Trigger Warnings

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This is not something I’ve had to deal with as a teacher, but as all things that start in the US, their fashions come to the rest of the world.  I’ve been living in Europe for twenty years, and it’s only the last five or so that if I cook dinner for my friends, I have to ask who’s off gluten or carbs or meat.  So “triggering” has arrived.

One American student in our public school found themes of The Handmaid’s Tale “trigger” difficult emotions for him. If it were anyone else but a privileged prat with an overwhelming sense of entitlement, I would take it seriously, however….

1) He has no empathy for anyone but himself.  He is not kind, or interested in others, nor does he care what anyone thinks. I have sincere doubts that he feels anything for the plight of other living people, let alone a fictional character. 2) we read a play called “One for the Road” last year, and there was nary a peep from him.  This play was about a man being tortured and his tongue cut out, his wife raped repeatedly and their child being killed.  Apparently this was all fine and good.  3) we also read Ask the Dust this year, where Fante includes a completely gratuitous butchering of a calf in bloody, specific detail.  Again, nary a peep.

I don’t know what might be a “trigger” for him, if I wanted to take him seriously. Atwood’s character in the book does not specifically call the Ceremony “rape”. She alludes to it, but then the character says “I signed up for this”.  We watched a film about consent, which is very well done:

Does Offred want tea? Well, she’s signed up for tea.  It’s not particularly good tea, nor is is being served in a very palatable way. However, she did prefer tea to the alternatives, and throughout the book tells us how, in spite of herself, she’s adapting to her situation. It’s survival, but on one hand, it’s also everyone’s survival that is at stake.  Gilead’s methods are brutal, but there needed to be some way to counteract the falling birth rates in the society Atwood created.

What is hardest for me in the story is that she had her child taken away and her family destroyed. The book is also about how one must survive after events that seem to be impossible to live with. However, there is also a lesson in this.  Many people are forced to live on after horrible events: the holocaust, the loss of a child, a murder, a car accident, an illness, a suicide. These things seem impossible to accept, and yet those who have been affected by this manage to go on. It shows resilience, and resilience can be learned.

Does talking about them in an English literature class have its place? For me, yes. I would not like to live in a world where we cannot talk about, say, the holocaust because it might “trigger” difficult emotions for students.  I want them to be confronted with the worst that humanity has to offer in a calm, studious, analytical way. I want them to be aware of evil in order to combat it.  Imagine doctors not learning about illnesses because it might “trigger” negative feelings?  Imagine politicians not learning about crime or corruption, businessmen not prepared for competition, policemen not able to go to a murder scene?

The Handmaid’s Tale talks also about the loss of basic rights while at the present moment, we are battling with more and more strong men and oligarchs trying to scare us into submission.  I’m not sorry if I am “triggering” difficult feelings in my students.  I want to be prepared to fight for their rights, and to see and feel what a world might be like in which these rights have been lost.

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