Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Trigger happy

When does sensitivity to others become over-sensitivity and censorship? The question that springs to mind after a professor of literature allegedly dropped a well-known book from her curriculum and issued a trigger warning on her other course books.

Supposedly, after consulting with students, Professor Judith Hawley removed Fanny Hill from the reading list on the grounds that it contains "pornographic material" and may "cause offence". Supposedly again, her trigger warning explained that certain texts "sometimes reflect the unpleasant prejudices of their time" (However, Professor Hawley says she never banned the book, and never issued a trigger warning, so what actually happened is unclear)

But it's an important issue. Should a lecturer have to be so defensive simply because some students might be offended by words in a book? Surely the whole point of a literature course is to appraise an entire book, with all its negative and positive points, and not to pre-judge it by banning it or issuing warnings about its content?

Many books contain "pornographic material". Many books might "cause offence" or include "unpleasant prejudices". If all books were banned or given trigger warnings for those reasons, there wouldn't be many books left that were safe to read. Literature courses would be reduced to studying children's books or romantic fiction.

Why are books being considered on the basis of whether they offend people or not, rather than their literary or cultural or creative merits? Why are complex works of art being seen only as emotional triggers?

And if students are so over-sensitive to course material they need protecting from it, maybe they should be taking a less stressful course? Maybe accountancy or bricklaying?

Personally, I would say a book that isn't disturbing is hardly worth reading. I like my cosy preconceptions to be rudely jolted.

PS: Professor Hawley has denied banning Fanny Hill, saying it was never on her reading list in the first place (The Guardian) Unfortunately at least nine media outlets have repeated the "censorship" story so most people will continue to believe Fanny Hill was censored. The Telegraph hasn't published any further story or correction. I sent them an official complaint, asking them to publish a correction or provide the sources for their story. They replied that their story was an accurate account of what Professor Hawley had said, and was not in any way incorrect. Professor Hawley has thanked me for my interest in the issue, but she makes no further comment one way or the other.

Pic: Professor Hawley

38 comments:

Ursula said...

It's a ruse, Nick. By excluding Fanny Hill (really?) from the list the good Professor has ensured that all, and all, of her students will read it. Nothing to pique one's interest more than the explicitly forbidden.

U

Rummuser said...

And, in this process deny the grown up students, they are university students after all, exposure to some good literature. Fanny Hill being taken off is absurd, in this day and age when school children read Fifty Shades of Grey.

Bijoux said...

Well, I'm glad I looked it up before commenting! Lol, is there anything actually redeeming about that book? The plot seems like something out of a Hustler magazine story.

I'm normally against literature censorship, but with the huge porn addiction so many face, I can understand why this book is not a good idea.

Jimmy Breck-McKye said...

Dr Hawley has recently responded to the controversy in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/15/fanny-hill-ban-university-trigger-warnings-judith-hawley

The tl;dr is - she says the report is basically fiction, as she never taught the novel in the first place.

Nick said...

Ursula: Well, Professor Hawley says she never banned the book, and it was never on her reading list in the first place, so we can dispose of that little invention. However, she does think that teaching "a work of pornography" like Fanny Hill can make students "feel coerced". I wonder if that's the case?

Nick said...

Ramana: See my reply to Ursula!

Bijoux: Is there anything redeeming about it? Maybe Professor Hawley can answer that. I've never read it so I wouldn't know. But I'm as worried as you about porn addiction, which seems to be increasing rapidly. I've never used any porn but I gather it quite cynically reduces women to rape-able sex objects.

Nick said...

Jimmy: Thanks for that. I hadn't noticed the Guardian piece. But as I said to Ursula, she does think there are certain types of book that can make students "feel coerced". I'm glad she's reluctant to issue trigger warnings though.

Liz Hinds said...

Interesting. Sometimes Radio 4 Extra warns listeners before a show that 'this is a product of its time' meaning it has a script that nowadays would be considered sexist.

Ursula said...

What are we actually talking about, Nick? Literature or pornography? On the former I have a lot to say, on the latter nothing.

