Friday, May 30, 2014

A Trigger of a Different Color

Lenny Bruce (Examiner Press Photo)

Trigger was Roy Rogers’ horse. His original name was actually Golden Cloud. Was Roy anticipating the whole movement against triggering language that derived out of feminist theory and that has recently spread like one of those fires in drought stricken areas of the West, according to a recent Times piece, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” (NYT, 5/17/140 To what extent does language create and affect human action? And to what length must we go in terms of policing language in order to purify human intentions and motives? Is such a project feasible? During the 60’s comedians like Lenny Bruce went to jail to protect free speech and George Carlin would later carry on the banner and create a lucrative career by defying censorship—as did other personalities like Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern. Stern created a virtual empire of transgression, which continues on today. But backlash was forming in what one might have thought was one of the most improbable of precincts. If the right had always been sparing in its defense of the First Amendment they found an ally in militant feminists who began to regard the free expression of pornography as a form of exploitation. Christian fundamentalists and left wing feminist activists might seem like strange bedfellows, to carry the pornography metaphor even further, but they did and to some extent continue to remain allies when it comes to the question of triggering language that has become a new issue on college campuses. The Times piece goes on to describe how students have protested certain books which they feel have “triggering” or offensive language and how such students have advocated the use of “trigger warnings.” The article cites works like The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Things Fall Apart as examples of books that have come under scrutiny in a number of colleges and universities including the University of California at Santa Barbara, Oberlin, Rutgers and the University of Michigan, for containing language which is offensive or hurtful to those students traumatized by issues of misogyny or racism. To deny that language can create thought and that it can be prone to misinterpretation by psychopaths, who believe that a book depicting rape somehow condones it, is obviously counter to the truth of experience. However, are we ready to perform an even greater act of violence, by amputating the title of a classic like Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: A Tale of the Forecastle to read “The Person of Color of the Narcissus” or to redact the text of The Merchant of Venice so that there is no mention that Shylock is a Jew, under the theory that such knowledge could incite anti-Semitism?

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