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TRIGGERS AND CANONS

In a world where nothing is a problem because everything is an ‘issue’, shouldn’t the young and the vulnerable be protected from the insensitivities of literature written in less traumatized times? Shakespeare is the worst offender. Think of what The Taming of the Shrew might do to the morale of a battered woman, Othello to persons of African origin, or The Merchant of Venice to a Jew. Imagine, for that matter, an old man reading King Lear, or identical twins reading The Comedy of Errors — subjected to their lives’ most unpleasant experiences mercilessly unfolding in front of their eyes. Would it not have been better if they were warned of the perils awaiting them between the covers? So, just as cigarettes, real and cinematic, come with notices about the damage they do to the lungs, literary texts should indicate in advance the kind of offence they are likely to cause their readers. Therefore, in some institutions of higher learning in the not-so-brave New World, some of the texts in the syllabus come with what are now being called “trigger warnings” or TWs. These are tags that make students aware of the horrors to be found in these texts, which might set off damaging or unmanageable reactions in their less mature readers.

The use of trigger is, of course, metaphorical here — particularly apt in a society where a frequent expression of youthful fragility, especially in schools and campuses, is to take out a gun and shoot people at random. (“My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun,” one of America’s most secretive poets had written in the seclusion of her bedroom.) So, it is ironic that the TW movement had been initiated in the United States by students who demand to be protected by their teachers from literary stimuli that could spark off their “post traumatic stress disorder”. The two kinds of trauma that these students cite most frequently are sexual abuse and military shock. So, Lolita and Mrs Dalloway become trigger-happy bedfellows, and Sylvia Plath comes trailing veritable clouds of warning. Yet, Virginia Woolf could have taught her transatlantic readers in the 21st-century a thing or two about combining memories of abuse, wartime despair and suicidal depression with a robust and entirely heartless frivolity. She herself had learnt the hard way how not to lapse into the sin of earnestness even as she made her coat-pockets heavy with stones before walking into a river.

“Studying art is an emotionally draining experience,” writes a Rutgers sophomore majoring in English, who is also a firm advocate of trigger warnings. It is for students like him that guidelines issued by a college in Ohio lists the potentially traumatic ‘isms’ in the literary canon, lying in wait for their appropriate victims, like Emily Dickinson’s loaded guns: “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [discrimination against transgendered persons], ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression.” And just below a Californian university’s statement of TW policy aims, there is an impatient comment from someone called Former Californian: “You don’t want an education. You want babysitting.”