I was just reading an article published by the New York Times titled “Warning: The Literary Canon Can Make Students Squirm.” I was at first thoroughly amused, but after reading the article, I had a “trigger,” and flew into a flashback of whining students sitting around at major universities with nothing better to do than try to create a political issue to ensure their bona fides amongst the intelligentsia. Now, at times, a warning is definitely in order, such as when viewing graphic material such as footage on the Holocaust or war. That I understand, it is visceral and gives an immediate powerful image. As a teacher of history and English, I grapple with this daily. It is rare to see math teachers have to deal with the ethical dilemmas of showing the full power of algebraic expression.
The problem is when the label itself guides the reader to an established conclusion. Labeling great literary works is like censoring the Sistine Chapel, and most of all art actually. At what point does “protecting” people from issues such as this actually create ignorance and superstition? If you are warned ahead of time about the graphic violence and death in The Lord of the Flies, it robs the book of the emotional and unexpected plot of the novel. How specific should the warning be? Beware: the boys sodomized a pig with a spear. Out of context it sounds terrible and would make many people not read the book. The buildup to the event is a part of the majesty of the work, as innocent boys embrace their darker selves and get carried away in a blood orgy. When I taught that book, I had a sub the day after we read that section of the book, and the sub got offended when my students said that yesterday we read about a blood orgy. Literature is meant to shock and offend, to surprise, to bring up issues that are uncomfortable. Doesn’t that label on literature defeat the purpose of literature itself, to promote critical thinking and deal with universal themes? People have been reading about these things since the creation of writing.
Another question: who should decide on the labels? Is there going to be a committee that oversees the labeling, which works, goes over every single syllabus, checks with every single student in every single college in the nation to make sure none of them have a “trigger” over an issue in a book? I am sympathetic to their plight, but literature allows for the expression of powerful emotions.
Odyssey: Warning, contains everything. Do not read. Death, violence, sex, drugs, paganism, chauvinism. Chuck it.
Illiad – Warning: contains everything, including the special relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. We might have to discuss homosexuality. You’re gone.
Smurfs: Warning: contains issue of incest, paganism, domestic violence. Chuck it.
Sesame Street – Warning: poverty issues, monsters living in garbage cans, scary vampires, obesity and addiction (Cookie Monster), mental illness because clearly these creatures should not be wandering around town.
Lolita: Don’t get me started, you’re gone, even if you are the most brilliant and repulsive book ever written.
Book of Laughter and Forgetting: Child nudity, sex, sex, sex. Chuck it even though it is one of the greatest books ever written.
MacBeth: Violence, murder, abortion. Chuck it.
Moby Dick – Trying to kill a whale. Out
Watership Down – Warning, animal on animal violence
Catch-22: Violence, death, PTSD (a character actually has to deal with this issue himself), violence against animals (Huple’s Cat), mental illness, sex, sex, prostitution, racism. Clearly, the greatest book written in English is garbage. Chuck it.
Crime and Punishment: Murder, violence against women (it is Russian after all). You’re toast Dostoyevsky.
The Handmaid’s Tale: ridiculous levels of sex, violence, themes of sexual assault, murder, slave labor. Clearly this brilliant novel that is about these issues should be labelled.
Any book about war: label that sucker, you’re out.
The Bell Jar: warning, contains suicide. Gee. Didn’t ruin that one did you?
Personally, I am offended by any book about gender or sex. I think they should be labelled.
Every single day I teach history, I should probably label it. In fact, I will label every controversial theme we talk about.
Clearly, the biggest and most offensive book in history that deserves massive labels everywhere is the Bible. Let’s look at it. Slavery, incest, misogyny, violence, circumcision, extinction, torture, mental illness, war, death, sex, sexual imagery, death of children, famine, disease, sodomy, homosexuality , feet washing (in case this kind of thing happened to you), animal abuse, sacrifice, domestic violence, child abuse, people getting sold into slavery by their families, mass circumcision…. pretty much every single offensive and controversial issue in human history has been written about in the Alpha and Omega of books.
SPOILER ALERT: MAN GETS CIRCUMCISED
That’s the point of literature. Political correctness has gone too far. I agree with Harley Brown, racist hero of the Idaho Republican Primary debate. “Hey diddle diddle, right up the middle,” and his policy on P.C.issues. “P.C. is bondage,” says this modern-day champion for Civil Rights. At least he is honest.
The refined debate featured above brought up real issues. As Alexis De Tocqueville pointed out, censorship has a peculiar role in a democracy. The benign shaping of public discourse leads to a narrowing of ideas and opinions. Despots attack the body, while democracies attack the soul.
“Democratic republics have applied despotism to the minds of men.” The warning label craze sweeping across academia is in my opinion, disgusting and counter-productive. How can new professors or teachers ever assign books that are “too risque” for the average college student that may have ever had any problems in their entire lives? Rape, PTSD, mental illness, racism, violence and other taboo subjects force people to think deeply about subjects. If we shield the next generation from the realities of human existence, are we doing them any favors?
WARNING – DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING POEM. CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT, VIOLENCE, SEXUAL ASSAULT, VIRGINITY, CAPTIVITY, DIVORCE, VIOLENCE.
Dear Lord, I shouldn’t read this poem either, although it is one of my favorite poems ever that has made me think since Mr. Albrecht made us read it in Honors English in High School. I am offended that he did not supply a label so I could leave the room when we discussed this saucy piece of poetry.
BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee
Sacre Bleu John Donne! My eyes are burning from reading that. Seriously, I don’t think I can go on today. It’s too much. This is why people leave teaching. Get out of the way and let teachers teach, and let professors profess.