Victim talk is back. According to two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, our moral culture recently underwent a seismic shift. Rather than upholding appropriate standards of honor and dignity, we now inflate trifling slights into allegations of victimization. Minor grievances of all sorts are showcased in cyberspace in an effort to garner sympathy and support. This “new species of social control,” they maintain, threatens an America where weakness suddenly rules.
Their and similar allegations about this novel insidious “victimhood culture” are being applauded and proselytized in major newspapers, journals and talk shows – from the New York Times and the Washington Post to the Leonard Lopate Show and Time magazine. Even President Obama entered the fray by speaking out against the reported refusal of American students to grapple with controversial subjects under the pretext that it might distress them. He emphatically rejected the premise that students should be “coddled and protected from different points of views.”
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To be sure, some of the postings on microaggression blogs may be overblown, and many professors, myself included, are reluctant to include content warnings on our syllabi. For their part, the “diversity managers” in university administration are sometimes too quick to jump into action, codifying and implementing cumbersome and overreaching protections. Nevertheless, these missteps, even in the aggregate, do not constitute evidence of a pervasive “victim mentality,” widespread moral decay, and an assault on free speech. Typically, Campbell and Manning’s evidence is anecdotal and relies on conflating substantively different forms of dissent. They lump together hunger strikes, hate crime hoaxes, protest suicides and microaggressions as comparable illustrations of this cultural turn. More importantly, microaggressions, trigger warnings and even the controversy over Woodrow Wilson’s legacy are not the ultimate target of this critique.
We've heard how some students at Columbia protested that most courses in the humanities should come with trigger warnings. We've heard them complain of how, for example, Ovid is replete with references to rape, and of the Greek culture's casual acceptance of it--it either does the woman no harm (in their literature, the raped eventually marry their rapists), or was her fault.
What we haven't yet heard, though, is a core of students complaining that perhaps the like of Greek studies shouldn't be canon, shouldn't be studied at all, only that it can marginalize. That is, I think that it is actually possible that students haven't yet become radical enough. For it really seems logical that if you're at the point where you see triggering material everywhere--and Greek drama, for instance, is full of sexual assault--that you check and recheck the reasons why you're still sure it should be studied. Maybe its not "foundational" but unrelated to us. A bush fire, a "Nam," into which we still keep throwing students in?
Maybe what should be pointed out to students is that despite their keen protests they yet still cling?
@Emporium There is a strong case to be made that stories of rape in mythology should not simply be glossed over as metaphors or as supernatural explanations for the births of founding heroes, but addressed for what they are, which was just as much a reality of life in antiquity as now. Ovid's Book 1 of the Metamorphoses is quite a literary tour de force: it's the same "origin story" told over and over but with variations, rather like a poetic version of Ravel's Bolero. The story is: god lusts for mortal or lesser deity, attempts to rape her, is thwarted when she transforms into something else (tree, river reeds, cow), god solves the problem by appropriating the newly created thing as his own: his sacred tree, his Pan-flutes, or in the case of Zeus and Io, he just turns himself into a bull. There are a dozen possible feminist readings of that text. Why not encourage students to pursue them instead of sweeping the obvious under the rug?
@agrippina minor@Emporium I think I'd disagree with the "just as much a reality of life in antiquity as now," part of your argument. Perhaps pederasts, rapists, were just more commonplace--and not even seen as all that bad. Maybe the student who doesn't find the culture all that entrancing, isn't so much "missing something," but just knows a pervert when they spot one, and finds their art just as besotted. The better feminist, not the one who applies a reading to the text, but the one who sustains a different one.
@Emporium@agrippina minor Here's an idea: maybe don't take a course in ancient Greek literature if you're not interested in ancient Greek literature. Why does it have to be excised from everyone ELSE'S curriculum?
It's not wall-to-wall rape and pederasty. I need to be shielded from Priam's plea to Achilles because someone ELSE is made uncomfortable by the kidnapping of Helen?
@Emporium@agrippina minor I've got a surprise for you, my friend. Professors of literature don't consider even the great works of classical literature sacrosanct. I got perhaps the best grade of my college career for a paper trashing Euripides' "Trojan Women." I acknowledged what the author was trying to do and then enumerated my reasons for thinking it didn't work. My husband describes a similar experience with a paper he wrote for an English class. The paragraph his professor liked the best was the one that began "But in the fifth stanza, this all falls apart." If the student hates the work, let him, or her, write a paper explaining why! The one condition is, it must be a well-reasoned argument supported by facts, not a rant.
@Emporium It is impossible to take Greek mythology out of the Western canon, for the simple reason that too many later works reference the older Greek myths, and it is impossible to understand the allusions without it. How could you, for instance, begin to comprehend Joyce's Ulysses if you were unaware of Homer?
Then what do you do, excise Joyce from the canon because to understand his work you need to read material written in a time when everyone wasn't as progressive on things like women's rights? That's okay, I guess. But if that's your standard (nothing written in a time when women were considered objects and nothing referencing such times), you aren't just getting rid of the Greeks, you are getting rid of pretty much the whole canon.
Either that, or this is just satire and you don't really believe that books from less progressive times need to be excised from today's reading lists.
@Adelaide McGinnity@Emporium If ancient Greeks are bad company, some thought should be taken as to how much contact with them can worsen you, even as much as it might make it possible to get more from Ulysses. I say might, because the person who thereafter encountered Ulysses has got to bring what happened to him or her into the reading as well. It is possible that they'd have done better blanking on the references, but spared long company with the rape-apologist Greeks, while encountering Joyce.
