consent if they get pregnant, but they are not old enough to read works of literature without some inane warning label?   

Lowery then goes on to imagine what warning labels would go with Tony Morrison’s Beloved, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Virgil’s The Aeneid, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huck Finn.  You can go over and read it. 

What I’d like to do now is celebrate this battiness by having a little fun and come up with my own warning labels for some classic works.  How about… 

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote: Warning, possible trigger for those suffering with mental delusions and pudgy sidekicks who just won’t leave.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Warning, possible trigger for orphans, children who suffered from abusive stepmothers, jilted fiancés, and rejected lovers.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Warning, possible trigger for cuckold husbands and lonely wives who read erotic Romance novels.

William Shakespeare, King Lear: Warning, possible trigger for those suffering from domestic, elderly abuse and those who have had their eyes plucked out.

D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers: Warning, possible trigger for boys with domineering mothers and who have had girlfriends that try to pry them from their parents.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: Warning, possible trigger for those tempted by satanic wishes.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: Warning, possible trigger for those who have been wrongly accused of patricide and those who are profligate with their money.

George Orwell, 1984: Warning, possible trigger for those who get cold sweats thinking that Big Brother Government is trying to manipulate your minds, such as in these asinine warning labels. 


So what are your suggestions for possible warning labels for novels? 



  1. I agree with warnings about Shakespeare. They should warn everyone that his works are boring and suitable for insomniacs. I am still traumatised at having to memorise many lines on end to repeat them like a parrot at exams. Even now I sometimes get into fits of repeating innanely "To eat or not to eat ... to drink or not to drink ... to **** or not to ****" You can add as many verbs as you wish and you can imagine how Shakespeare has ruined my life and curtailed its enjoyment.

    By the way: There's a group here in the UK which wants warnings on food: "Beware, contains sugar and can make you fat. Contains saturated fats which may harm your arteries. Contains ... and so on" With graphic pictures of peoples' insides to show how arteries are blocked, and how diabetes harms people.

    Most of our foods have warnings for allergies. Which is good. But it goes too far when a packet of peanuts (I have one here in my hand), says: "Allergy advice: contains peanuts".

    I suspect, taking it to its logical conclusion, we should put warnings on all History Lessons; considering the world's bloody history over the centuries. Even the Old Testament is full of fighting. Consider how meek and shy Goliath was beaten by that bully David.

    God bless. (Warning: This comment contains a blessing).

    1. Oh Victor, no on Shakespeare. He's not boring. ;) Warning labels on foods do have some merit, though if you use them too often no one will pay attention to any of them. Some discretion has to be used. Good point on the history and the OT. Lots of possible warnings there. But even the New Testament might come with the warning label: possible trigger for those who have experienced betrayal, encarceration, torture, or persecution. ;)

  2. There has been some suggestions in UK about putting age ratings on books in much the same way as they apply to movies, but the suggestion was canned after a campaign by writers and the public. I wouldn't personally apply any kind of ratings or warnings system; I think there is probably enough information out there on the internet to enable people to make an informed choice about their reading.

    Similarly I don't see why movies should be age rated either. If you can read a novel which depicts graphic violence or sex at any age, why restrict movies?

    1. Good points Belinda. Those movie raties are basically useless, and you're right. With the internet one can get a sense of what's in a movie or book. Thanks for commenting. :)