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Snakes In The Grass
July/August 2015

"Apollo and Daphne", c.1775, by Antonio del Pollaiolo

I once met someone who had a phobia of snakes. He faced a daily battle with it, despite the fact that he lived in Milton Keynes — never renowned for its snake population. While he knew deep down that he was more likely to see a concrete cow than anything reptilian when he left his house each morning, the same was not necessarily true of when he reached the library.

Snakes, he told me, turn up in the unlikeliest books — dystopian novels, biographies, exotic cookbooks. However prepared he thought he was, the word “snake” would jump off pages at him, triggering the same pulse-racing fear he would have felt had a real snake slithered out of the book’s spine, like a suitably vertebrate bookmark.

I was thinking about Snake Man (I forget his real name) when I saw a recent inflammatory op-ed in the Columbia University student newspaper. Four female undergraduates consider the ways in which texts and other material studied in literature classes make some students uncomfortable.

They put forward a case for “trigger warnings” — advance alerts to potentially “offensive” material such as rape scenes or racial violence (the term has been hanging around US campuses for more than a year now), and caution against marginalisation. They write:

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a fixture of Lit Hum [Literature Humanities], 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.

Sadly, these ill-conceived views are not confined to Columbia. Although trigger warnings are yet to catch on in the UK, students at a number of US universities, including Santa Barbara in California and the University of Michigan, have also requested them. Some professors are already supplying trigger warnings for their courses.

It makes you wonder how students sensitive enough to require a trigger warning would cope with reading the warning itself, where there is little to soften the impact of the description of the very thing they’re trying to avoid. This is prime territory, after all, for encountering a “snake” in the grass.

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