I recently read an article in the National Post that left me too angry to think, which is why I waited 24 hours to calm down so I could form my scattered anger into coherent thoughts. The article called ‘A Slow Slide Into Censorship’ by Meghan Murphy presents not only an angering proposition, but also a deeply dangerous one.
“Trigger warning” as Murphy explains are “used with the intention of warning readers about content that might provoke anxiety or trauma” in literature. She goes on to explain that at the University of California, the student senate passed a motion to have professors include these very types of warnings on literature that could trigger a form of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). What exactly falls into this category? The list includes “Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide, Graphic Violence, Pornography, Kidnapping, and Graphic Depictions of Gore.” Murphy then goes on to mention an Ohio college that has banned Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, because it might “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”
Well, that seems reasonable, you say to yourself. Those things are not exactly pleasant to think about. And that is absolutely true. None of the topics mentioned are particularly good party discussions. However, to completely ban a topic of conversation based on the notion that it might make someone uncomfortable is both ridiculous and dangerous. Having read Things Fall Apart, I can honestly say that it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I am not someone who has experienced any form of colonialism, persecution, violence, or suicide. And this is exactly where the value of this story, and many others, lie. Achebe was able to make a white girl, from a large urban area, feel sheer terror at the speed with which one group of people dismisses the usefulness of another group. He was able to make me realize how quickly the dismissal of a group of people can turn into murder and genocide. He made me sympathize with a group of people whom I would not, and could not have otherwise identified with, in tribal Africans.
How can we learn to sympathize with our peers if we are not able to discuss their strife? By banning certain topics of conversation, we eliminate the ability to see the issue from another person’s perspective. How is a white teenage girl from Canada supposed to sympathize with a tribe of Africans if she is not exposed to writings such as Things Fall Apart? Writing that prompt discussion about things that matter: discussions about humanity, dignity and the value of life.
The argument for banning such material goes something like this: by banning potentially offensive material we create ‘safe spaces’ for people to think and learn. The idea of a safe space for learning does not (and can not) come from removing certain material. Safe spaces for learning come from being able to voice one’s opinion about anything without fear of persecution or death. Thankfully, that is something that I have enjoyed throughout my life. There are girls on this planet who are not afforded the luxury of voicing their opinions without fear of death. If you haven’t read about Malala Yousefzai yet, a quick Google search will suffice. Banning material does not create safe spaces.
Banning books like Things Fall Apart eliminate the need for discussion about uncomfortable and scary topics. Topics like genocide that, despite being a frightening, must be discussed. If we stop talking about genocide, then it becomes acceptable, even if we claim that it is not. Even if we continue to believe that genocide is a crime against humanity, we are fooling ourselves if we honestly believe that NOT talking about it creates a safer world. How is someone supposed to sympathize with the relatives I lost to the Holocaust if we are not allowed to talk about it because it is a topic that makes me uncomfortable?
I distinctly remember during a discussion of the Holocaust in high school a classmate of mine said, “But if I wasn’t Jewish, why would I have gotten involved? That would have put me in danger.” At first blush, this comment made me angry and deeply offended. “THAT WAS MY FAMILY!” I wanted to yell at him. But I didn’t. The answer that my teacher gave allowed the kid to understand why it is pertinent to speak out against injustice. “Because if you didn’t get involved, who would intervene when it is your people who are put to death?” Genocide is not a conversation that anyone wants to have (neither is rape or suicide). It is uncomfortable, and it SHOULD be uncomfortable. The moment that genocide becomes a comfortable topic is a moment we should all fear deeply. But if we had not been forced to discuss genocide in high school, then my classmate would have remained ignorant and believing that there is no reason to stand up for others.
And what about kidnapping? Kidnapping is another topic on the ‘trigger warning’ list that is not an enjoyable conversation to have. But to ban discussion of kidnapping on the chance that it will offend someone (which by the way, it SHOULD), allows Boko Haram to get away with kidnapping, and doing who knows what to 300 girls in Nigeria. Out of sight, out of mind. If we are not allowed to talk about it, it will soon slip from our consciousness as the next Facebook post comes in about what someone had for dinner. Censoring the conversation about kidnapping is to allow Boko Haram off the hook for the egregious crime they committed.
The list of books that I have read that have made me uncomfortable is a long one. But those very books are the ones that have stuck with me more than any others. Often, they are classics like Things Fall Apart or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Both books left me in tears, questioning humanity. And because I read those two books, I am a more sympathetic person. I am not as quick to judge others. I was made aware of real struggle and horrors in the ‘safe place’ known as literature. Literature is the safest place to learn about difficult and scary things because the events are often happening in a fictional world, to fictional people. This does not make the issues any less real, but it means that we can learn about horrific events without having to witness them firsthand. It teaches us to sympathize with those characters so when we it is necessary to sympathize with a friend or family member, we are able to do so.
If society is willing to censor books like Things Fall Apart and The Bluest Eye, in my estimation, The Hunger Games (or Divergent) could be next on the list. The idea that the government chooses 24 teenagers and forces them to kill each other is deeply troubling to anyone with half a brain. But banning The Hunger Games means that a generation of girls would not be exposed to the strong female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. They would not have her heroism to strive towards. They would not know that having courage and defending yourself and standing up for what you believe in DOES NOT make one unlovable. They would continue to see female characters with secondary importance to their male counterparts.
None of this is to say that there are not opinions and ideas that offend me. There are plenty of things that offend me including most of the topics on the list mentioned above. I am offended by the total lack of empathy present in many people. I am offended by the fact that a woman’s body is seen as something to be conquered. I am offended by slavery, child labor, and terrorism. But what I most offended by, and most disturbed by, is what happens when we censor our thoughts. I am offended by the fact that we as a society afraid to discuss difficult issues. I am offended by the idea that if we don’t talk about those very issues, we are creating safe spaces. I am a censorist; and censorship is what offends me most.