As to your assertion, in reply to Bijoux, that "it quite cynically reduces women to rape-able sex objects" - excuse me: "Reduces Women" to being "Rape-able"? What do you mean? Rape-able. Because a woman doesn't have the upper arm strength to fight off a possible assailant? And what of young men? Well, any man I suppose. Let me tell you, Nick, the first rape victim whose misfortune was told me from the horse's mouth was the brother of two friends of mine. We were sixteen. He was fourteen. Gang raped. No, he was not in an adult prison where, apparently, raping the pretty boys comes with the territory, just om his way home.

I sometimes do not know where your posts are going, Nick, but have to say that this one is going nowhere. No one, but no one is "coerced" into anything by reading a novel or watching porn.

U

Nick said...

Liz: Indeed, a lot of things are "a product of their time". They make you wince at the unadulterated sexism, homophobia and all the other unthinking prejudice.

Nick said...

Ursula: I assume we're talking about both. As for rape, I think many women don't have the physical strength to fight off a much stronger man. The average rapist is very confident he can easily overpower a woman and do what he wants with her. And yes, of course men get raped as well but on nothing like the horrendous scale that women are raped and sexually harassed.

I'm sure you're strong-minded enough not to be coerced into anything, but plenty of people are not so independent. Which is why advertising is so effective.

Nick said...

Clearly I'll have to be more sceptical of the Telegraph in future, if this story really is made up. Though at the moment we only have Professor Hawley's assertion that there was no such ban. I'm not entirely sure who's telling the truth here.

Treey said...

I agree with bijoux's comment. We really can get by without the sex. I'm not a prude..

Bijoux said...

I didn't mean to go off topic with the porn aspect. Whether the article is 'fake news' or not, book censorship is worthy of discussion. I do wonder how healthy it is for someone who has been in therapy for abuse or rape to be required to read a book that depicts those acts in a graphic manner. I hope Agent weighs in on this.

In a perfect world, a professor would give a choice of books and the students could facilitate the discussions in small groups.

Can we just live in a world without extreme attitudes of either having to treat everyone with kid gloves or telling people to suck it up? I'd like to find some middle ground, but the world seems to be headed in the opposite direction.

CheerfulMonk said...

Being clueless, I had to look it up. Here's a review at Goodreads:

"Fanny Hill, also known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, has been a notorious novel since it first appeared in London in 1748-9. Banned for its "obscene" content, this fictional account of a young woman's unconventional route to middle-class respectability is, in fact, a lively and engaging comic romp through the boudoirs and brothels of Augustan England, with a heroine whose adventures and setbacks never lessen her humanity or her determination to find real love and happiness. Fanny's story offers modern readers sensuality and substance, as well as an unusually frank depiction of love and sex in the eighteenth century."

It doesn't sound so bad, though I'll cheerfully skip it.

kylie said...

I can't comment on the book but I will say that I have heard a lot about trigger warnings lately. It seems that universities the world over are having to issue trigger warnings for all kinds of issues in all kinds of courses. I want to be sensitive to people's varied experiences of life and the potential for any of us to unintentionally cause pain at any moment. having said all of that, I tend to think that anyone who needs a trigger warning is probably traumatised to the point that any random event might set them off and is possibly not ready for immersion in the world.

I recently saw a disclaimer in a birth group that said something along the lines of " we talk about birth here and we talk about it in all the ways it happens. If discussion of any aspect of birth is potentially triggering for you, you might like to find a different group"

Nick said...

Treey: We probably could get by without the sex. But why is it such an issue in the first place?

Nick said...

Bijoux: A world with neither kid gloves or sucking it up would be a great relief, but as you say people seem to be going to ever greater extremes. You may be right about the effect of graphic descriptions on readers who have suffered from something similar. But then again, so many of us have been traumatised by one thing or another, avoiding all exposure to possibly triggering descriptions could be a never-ending task.

A choice of books and small-group discussions is an interesting idea.

Nick said...

Jean: All the publicity is having the usual unintended effect of arousing people's curiosity in Fanny Hill. I almost want to read it myself, just to see what all the fuss is about.

Nick said...

Kylie: You might be right about traumatised individuals being set off by just about anything. All sorts of things could be triggers - death, grief, murder, terrorism, you name it. To avoid all conceivable triggers would be impossible. When even talking about birth is seen as potentially triggering, things are getting a bit out of hand.

