Trigger Warnings And The Bard

We’ve reached a milestone of sorts:  students at Cambridge University in England have been given “trigger warnings” about studying the plays of William Shakespeare.  According to reports, undergraduates in English Literature at the school — which is located just north of the Bard of Avon’s old stomping grounds in London — were cautioned that a lecture focusing on Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors would include “discussions of sexual violence” and “sexual assault.”

william-shakespeare-the-life-of-the-bardThe decision has provoked a useful debate about the “trigger warnings” that more and more schools seem to be using in their academic curricula.  Advocates of such warnings say they serve to advise students about discussion of topics that might be upsetting because, for example, they might remind students of a traumatic personal experience.  Detractors of trigger warnings say it infringes upon academic freedom, because teachers will self-edit to avoid discussing difficult topics, and that it gives students a distorted perspective by leading them to believe that they can simply avoid learning about the ugly realities addressed in history and literature.

I’m in the latter camp.  And I think that, once “trigger warnings” become accepted in any context, the debate inevitably will shift to whether even more trigger warnings are needed, and how exactly they should be worded, and what students should be permitted to do to avoid the potentially upsetting topics.  The slippery slope seems pretty slippery and pretty steep.  It’s hard to think of any play by Shakespeare, for example, that couldn’t plausibly be the subject of a “trigger warning” because of violence, incest, insanity, sexual misconduct, bawdy humor, or depictions of characters on the basis of gender, race, or religion.  And what history course wouldn’t be riddled with trigger warnings about wars, plagues, racism, sexism, and general human misery?  How could students possibly get a real, meaningful education if they were allowed to skip courses that addressed topics they might find personally upsetting?

I think the use of trigger warnings, while well intentioned, does a real disservice to our young people.  It indicates that they are viewed as so brittle and weak that they need to be protected from mere words and knowledge, and it also gives them a distorted view of what life is going to be like.  The real world doesn’t give trigger warnings to allow people to avoid confronting upsetting topics or situations, and you have to wonder what kind of hyper-delicate, head-in-the-sand adults are going to be produced by school systems and colleges that employ trigger warnings.

As Shakespeare himself wrote in Marc Antony’s great soliloquy in Julius Caesar:  “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”

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Waiterspeak

I was a waiter once, back in the day.  I feel a certain kinship with waiters, and always give them the benefit of the doubt.

But when I’m by myself in a restaurant, please . . . just leave me alone to read my book and eat my dinner in peace.

Sure, it might just be the milk of human kindness– or it might be a desire for a tip.  But every time I eat alone these days, the wait staff annoyingly gloms on to me, asking what I’m reading and making irritating chitchat when I ‘m just trying to read and eat my dinner.  It makes the dinner intensely irksome.  I don’t want to hear what waiter  X has to say — I just want to read my book.

Here’s a tip for the wait staff.  Sometimes, at least, the solitary diner with a book isn’t lonely and craving your company.  They just want to read.  Leave us alone, already!

Go Westeros, Young Man

Like everyone else in America, I watched the first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones last night.  It was good to see the old gang again.

I loved the first scene of the new season, but then I candidly just can’t get enough of Arya Stark killing the Freys.  In fact, I’m really kind of sad that she’s apparently ruthlessly murdered every figure in the Frey clan, from creepy Walder on down to the most obscure cousin once removed.  I’m almost hoping that we’ll discover some rump branch of the Frey family, so that she’ll have the chance to gut or poison them, too.

lyanna-mormont-gotArya was just part of the Stark Ascendant theme that’s playing out in Westeros these days.  With Arya gleefully knocking off Freys and now heading south to take on Queen Cersei, Jon Snow and Sansa ruling in the north and training every man, woman, and child to fight the White Walkers, and eyeball-rolling Bran finally on the Westeros side of the wall, we’re seeing the best days for the Starks since poor Ned lost his head.  Unfortunately, there’s already friction between Jon and Sansa, and it doesn’t look like the remaining members of the Starks will have a family reunion — at least, not yet — but it’s good to see the Starks back as a force, even if it probably will only be temporary.  And with the considerable support of the formidable Lyanna Mormont, who isn’t afraid to call out and face down every aging, bearded windbag leader of a northern house who punked out on the Starks in their time of need, who’s to say that the Starks can’t win in the great game?  If I were going to war, I’d definitely want the awesome Lyanna Mormont on my side.

