There is almost no contemporary fiction that I could confidently describe as being universally inoffensive. I mean this without any snideness whatsoever, but I don’t know how English faculty at Christian colleges and universities manage to teach any courses in contemporary literature.
I occasionally teach an interdisciplinary Honors seminar called “The Meanings of Rivers,” in which I usually assign novels set along each of the major rivers that we focus upon. There are not many novels in English set along the Amazon. I initially tried Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which thoroughly outraged a number of Christian students with its very unflattering depiction of missionaries.
So I then tried Emperor of the Amazon by the Brazilian novelist Marcio Souza. The novel treats a mercenary hired by interests headed by Henry Ford to lead an insurrection that would have created Fordlandia, an independent state around the region of Amazonia in which wild rubber trees were most concentrated. Like most of Souza’s novels, Emperor of the Amazon is a wildly and sometimes viciously satiric work, focusing in great deal on the mercenary’s slow progress up the river toward Manaus–a progress marked by one drunken binge and orgy after another. At one point, he is found in the hold of a boat with a small group of half-clothed nuns and is put off the boat, naked, onto a sandbar.
When I asked my students for some initial response to the novel, one young woman raised her hand and said, very definitively, “Prof. Kich, I find absolutely nothing amusing about drunken debauchery.” I felt like saying, “Okay, but why rain on my parade?” But, instead, I tried to explain, in as inoffensive terms as possible, why the novel was funny, how it worked as a satire–and in the process, I discovered that the truism about killing a joke by explaining it is all too true, in a classroom as elsewhere.
Indeed, some months later, a student in that course commented to me that he had not found the novel to be all that funny, but that he thought that my increasingly desperate efforts to explain why it was funny were hilarious. So I suppose that I would have had to issue a trigger warning about not just the novel but also about my own sensibility, my own deeply stunted sense of humor.
Over this past week, the news programs have just been filled with tributes to Joan Rivers. Although she was a stand-up comic and not a faculty member, and so very different expectations obviously apply, I still don’t see how it is possible that trigger warnings and Joan Rivers could coexist in the same culture. One of her jokes that was not run in any of the tribute clips came close to putting Johnny Carson into convulsions. When he remonstrated with her about exaggerating the degree to which she was unloved, she pointed out that immediately after she was born, she had to be rushed into surgery to remove the wire hanger from her ear.
If my memory is at all trustworthy, I believe that that show was aired forty or so years ago, in the mid 1970s.
You can’t say that I didn’t warn you. And, frankly, if you kept reading past the title, I think that it is fair to say that that decision suggests at least as much about your sensibility as this post suggests about mine.
Of course, you aren’t my students.
But one of the major problems with trigger warnings is that they treat communication within the classroom extremely simplistically, as if the faculty member can anticipate and account for how students respond to anything, whether the focus is a work of fiction, a concept, or a timely issue. I doubt that a sensitivity to a topic’s complexities and a sensitivity to one’s students’ sensibilities can be balanced, even hypothetically– never mind in actual practice.