Nick said...

I've emailed the Telegraph, asking them if their story about Professor Hawley banning Fanny Hill is actually true or not. They probably won't reply.

kylie said...

Lots of people have birth related trauma, my job is to try to make sure there is less opportunity for it to develop.
I thought it was interesting that instead of trying to avoid triggers, this particular group had a policy of just saying "don't be here if you can't handle it"
Whoever made that policy had balls (or ovaries)

Nick said...

Kylie: I agree, that seems like a more sensible approach. A bit like the old saying about TV - "If you don't like it, you can always turn it off".

Ms Scarlet said...

*returns to sipping ginger beer and reading Enid Blyton*

To be fair Enid Blyton has a lot to answer for. I was always a bit miffed that I didn't have an Uncle who owned an island.... and I don't really like ginger beer.... why doesn't store brand orange squash ever feature in any of her novels?????
As for romance novels.... I think I could take offence to them if pushed.
Sx

Ms Scarlet said...

“maypole[s] of so enormous a standard” appear to be proving too much for university students.

I imagine they piss themselves laughing!!! I know my classmates would have!!
SX

Nick said...

Scarlet: I'm sure our rulers would love to see a population that drank only ginger beer and read only Enid Blyton. How easy their life would be! Damn, I didn't have an uncle who owned an island either. My childhood was seriously depleted.

We can't possibly expose innocent uni students to maypoles of an enormous standard. They could be horribly corrupted.

Wisewebwoman said...

Oh gawd, why did I think "manpole" in Scarlet's comment. Let me have a minute to recover.

OK. No books should be censored for fear of offence. We are squeamish on sex but not on graphic violence.

I will weigh in on the derail of porn in that it has been proven that the young, who have ready access to all porn on the internet, have become desensitized, particularly young men who make incredibly repugnant demands on the young women they meet. I believe this, knowing some who have harrowing stories to tell about "normalized" sex demands. "Everyone has anal" as an example and worse.

XO
WWW

Nick said...

www: I've heard so much about young men's sexuality being totally warped by endless exposure to porn. Porn is thoroughly nasty and misogynistic. As you say, I gather it's now normal to ask for anal sex, blow jobs, and other weird types of sex that most women get zero pleasure from.

John Gray said...

Good point nick it is worrying

Nick said...

John: It IS worrying. If any academic material that offended or upset someone or other was quietly put aside, there wouldn't be much left to study. The degree course would be over in a week!

Secret Agent Woman said...

In general, I don't care for censorship. I don't have a problem with trigger warnings, though. Why object to letting people know what they're in for?

But this particular book sounds like full-on pornography to me. And pornography generally demeans women and contributes to a rape culture.

Nick said...

Agent: But surely if you're serious about trigger warnings, there are so many things that might emotionally trigger a person, the warnings would become voluminous. It seems more sensible just to be aware that whatever you're watching or reading might at some point be disturbing and you should be prepared for that.

I agree, it does seem like pure pornography. But I haven't read it, so I can't really say.

joared said...

My initial reaction is trigger warnings really shouldn't be necessary by the time students are in college -- just a summary of content.. Might as well be aware of what's prevalent in the culture. How an instructor presents the material matter-of-factly without promotion surely would be important.

Nick said...

Joared: Yes, a summary of content would be a good alternative. If students are likely to be traumatised by so much course material, you wonder why they signed up for the course in the first place.

Secret Agent Woman said...

But Nick, even if you just read the excerpts, it is clearly pornography.

Nick said...

Agent: I haven't read any excerpts, but I'll take your word for it that it's pornography.

Jenny Woolf said...

I don't understand it either. And yet there is the most awful prejudice and horrible obscenity around on the internet, it's as if people don't know what to think or do.

Nick said...

Jenny: Indeed, the entire internet needs copious trigger warnings about all the horrendous things that are posted! As you say, people seem to be strangely dumb. If they're upset by something, so what? Either ignore it or sign up for therapy. Demanding advance notice of anything potentially distressing is really over-the-top. And the trigger warning might still omit the one thing that totally freaks you out.