As far as the great game goes, the pieces are all in position.  Cersei’s got her ally in the Iron Islanders and their horny leader, Daenerys has finally reached Westeros with her dragons, her Dothraki horde, and especially Tyrion behind her, the White Walkers are on the move south, and we haven’t even heard yet what the House of Dorne and the Martells are going to do to stir up trouble.  For now, we can just appreciate the fact that there are unoccupied castles, like Dragonstone, handy and available for the taking if one of the players decides they can use a forbidding base of operations.

I hadn’t realized how much I was looking forward to the new season until I watched the first episode and enjoyed seeing these familiar characters and their fictional world once again.  Now, if only we could get the next book in the series out of George R.R. Martin . . . .

In Our Own Personal Silos

The Brown Bear sent me this interesting article from The Economist.  The article is, on its surface, a rumination about Ohio Governor John Kasich and his new book, Two Paths:  America Divided or United, but the interesting stuff in the article wasn’t so much about the book as it was about our country.  It’s one of those articles that leave you nodding a bit, as you find that the conclusions drawn square with your own experience.

The gist of the underlying sociological message in the article is this:  Americans have become more and more confined and channeled in their interaction (or, more accurately, lack of interaction) with other Americans.  It isn’t just that Americans spend more time in individualized pursuits, such as watching TV, tapping away on their smart phones, working out, or surfing the internet — it’s that their entire lives are being designed, shaped, and structured to limit their exposure to people with different backgrounds, interests, and views.  In short, more and more people are living in their own personal silos.

silosOne element of this phenomenon is that Americans now are much less likely to participate in joint activities — be it bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, churches, or community groups — than used to be the case.  Alexis de Tocqueville noted, in the classic Democracy in America published way back in the 1830s, that Americans were unusually prone to forming associations and joining groups.  That remained true for decades; Grandpa Neal, for example, bowled in the Masonic League in Akron for more than 60 years and was a member of the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and a host of other civic and fraternal groups.  How many people do you know these days who are willing to spend their weekday evenings and weekends away from their homes and participating in such activities?  I don’t know many — and I include myself in that group.

But the change is even deeper than that.  The Economist article linked above notes that Americans now tend to live in distinct enclaves with people who share their political views and conditions.  One indicator of this is voting patterns in elections.  In the 1976 presidential election, some 27% of Americans lived in “landslide counties” that Jimmy Carter either won or lost by at least 20 percentage points.  In the 2004, 48 percent of the counties were “landslide counties,” and in 2016, fully 60 percent of the counties in America — nearly two thirds — voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points.

What does this all mean?  It suggests that many Americans now tend not to even engage with people with different perspectives.  They don’t see them when they go home at night, they don’t talk to them, and they have no significant understanding of their thoughts, concerns, . . . or lives.  When people are so cloistered, looking only at the kind of websites that mirror their views and interacting only with people who share those views, there will inevitably be a great divide that will become increasingly difficult to bridge.  How do you get people who live in separate worlds, who don’t play softball or attend club meetings or participate in any interactive communal activities together, to understand and appreciate where people of different views are coming from, and why they hold those views in the first place?  Facile social media memes and tweets that depict people of opposing views as dolts, racists, sluggards, communists, or any of the other names that have become so common don’t seem to be working very well, do they?

This, I think, is one of the big-picture issues that we need to address as we work to get America back on track — and like many big-picture issues, it’s not really being discussed or addressed by anyone, because these days we focus on the small things.  I’m not saying, of course, that government should forcibly relocate people to achieve some kind of political or economic balance, or that government should focus on providing tax incentives to encourage people to join the local Moose lodge.  Government didn’t need to do that in colonial America or in the America of Grandpa Neal’s day, and it shouldn’t be needed now.  Somehow, though, Americans need to find a way to start actually talking to, and interacting with, each other again.

The Zen Master Passes On

Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  An Inquiry Into Values, died on Monday at age 88.  It is sad news for those of us for whom Pirsig’s book — an intriguing combination of travel writing, novelized autobiography, rumination about various facets of modern society, and study of motorcycle mechanics — was an important, shaping rite of passage when we first read it.

pic0904-pirsig002I was introduced to Zen by Uncle Mack, who told me that I absolutely needed to read this book.  (To provide some context, he also told me at about the same time that I needed to read Watership Down, which told the tale of rabbits in southern England who had their own language and liked to silflay under the moon.)  Because I am a dutiful nephew, I of course read Zen, and it forcefully struck an inner nerve.

