By Rhayna Kramer ’19
Even as a female student of color, I can’t help but feel a flicker of irritation every time I see terms like “trigger warning” gracing the stage of intellectual discussion.
A trigger warning is a brief statement at the beginning of material that alerts the reader or viewer to potentially distressing content based on a variety of factors with the goal of altering those who do not feel comfortable in partaking in the endeavor to opt out of it.
While I admit that I cannot comment on the psychological state of those who have experienced something as traumatic as sexual violence, as an English (and potentially history) major, I can respond to basic human violations, such as racism and misogyny, particularly when it comes to classic works of literature.
I’m as much a believer in equality across the board as the next person; that is, you cannot exercise your rights at the expense of another’s. It seems, however, that there are people in this country who feel that they have the right not to be offended—that, figuratively, we embrace our own soma to achieve happiness and order, as is the intended purpose of the pleasure-inducing drug in Brave New World. As a result, we end up with students who, however well-intentioned, are sent into a tizzy over the racism in some books, the misogyny in other books and a multiplicity of other social hurdles.
While Denison seems to do a particularly good job of sustaining healthy dialogue about a variety of topics from different viewpoints, this reality check is directed toward the larger arena of academia: we expect too much from our predecessors.
The fact that we are so apt to apply our modern sensibilities to whatever we read is inevitable. In fact, it can be a redeeming characteristic of humanity because we are able to recognize injustices and violations to human dignity where previous generations may have overlooked or have embraced such statuses as merely being a part of the natural (or divine) order of things.
At the same time, we must remember that our primary jobs as academics are to understand and to educate ourselves about the world around us and about the past.
I have gotten into many conversations with peers about works of literature, only to be shot down in a few instances in the rush to declare the content of certain material “problematic.”
Yes, the feminists of the early twentieth century are not the feminists of today. Yes, Mark Twain uses the n-word in his books. Yes, many of Shakespeare’s tragedies and Jane Austen’s novels feature the happenings centered around wealthy individuals.
The first way to combat the fatal fault of casting contemporary judgments on historical works is to become familiar with the context—to walk a mile in another’s shoes. One of the defining purposes of literature is to connect its literary posterity to its ideas—however outdated and outlandish.
Being prone to what David D. Burns terms “emotional reasoning” is a highly superficial and potentially dangerous tool to eliminate sustainable dialogue about relevant issues that still persist today.
In the well-meaning pursuit of creating a “safe space” for college students and faculty, there lies the potential for ideological despotism that keeps us constantly worrying about all of the various nuances in every single aspect of life.
In the pursuit of maintaining said happiness and order, confusion and irritation may arise in considering the way something is said as opposed to what is being said.
If the art of study is based on how certain works of literature—or anything, for that matter—make us feel, then what are we doing in the first place?
Our job is not to condemn the past for what it should have been. Our job is to understand the past and, as an addendum, encourage the present to put into practice what the future should be.