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Biting and Stinging: Discomfort in Our Media Consumption

“I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?” — Franz Kafka, from a 1904 letter

I first ran across this quote last year, and have been meaning to blog about it for a while — and then, in the last few days, I’ve found about a dozen different things that seemed to point to this as The Week for This Post. So, here goes…

The major precipitating event here was a conversation this week between faculty at the small liberal arts college where I teach. The facilitator wanted to bring people together to talk about trigger warnings in higher education. I’m guessing most of the Internet knows what a trigger warning is: they’ve become increasingly common on blogs and general-purpose Internet forums (fora?). My understanding of the term, and the one used by my colleague earlier this week, is that “triggering” material is that which might provoke PTSD-style reactions for individuals who are survivors of some kind of trauma (most often sexual violence, but I’ve also seen them used for images of war or violence generally).

This is all good stuff. However, in the last year or so, trigger warnings have become increasingly commonplace in higher education. Oberlin College in Ohio recently changed (and then re-changed) its guidelines for syllabus development, asking professors to be sensitive to assigning potentially upsetting material in the classroom and to provide students with the opportunity to avoid it if necessary. One example from the Oberlin guidelines:

Sometimes a work is too important to avoid.  For example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read.  However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more. Here are some steps you, as a professor, can take so that your class can examine this source in the most productive and safe manner possible…  (the guidelines then go on to talk about providing trigger warnings, how these are different than spoilers, and that professors should strongly consider making potentially triggering material optional).

The Oberlin guidelines (which have since been placed at least partially on hold) have produced a backlash from people concerned about academic freedom (professors’ rights to have final control over what’s assigned in their classrooms), and also from those who think that undergraduates are already too “coddled” — but what I think is most interesting, and the point my colleague made, was that we as educators need to find a way to distinguish between students who might find material legitimately triggering and those who just want to avoid being made uncomfortable. Because, as several other commentators have pointed out in different places, being made to be uncomfortable from time to time may well be part of gaining an education.

That really resonated with me, and I’d suggest that for people who have primarily majority/dominant group identities, it’s an important thing to keep in mind. Some of the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve ever had have started in uncomfortable places (like a conversation with relatives that I still reference 4 years later about whether I, as a white person, am suitable to teach a course on the sociology of race). And that brings me to the piece that I think is more relevant for the scope of what I typically talk about here: how we as readers/consumers (and writers) deal with uncomfortable topics, and (relatedly) with things that are “foreign.”

I like being immersed in other worlds: it’s one of the main reasons I read genre fiction. But I’ll freely admit, I don’t like having to work too hard. If a book doesn’t take some time to explain its setting(s) and its culture(s), I’m apt to get thrown off and put the book down (and that’s one of the reasons I typically have a hard time with anime, which seems to rely more heavily than most Western shows on “jump in and we’ll explain it all as you go along”). I don’t like having to stop and do research while I’m reading; it feels like work.

But I’m also aware that my social identities put me in a position where I don’t often have to. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the main characters are people whose culture I’m already familiar with, from the million other fantasy books where the setting is not-quite-medieval-Europe. Just like how when I watch movies — genre or not — for the most part, the main characters look like me, and their concerns more or less map onto ones I can relate to. Of course, in genre fiction, the main characters are still most often men… but that’s OK, because (studies show) women and girls are used to identifying with men and boys as main characters. It’s only when things go the other way that it gets difficult (check out this review of Brave that talks about why it can in fact “still appeal to boys” despite having a female protagonist).

Genre readers tend to have better imaginations than most: we can put ourselves in the mind of an alien, or an elf, or a ghost. But people sometimes get uncomfortable about putting themselves in the minds of someone who’s fundamentally different from us in a “real-world” way. When Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea was made into a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, they turned her protagonist white as a matter of course, after she spent decades fighting to have him appear as a brown or red-skinned person on the book cover. When Game of Thrones explicitly noted a gay male relationship in its first season, some fans who’d read the books protested that HBO had “made them gay” (not so, for what it’s worth). And, of course, there was the controversy over The Hunger Games’ characters of color.

I found this blog post by Thea Lim the other day which seemed to sum up the argument: as a person with numerous privileges, what should I do with the fact that I assume people in books are like me? What should I do with the fact that reading books by authors who aren’t like me sometimes requires more work? Lim’s response left me pondering:

Just read books as the person that you are. Writers are not asking anything more of readers usually. But to assume that you can understand everything about a story, especially when it is not written specifically for you, can be a symbol of entitlement, a refusal to accept that many politically marginalised writers write things into their stories that are only for their own people.

Going back to the Kafka quote, I think that some people with privileged identities avoid reading books (or taking courses) that aren’t “about them” because they don’t think they’re relevant: some avoid them because they don’t want to be made uncomfortable. But I agree with the point made above — sometimes being uncomfortable is good. Sometimes, for those of us privileged to see ourselves reflected in our genre fiction over and over and over again, being reminded that not everyone is like you (and — less often appearing in genre fiction, which tends toward the utopian or dystopian — people like you have their own baggage) is part of becoming a more educated person.

As part of my reading education project this year, I’m trying to read more literature from other genres — and I’m trying to read more things not exclusively written by white Americans, including things that talk about unpleasant history or paint my groups in a less-than-favorable light. Because I think stepping outside my comfort zone is important: that it’ll make me a better author, a better teacher and a better person.

I don’t have an answer to the trigger warnings problem: I’ll think about it some more before I write my next syllabus. I don’t have a solution for the overrepresentation of straight white able-bodied men in genre fiction, either. But I’d like to think that thinking about it is a step in the right direction, and I’m willing to be bitten and stung by books from time to time. That’s how you learn.

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