I am not a sensitive person. Maybe I saw too many Schwarzeneggerian shoot-’em-ups. Maybe I played too many video games. Maybe I listened to too much metal and hip-hop. Or maybe it’s just because I liked to read. After all, Beowulf includes a detailed description of an arm getting torn of its socket at the shoulder, Tess of the D’urbervilles deals with a woman ostracized for becoming pregnant after a rape, and Catcher in the Rye includes a scene where the frequently profane underage protagonist hires a prostitute. And that’s just the books I read for school.
I’d like to propose a new acronym for these moments, whether it’s graphic content in literature, sensitive content in history, or full frontal content in art history: NSFWBSFS (not safe for work, but safe for school).
Apparently, there’s a growing conversation among educators about whether or not students should be warned about certain content in advance. Think of this like a very specific ratings system about upcoming content.
I’m sure many of you recoil in horror at this suggestion. Shouldn’t students, especially by the time they reach college, be treated as adults? One of the greatest gifts literature gives us is a way to talk about the heaviest topics — racism, sexual violence, religious conflict — through a fictional lens. Why strip that important aspect of education away because it might make a few people uncomfortable?
But the counter-argument shouldn’t be dismissed quite so quickly. What might count as a sensitive topic to one person might not be a sensitive topic to another. This is especially true in instances of trauma. If a victim of rape told me that Tess of the d’Urbervilles was too painful to read, I’d consider that a perfectly understandable reaction. It’s not censorship per se, because it doesn’t limit access to objectionable material.
However, what sounds reasonable for an individual opt-out makes less sense for a campus-wide policy. Oberlin College has tried to institute “trigger warnings” for its classes, but they’ve erred on the broad side. The idea is to let you know of anything that could be conceivably objectionable in advance, and let the individual student work out what he or she is comfortable with. The problem with that mentality is that you soon end up with the kind of nonsense the MPAA regularly prints, like the screenshot above’s “non-stop ninja action” or Alice in Wonderland (2010) getting a PG rating for a “smoking caterpillar.” Go too broad, and you end up cheapening the warnings.
The humanities (any of them) are a study of the best and worst of human nature. Students should understand that, but instructors likewise need to sympathize when the ugliness cuts too close for comfort. That fundamental understanding is what’s needed, far more than a warning label.