The Rape of Proserpina, 1636-1638. Artist: Rubens, Pieter Paul (1577-1640) (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
“Not far from the walls of Enna, there is a deep pool,” begins Ovid’s version of the rape of Persephone. “While [Persephone] was playing in this glade, and gathering violets or radiant lilies, while with girlish fondness she filled the folds of her gown, and her basket, trying to outdo her companions in her picking, [Pluto], almost in a moment, saw her, prized her, took her: so swift as this, is love.”
The Greek myth has been recounted for thousands of years in hundreds of languages, scores of countries and countless works of art. It’s considered a cultural touchstone for Western civilization: a parable about power, lust and grief.
Now, however, it could be getting a treatment it’s never had before: a trigger warning.
In an op-ed in the student newspaper, four Columbia University undergrads have called on the school to implement trigger warnings — alerts about potentially distressing material — even for classics like Greek mythology or Roman poetry.
“Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” wrote the four students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”
The April 30 op-ed has stirred debate on campus and online.
“Grow up, open up, care less about your identity and more about your passions,” wrote one of hundreds of commenters. “Such an insufferable breed of self-centered Care Bears.”
The op-ed comes at a time of intense debate about trigger warnings, a term that is 20 years old but only recently has become a proxy for broader issues such as political correctness, identity politics, liberal arts education and sexual assault.
The phrase can be traced back to the treatment of Vietnam War veterans in the 1980s, according to BuzzFeed’s Alison Vingiano. Psychologists started identifying “triggers” that sent vets spiraling into flashbacks of past traumas. With the rise of the Internet in the late ’90s, feminist message boards began using “trigger warnings” to warn readers of content that could stir up painful or paralyzing memories of sexual assault.
Trigger warnings quickly spread to include discussions of everything from eating disorders to self injury to suicide. In 2010, sex blogger Susannah Breslin wrote that feminists were using the term “like a Southern cook applies Pam cooking spray to an overused nonstick frying pan.” Breslin argued that trigger warnings were pointless or, even worse, self-defeating. A trigger warning is “like a flashing neon sign, attracting *more* attention to a particularly explicit post, even as it purports to deflect the attention of those to whom it might actually be relevant.”
“Alerts have been applied to topics as diverse as sex, pregnancy, addiction, bullying, suicide, sizeism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, slut shaming, victim-blaming, alcohol, blood, insects, small holes, and animals in wigs,” Jenny Jarvie wrote last year in the New Republic. “Certain people, from rapper Chris Brown to sex columnist Dan Savage, have been dubbed ‘triggering.’ Some have called for trigger warnings for television shows such as ‘Scandal’ and ‘Downton Abbey.'”
But the Internet debate over trigger warnings is nothing compared to the controversy over their use on American university campuses. Last year, students at the University of California at Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking professors to put trigger warnings on class syllabuses and allow students to skip classes containing “content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
“Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to ‘be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,’ to remove triggering material when it doesn’t ‘directly’ contribute to learning goals and ‘strongly consider’ developing a policy to make ‘triggering material’ optional,” Jarvie wrote. “Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart,’ it states, is a novel that may ‘trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.’ Warnings have been proposed even for books long considered suitable material for high-schoolers: Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby say, ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.'”
Critics on both the left and the right have expressed concern that these trigger warnings are impinging upon free speech and undermining the meaning of a liberal arts education, where students from all walks of life are exposed to new and often disturbing ideas.
“What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off,” Jarvie wrote. “The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.”
“In reality, trigger warnings are unrealistic,” argued Breslin, the sex blogger. “They are the dream-child of a fantasy in which the unknown can be labeled, anticipated, and controlled. What trigger warnings promise — protection — does not exist. The world is simply too chaotic, too out-of-control for every trigger to be anticipated, avoided, and defused.”
“Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement — a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day,” Harvey Silverglate opined in the Wall Street Journal. “What should be the object of derision, a focus for satire, is instead the subject of serious faux academic discussion and precautionary warnings. For this disorder there is no effective quarantine. A whole generation of students soon will have imbibed the warped notions of justice and entitlement now handed down as dogma in the universities.”
And yet, it’s no coincidence that trigger warnings have arisen just as sexual assault finally becomes part of the national conversation. As Katie J.M. Baker pointed out in a recent BuzzFeed article, discussing rape and sexual assault simply is different than discussing other societal ills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 women in America have been raped. “As far as brutal crimes go, there won’t be any murder victims sitting in class, but statistically, there will likely be survivors of sexual assault,” Baker wrote.
“Of course I understand the import of studying rape in law school,” one Harvard Law graduate told Baker. “That I expect rape to be taught with the understanding that 1 in 5 women are assaulted while in college, and therefore there are very likely survivors sharing the law school classroom does not mean I am afraid. It means I care.”
Students sunbathe on the steps of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library, foreground, in April in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
In their op-ed, the Columbia undergrads — all women of color — recount the story of another female student.
“During the week spent on Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault,” they write. “As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.”
The students then call on Columbia to “issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students” and institute “a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors.”
“Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students,” the students write.
Conservative critics claim that the Columbia students want to silence class discussion of certain texts.
“The hyperbolic language of trauma that’s used! Sheesh,” wrote Elizabeth Nolan Brown in Reason. “Apparently this discussion of Ovid was so threatening it was a matter of self-preservation to ignore it. If that’s really true — if the mere discussion of rape causes this student to feel panicked and physically unsafe — than she needs help treating severe post-traumatic stress disorder, not a f—— trigger warning.”
In the case of the Columbia students, however, they say they want more discussion, not less. A trigger warning on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” might help a student who has suffered sexual assault stay engaged by offering her a chance to discuss the brutality in the text — not just its beauty.
“Our vision for this training is not to infringe upon the instructors’ academic freedom in teaching the material,” the students conclude. “Rather, it is a means of providing them with effective strategies to engage with potential conflicts and confrontations in the classroom, whether they are between students or in response to the material itself. Given these tools, professors will be able to aid in the inclusion of student voices which presently feel silenced.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.