The arc of the book, which tells the rambling story of a man struggling with mental illness who takes his son on a long motorcycle trip and along the way realizes that he and his son will always deal with those issues, was interesting, but what really got me were Pirsig’s miniature lectures, which he called chautauquas, that were interspersed throughout the book.  The lectures reflected a way of looking at and thinking about the world that really had an impact on me.  One concept in particular — that “quality” is a kind of independent characteristic that can be recognized by people intuitively, without training, and should always be the ultimate goal of whatever you are doing, whether it is writing, living, or repairing a motorcycle — has been hugely influential and is a concept that I have returned to again and again.

I wasn’t the only person touched by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It was a kind of phenomenon in the ’70s, and according to the New York Times obituary linked above it has been cited as a personally influential book by the likes of basketball player and coach Phil Jackson, Star Trek star William Shatner, and others.  It was Pirsig’s first book, and he later recounted that it was rejected by 121 publishing houses before William Morrow finally put it in print.  Pirsig’s persistence was rewarded when Zen sold a million copies in its first year — many, no doubt, due to the insistence of friendly uncles — and sold millions more in the years since.

I will always be grateful to Robert M. Pirsig for writing this book.

The Inevitable Post-Election Tell-Alls

It’s been six months since the last presidential election, which means it’s time for those tell-all books about the campaign to start coming out.  The first one that I’ve read about is called Shattered:  Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

hillary_abcAs if often the case, the publishers of the books try to gin up interest by releasing supposedly tantalizing details about incidents that occurred during the campaign.  In the case of Shattered, the incidents involve a phone call in which Hillary and Bill Clinton both unloaded on the campaign staff, and the prep sessions for one of the debates with Bernie Sanders in which Hillary Clinton got mad and made one of her preparers stand up and answer questions while she critiqued him.  The underlying message of both incidents was:  Hillary Clinton was angry that she wasn’t doing better and just couldn’t recognize that the problem was due to her personal failures, rather than failures by her staff.

I enjoyed the Theodore White Making of the President books way back when, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains one of my all-time favorite books, but I’ve long since stopped reading the “insider” accounts that now come out after every election.  I haven’t read one in decades because the lack of loyalty inherent in the form of the book makes me sick to my stomach.  Professional staffers provide juicy tidbits as part of an overall information campaign to cover their own butts, make themselves look good, and position themselves to get hired and do it all over again in the next campaign cycle.  The losing candidate always gets torn down, while the wise, far-sighted staff that the candidate was supposedly stubbornly ignoring get elevated.

So, Hillary Clinton was frustrated that she wasn’t doing better, and from time to time lashed out at her staff when voting results or polling weren’t favorable?  Gee . . . is anybody really surprised that a person who is seeking the presidency — and who saw her election as an historic opportunity to shatter a very visible “glass ceiling” for American women — from time to time had that reaction?  When you’re on the griddle for months, 24/7, as presidential candidates are, of course there are going to be times when fatigue and frustration leave you not at your finest, and when the results aren’t going as you hoped, the effects of that fatigue and frustration will inevitably be compounded.

So Hillary Clinton lost her temper, and she and Bill Clinton administered an occasional tongue-lashing.  So what?  She lost.  Can’t we just let it be, without having rat-like staffers heaping scorn on the losing candidate with anecdotes carefully pitched to make themselves look good?  If I were a potential presidential candidate, I would never hire somebody whom I suspected was the source of leaks in one of these tell-alls.  Loyalty is an important quality when you are working for a politician, and people who leak stories to promote themselves are finks who simply can’t be trusted.

Beach Reads

When you’re on a beach vacation, having a good book to read — or maybe, say, five of them — is essential.  On this trip I’ve enjoyed Bill Bryson’s wonderful, funny, and fascinating book about the summer of 1927 and the latest Harry Bosch book by Michael Connelly, and I’ve got two books of short stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes and a non-fiction book about Wall Street greed in queue.

I love books with continuing characters and their adventures, so when a new Connelly Bosch book appears I snap it up.  There’s only one problem:  I can’t put them down.  I zip through them, relish every word and Boschian revelation, and immediately am hungry for more.  I hope Connelly, and Bosch, live until they’re 120.