Tiffany Jenkins says that the rising demand for trigger warnings are like a loaded gun pointed at the head of literature:
In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, the Iranian author and professor Azar Nafisi recalls how, when living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, she secretly brought together seven female students in her living room every Thursday morning so they could read and discuss forbidden classic works of Western literature. These books were considered ‘anti-revolutionary’ and ‘morally harmful’ by the Iranian authorities. Nafisi and the girls put themselves at risk so they could enter the worlds created by writers that included Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.
Nafisi’s passion for literature and her defiance of the authorities is inspiring, as is the determination of the girls who attended her class, but Reading Lolita in Tehran is an upsetting read. Books – ideas – are powerful, of course, and deal with difficult and sometimes questionable ideas, but they are not so powerful that we should be prevented from studying them, and it makes me angry to think that those wonderful, if tragic and complicated, worlds of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, are not available to everyone in many parts of the world. All because those books are considered immoral, and because women, especially, are deemed too susceptible to negative influences.
One thing a novel never is is simple. That’s why we read them, because they are challenging and thoughtful. You don’t read The Great Gatsby or any other book to learn about whether it is good or bad to betray your husband, or long after a lost love, or make loads or money, or to hit your mistress, or commit suicide, you read to explore how complicated, and human, these desires, wishes and acts are. And there is no such thing as the ‘last word’ when it comes to a novel. The ongoing conversation between readers and writers shouldn’t be curtailed, or deemed too difficult a task for us. What we know or think is never complete or final.
As someone who has taught many students, I can say that most lecturers have faith in their students and know how to help students with issues navigate difficult material. What the students calling for trigger warnings fail to realise is that these are issues that will never be addressed by a warning sticker.
This is a generation of students, it would seem, that does not want university to be a place of free thought, of experimentation, and of reading the best that has been known and thought. This is a generation that sees knowledge as dangerous and themselves as incapable of dealing with it, who seem to want to erase from the world any written words that address complexity, difficulty, nastiness, or the depth of human feeling. These students don’t want to be disturbed, stretched or challenged, and nor do they want others to be. It is a generation that just wants to be sheltered from the world, from one another and even themselves. These are students who, if they are not careful, will find that members of their classes are forced to organise private reading groups in their own homes in order to experience a world of literature that is being denied to them.