More Higher Education than music per se for this one.
Roughly two weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article on psychological triggers, trigger warnings, how this may affect the universities whose responsibility it is to expand our minds. The implication was clear: oy vey, what will happen to My CurriculumTM?—My CurriculumTM being (and I fully realize I will enrage a large number of people with this statement) clearly cognate with Bill O’Reilly’s My AmericaTM, a fictitious and in some measure noxious construct wherein one assumes that one’s own memories of something are equivalent to a universal experience, What Is Right, How It Always Was And Should Be. In My AmericaTM, students behaved in class, parent beat ’em by God if they didn’t mind what they were told (and quite right, too), politicians were honest, people were neighborly, and of course Blacks weren’t uppity. In My CurriculumTM, we received substantial intellectual and moral challenges by the Great Works, which made us properly uncomfortable (and, of course, we never rolled eyes or were disinclined to learn righteous lessons from our always intellectually responsible and always tip-top teachers, etc. Said Works often used bad language and depicted bestial treatment of our fellow humans and challenged us and by God we were grateful and now they’re tearing it all down with their lily-livered hypersensitive political correctness and O tempora O mores…
I went to high school and college in the 1970s, and I don’t remember it quite like that. Some of the Great Works left me singularly unimpressed; I’ll simply cite “The Minister’s Black Veil,” presented in high school as a masterpiece, which I considered to be a pile of dark, joyless, Puritan shit. My English professor father did not particularly appreciate that opinion, or perhaps he really didn’t appreciate that it was worded just that way and bellowed at the top of my lungs across the entire house…but there it is. And don’t get me started on William Blake, or Silas Marner. So, yeah, the Great Tradition can be a mixed bag, and genuflection is a suspect response to anything, regardless how authoritative the finger being waggled in our collective faces actually is.
Responses—on various FB feeds, I mean—to the Times article were predictable: we’re a nation of wussies, how dare they refuse to have their minds opened, this hypersensitive trigger warning stuff is all bullshit, what do you expect from those infantilized, spoiled kids today, when I was in school we manned up and read the N-word, by God, and weren’t we brave.
(Bona fides: When I was 9, Mrs. Warren, one of my 4th grade teachers, said the N-word aloud when she read us Huckleberry Finn, and in high school we actually had a campus visit from two members of the American Nazi Party, who explained their position to us [be it said: unsuccessfully]. We saw films about the Holocaust from junior high on, films like The Twisted Cross, Minister of Hate, and Night and Fog, and they had the real horrific footage. So, on the—ah—mean streets of Claremont, the schools didn’t protect us overmuch.)
This discussion took me back to a year or so ago, when I was invited to do a presentation on “Music and Social Change” for an Education Methods class for Ed majors. Well, party time!: you’ve got the Depression, you’ve got workers’ songs, you’ve got the Civil Rights movement, you’ve got Vietnam…I don’t think I made it as far as Vietnam, actually. Although I thought the presentation went well, I subsequently heard that one of the students had strongly objected to my use of the song “Strange Fruit”…see, I played a youtube video that matched the song with photographs of actual lynchings: disfigured Black corpses hanging in trees while white southerners milled around, grinning, proudly pointing, posing, strutting. The student found such images to be disturbing, and felt it was inappropriate. Of course, the teacher of the class responded with some firm words about college being where you get your mind blown, Dr. Bellman did exactly what he should have done, etc. What do you expect, we may think: some little pansy wanted to stay in the womb, comfortable and protected…but not on my watch, Buster. I’m a Professor, by God!
What nags at me is this: I don’t have PTSD, I was never raped, I have not attempted suicide, I have never endured famine or an oppressive, murderous political regime. I am really not in any position to judge how justifiable the demands for trigger warnings are, or are not. Triggers are a valid phenomenon, a known psychological response; in my parents’ generation, they talked about veterans who suffered shell shock, as it was called, and who (say) had to go lock themselves in the bathroom when family fights got too loud. My gut instinct is, predictably, much like the common academic opinion: “Man up! Art is uncomfortable! Real life is uncomfortable!” Then one can point to this truly idiotic case of a teacher being forced out because he taught about Blackface entertainment in connection with American race relations. But, truth? My opinion on this very real issue isn’t worth crap. I don’t know what it is to be set off, entirely out of control, in a fearsome, unworked-out psychological place where all I can perceive is terror, by an image or sound I didn’t see coming. And in the Good Old Days, My CurriculumTM made no allowances for such. Can’t hack it? Tough Scheiß. Don’t go to college, Lame-O. Stay out of Real Colleges, like the other women and minorities.
How does this square with our moral responsibilities vis-à-vis women, Blacks, Latinos, etc. and the cultural centers and assistant deans devoted to them? We were all in favor of those, remember? We all waggle our fingers as the language forcibly evolves (cis-gendered, queer unusable, queer! being very different, “American of Eurasian Descent” rather than “Chinese,” etc.), and we adapt, I have to say, rather quickly—lexicographically and conceptually both. What about teaching the Boston Marathon bombing, say in a Contemporary Issues class, and one of your students is one of these people? Do you, from a premium doctoral program, lecture them about their having to confront things? I hope to hell not.
One more factor, here: I’ve heard about trigger warnings for some time, and I’ve seen concern about them come from three very different directions. One is, yes, the feminist advocacy side, rooting out all kinds of sexism and micro- and macroaggressions, indefatigably Making Us All Aware, and so on. (There is an interesting response to this perspective in the trigger alert story on Voxxi, a news outlet with particular interest in a Hispanic perspective.)
Another is the religious side. Forgot about them, did we? There’s nudity; I shouldn’t have to see that piece of art. You didn’t warn me. This depicts drinking; I’m against that and you have to make a different assignment for me. This is the symbolism of another religion; I shouldn’t have to look at this. Artwork X depicts same-sex relations, or different-race relations, or whatever, and I shouldn’t have to look at it. Your discussion of the criminal issues facing the Catholic Church is anti-religious. I’m a Creationist and I shouldn’t have to study evolution. Here’s my lawyer. (Don’t laugh. It’s out there.)
There’s also the differently abled community, who are also highly attuned to triggers, risks, etc., and are very interested in accommodation of all different kinds of behaviors and awareness of all different kinds of needs.
So here’s a very cynical observation: there is clearly a need for awareness of all our differences, but it is undeniable that those who shriek the loudest and most persistently are, y’know, good for business. Activism is activism, and if your gig is to be an activist, the goal is to get the other side to blink/accommodate/pay—it’s an oppositional situation. Activists want to score and win, not open up deep philosophical debates.
Thus: needs, accommodations, hypersensitivities, insensitivities, exaggerations, willful ignorance. Solution?
I don’t have one, and moreover I think this entire issue should be handed over to real professionals. We have medical ethicists; I’m sure there are educational ethicists (and/or philosophers) who can help with this, spelling out the issues, balances, risks, faultlines. As angry and frustrated as any of us get, we’re still more inclined to reason from our perspective, our main sphere of interest. And our perspective is, too often, little more than our convenience and habit.
Any grown-ups out there who can help with this? I’m not convinced that I’ve yet heard from anyone with a sufficiently broad view, educational and humanistic both. It is a fact that whether or not it should be, it amounts to a turf fight: all sides feel they have territory to defend or (potentially) to gain. There have to be voices more reasonable than those we have so far heard who can suggest reasonable limits, common ground, and practical approaches.