The humanities should be about creating not just a broad-minded person but a more emotionally healthy one. Given that 21st-century progressives are vastly more progressive than, say, 18th-century ones, perhaps the focus should mostly be on minds within the last century. More Gloria Steinem, and no Aristotle at all. Those who advocate going back to enrich the experience, should be expected to be mature in balancing thoughts on what might be gained, with the fact of their advocating trips into Mordor.
It is impossible to focus on the great minds of the present while blithely ignoring the great minds of the past, in large part because the works of today's thinkers are built on the ideas of thinkers from the past. You can't simply start with Derrida. You can't even really start with Marx; you need to go back to Greeks in order to understand the progression of western thought and western philosophy.
But beyond that, the case you are making is bothersome to me as a supporter of liberal education. No intelligent mind should be bothered by the revelation that ancient cultures had different values from today's culture and that, therefore, what is celebrated and considered normal in works from the past will not be what is valued and celebrated today. Certainly there are some who are bothered by this, but rather than bend the liberal arts to their whim, we should instead be thinking about how best to remedy the fact that they were clearly unprepared for the liberal arts in the first place.
Being educated means reading works with which you disagree and which might offend today's standards of decency. If you disagree, well, then perhaps the liberal arts simply aren't your thing.
Our cultural history is filled with good things and bad things and if we excise the bad things from education then we give the impression that the whole of Western history has been one long rights-respecting jamboree.
People stop acknowledging racism and sexism if they're never shown any examples of it. People start taking their own point of view for granted as the way things have always been if they're not exposed to the evolution of western thought.
And honestly, if you really can't take the depiction of sexual assault in Ovid without becoming emotionally unbalanced, then heaven help you if you ever wander into the Student Union while Game of Thrones is playing.
People go to college to grow, not to shrink. Depicting something is not the same as condoning it.
Our Founders were slaveholders. Slavery is, to say the least, an alarmingly unpleasant and emotionally stressful subject. But we're not doing anyone any favors if we either exclude slavery from the history of our nation or stop teaching about the Founders altogether.
@Gonzago@Emporium@Adelaide McGinnityOur Founders were slaveholders. Slavery is, to say the least, an alarmingly unpleasant and emotionally stressful subject. But we're not doing anyone any favors if we either exclude slavery from the history of our nation or stop teaching about the Founders altogether.
I'm sure there are a lot of conservatives who know history up to their eyeballs; it hasn't prevented them from a disposition that finds any significant advance in a populace's empowerment, somehow threatening.
Maybe the foremost thing we can do to prevent racist attitudes has more to do with alleviating the inclination to project, with alleviating trauma, than it has to do with information. I know very literate, progressive people who simply don't read history--they smell the regressive personalities, therein. I personally find them less suspect than those who so easily found themselves entranced with these inadequate peoples of yesterday.
The foremost thing we can do to prevent racist attitudes is to confront the issue head on, not seek to filter what people are taught. To teach people how to think, not what to think, and to allow them to engage in a meaningful, informed debate.
History is unpleasant. The western canon reflects a good deal of that unpleasantness. The modern world is unpleasant. The best literature from the last century also reflects that unpleasantness.
You can't teach people about liberation without telling them what they're being liberated from. It's like abstinence-only sex education. Doesn't do a lot of good to tell kids to not do something if you can't describe what that something is.
@Emporium@Adelaide McGinnity No no no. The study of history through literature is not a psychotherapy class. The study of history, and of literature, demands the scholar be exposed to all manner of nastiness, of horror. The understanding of the depravity of which human nature is capable is essential to a meaningful education.
An obvious example: the scourge of Nazism is horrifying for sure and in some sensitive and intelligent people that history will produce nightmares.
Those nightmares are good to have. They are a marker of good character.
A true scholar will read Mein Kampf. And also Andrea Dworkin. And so on...
Germans had the worst childrearing in all of Europe. They subjected their children to all sorts of frights that were ostensibly for their own good. All it did was make them hate the "spoiled" Jews who were rather more comfortably--in their less traumatized fashion--making something of Weimar opportunities.
My hope is that some of these Columbia students applying warnings to subject matter some scholars see as necessary for good character, help nurture a sense of the scholar as someone who doesn't necessarily see themselves as deprived if they couldn't endure Mein Kampf for more than a page.
@Adelaide McGinnity@Emporium And then there's this to consider: if 18 year olds are coming into college and are shocked...SHOCKED!...to discover that the Greek Myths are rife with kidnapping, torture, sexual assault and the inhumanity of war, well, maybe that's because they've been shielded too much in primary and secondary school.
I'm not saying we need to go over the Rape of the Sabine Women in fourth grade, but a college kid walking into a course on ancient Greek literature really ought to have some comprehension of what the basic material is.
Especially considering that you don't usually get to those classes in freshman year. Deep readings of Ovid are typically upper division courses.
So if you've spent a year or two in college and still are surprised to read depictions of sexual assault in ancient texts, I'm not too sure we're doing you any favors by skirting the issue.
Because when will you be able to handle it? In your 30s?
Why doesn't Salon ever provide us with a post by a professor who doesn'tthink microaggression blogs are overblown, and who isn't reluctant to include content warnings on their syllabi? Why must the voice of sanity still be a sort of curmudgeon? still sound sort of old?
Maybe the most strident students actually have it right. Maybe we just don't realize the damage that was done to us; have taken the insane as actually sane; and the most evolved of youth can't fool themselves as to how much of what we accept as normal is actually full of completely unnecessary pathos/sadism, and so their justified, complaint after complaint? Maybe before we end our lives they're the last chance for us to rethink how we've been shaped, and start uncovering a real self as opposed to one that was actually much more broken rather than tested by the world that bore down on it.