I think we have the 2015 Phrase of the Year: Trigger Warning.

But now they’ve gone too far.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is part of the core curriculum at Columbia College (Columbia University) is described as follows:

The Metamorphoses (Latin: Metamorphōseōn librī: “Books of Transformations”) is a Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid, considered his magnum opus. Comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths, the poem chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework.

Although meeting the criteria for an epic, the poem defies simple genre classification by its use of varying themes and tones. Ovid took inspiration from the genre of metamorphosis poetry, and some of the Metamorphoses derives from earlier treatment of the same myths; however, he diverged significantly from all of his models.

One of the most influential works in Western culture, the Metamorphoses has inspired such authors as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in acclaimed works of sculpture and painting by artists such as Titian. Although interest in Ovid faded after the Renaissance, towards the end of the twentieth century there was a resurgence of attention to his work; today, the Metamorphoses continues to inspire and be retold through various media. The work has been the subject of numerous translations into English, the first by William Caxton in 1480.

Not all is well with The Metamorphoses at Columbia University.

In an Op-Ed in The Columbia Spectator, Our identities matter in Core classrooms, four members of the Columbia Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board complain that the study of classic works of Western civilization in general, and The Metamorphoses specifically, are “triggering,” insensitive, and make some students feel “unsafe”:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

Columbia University Office of Multicultural Affairs Logo

The solution? First, a rewrite of the Core curriculum:

The MAAB, an extension of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, is an advocacy group dedicated to ensuring that Columbia’s campus is welcoming and safe for students of all backgrounds. This year, we explored possible interventions in Core classrooms, where transgressions concerning student identities are common. Beyond the texts themselves, class discussions can disregard the impacts that the Western canon has had and continues to have on marginalized groups….

Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities….

Then, Trigger Warnings:

The MAAB has been meeting with administration and faculty in the Center for the Core Curriculum to determine how to create such a space. The Board has recommended three measures: First, we proposed that the center issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students.

And of course, the mandatory re-education training:

Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.

The reaction to the Op-Ed mostly has been mockery and disgust:


The comment section to the Op-Ed is quite good, including this comment from the person who tweeted above:

Catherine Fitzpatrick posted on May 2, 11:38pm

This is extraordinary psychosis and the campus administrators and professors who enable this mass hysteria should not only a deep sense of shame, they should get a lot more pushback than they do from the media, parents and even governments. Of course the White House emphasis on dealing with campus rape without due process or the rule of law, instead of having the police deal with it, under fear of losing funding, is part of what drives this cultism.

I also can’t help wondering if the reading was the story about the Prophet and Ayesha and the Battle of Karbala that suddenly, it might be blessed as beautiful and not a trigger at all but a blow for freedom against the oppressive White Man.

And this comment obviously intended to melt the precious little snowflakes:

Gullah posted on May 1, 4:15pm

Oh Precious! Precious? My precious little snowflake, speaking as a black man who has been around the block more than a few times, all of you need to grow up and get over it. You’re not the center of the universe, none of us has a right to not be offended in a democracy and if you can’t handle it repair to your padded room with your lollipops, Valium and whatever other pacifier makes you happy or better still make an appointment with a shrink. We are all always going to be offended by something. Using ‘feeling safe’, ‘respect’, and ’trigger-warnings’ are just treads in a rope to lynch free speech.

And this one:

Alum cc’12 posted on May 2, 10:01am

Wow — I could not disagree more with this article and everything it stands for and suggests and demands. Life doesn’t come with built in trigger warnings, and great literature channels life’s complexity, including its distasteful aspects, and even its horror. If your professor refused to entertain your comments about the disturbing sexual ethic of Metamorphoses because she was so swept up with its imagery, then she’s not doing her job as a facilitator and you have a valid complaint. But it seems to me that you find the entire idea of reading Ovid or other ‘canonical’ texts distasteful, and are offended by the very concept of a western canon.

Well, you can have that view. But just in case no one has told you this yet: it’s simplistic, it’s myopic, and it’s intellectually lazy. The cultures that produced most of the texts we read in lit hum dont share your cultural sensibilities. In fact, their values systems are foreign to the extreme.

Sometimes we focus too much on universalizing, but putting yourself into the mind of an Ancient Greek or a medieval European monk might as well be entering the brain of an alien. Old white men? Try explaining that concept to Vergil or Augustine or whoever — your method of filtering your experience through lenses of privilege and marginalization would seem as kooky to them as Aquinas and his hierarchies of divine law and creation probably seemed to you (if you did the reading). Sifting through All this is the thought exercise the core, at its best, is supposed to structure.

I think it’s great to suggest texts that are nuanced and sophisticated enough to add to the core, and to represent alternative viewpoints. But the underlying idea that classic texts can do violence in the classroom simply because of their content, and that the instructor’s job is thus to shelter rather than expose? That’s some pretty twisted dystopian thinking right there.

While the commenters are all over the Op-Ed, the commenters don’t have their very own university-funded bureaucracy.

The Trigger Warning Warriors have just such a power center, so they likely consider themselves immune to criticism. In fact, in their minds criticism of their Trigger Warning and re-education demands likely reinforces their view that the Western classics are oppressive.

Where does all this Trigger Warning crap stop?

I hope I didn’t trigger the Trigger Warning Warriors by using the term “crap” to describe their hurt feelings, the precious little snowflakes (there, I did it again).

[Featured Image via WikiMedia Commons]


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