Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Niagara Falls

Monday I had an appointment with one of my several doctors and, unusual for me -- but understandable as I was in a hurry -- I forgot to bring along a book to read (I had planned to bring The Collapse of the Third Republic, which I am reading yet another time). So, I had little choice but to glance through the magazines in the waiting room. Having little interest in the plethora of "women's magazines" or their male counterparts (everything from "Men's Health" to "Sports Illustrated" to a few of those Maxim-with-more-clothing horrors), I finally found a copy of "Time". As I had just jokingly dismissed "Time" in a conversation with my mother as "not even up to Newsweek quality", I decided to check it out and see if it had improved in the decade since last I read it. And I was somewhat surprised to find a mention -- if only a fleeting one in an interview -- of a topic which has come to my attention several times recently.

As I mentioned in a number of earlier essays (eg "Making Grievances Worse", "A Brief Aside", "The Urge to Simplify", "Coming Attractions - 2015, June 13") I have recently spent some time reading web sites which apply "lit crit" approaches to popular culture, especially television/films and video games, and either within those sites, or in sites to which they frequently link, I have also been reading a lot of sites which focus on social justice concerns, especially sexism, racism and related topics. There are a number of issues which these sites have raised, some of which I have already discussed, others which I plan to examine in the future. One of these is the use of the "trigger warning" on various blog entries. And it was that which was mentioned in the magazine.

In an interview with one time young adult writer, now adult novelist, Judy Bloom, the interviewer asked about her feelings on the use of "trigger warnings" on various works, including short stories and novels. Ms Bloom responded, in my mind much to her credit, by associating such warnings with more intrusive types of censorship, arguing that such warnings are just another attempt to exclude anything challenging or potentially disturbing, which she explicitly equated to more conventional forms of censorship, presumably because she assumes such "trigger warnings" would be used to exclude such works from classes, school libraries and the like.

When I first ran across "trigger warnings", they were most used on the more feminist sites, mostly when the blog entry in question dealt with rape, domestic violence or other topics which one would presume would trouble certain people. However, even then, it troubled me. First, the whole term just sounds a bit silly. As the title of this essay implies, the first thing I thought of when hearing the term was Moe Fine hearing someone mention Niagara Falls. In my head, I kept hearing "slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch...". I could not think of anything else. The very suggestion that something could be a "trigger" seemed so absurdly mechanistic an approach to humanity, that Niagara Falls was the only analogy that came to mind.

But after giving it more thought, two other, more serious, complaints came to mind.

First, it was troubling that those placing such warnings saw their fellows as so weak, so easily damaged, that they needed special labeling. When people claim men view women as weak and over emotional, they may have a point for some men, but it strikes me that many feminists, such as those insisting on such warnings, are even more responsible for reinforcing such stereotypes. After all, I can't imagine men insisting on warnings on blog entries that have specifically male-troubling matters. Yet, out of an excess of sympathy, feminists manage to create stereotypes more troubling than any man ever has.

The second concern is more in line with my usual worries, and that is "where does it end?" After all, pick anything you like, and someone out there is troubled by it. As the title suggests, even Niagara Falls worries at least one person. So, if we must label everything that might "trigger" someone, where do we draw the line? Why not just label everything and be done with it, since I am sure someone is offended by nearly anything one cares to name?

I had a similar reaction to excessive reactions to allergies, especially among children. Now, I am not unsympathetic, if an actual child has an actual allergy in a class, I have no objection to avoiding the substance to which the child is allergic. Where my problem arises is when people suggest preemptive measures, such as banning all peanuts in a locale, in case someone is allergic. It seems to me this simply ends up banning select allergies, usually the "allergy du jour", while ignoring equally common and deadly allergies. For instance, while peanuts are often excluded from places, how often have we heard the same for shellfish, or milk, both of which are equally, or more, common, and in the case of shellfish, often just as deadly in a handful of cases? As I said, I am not opposed to sensible measures for known issues, or even taking extraordinary steps should someone with allergies request them, but to make them in advance, just to show we are in sympathy with the cause of the day, that seems pointless, and that is how these "trigger warning" strike me.

And now, since I resisted doing it every time I mentioned the title (I thought of including it in a footnote attached to each mention of the title), allow me to close out "Niagara Falls." Niagara Falls? Slowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch...

Thank you! Thank you! I will be here all week. And remember to tip your server. (Sorry, could not resist. For some reason, it feels like one of those days.)


I actually have planned for a while to discuss the health fetish of the day phenomenon, such as the current trendy statement "gluten free", promising the worried well they will not be exposed to something that will do 99.9999% (or likely 100%) of them no harm at all. I had to laugh when I saw that even my vitamins were declaring themselves free of gluten. Of course, this is just the latest in a long line of absurd health fads, based on imaginary benefits to some foods (whole grains, acai, soy, raw foods, etc) ,the belief that most of us suffer from a misunderstood and rare ailment (celiac disease, Lyme disease, etc) or the belief specific foodstuffs are inherently harmful (bleached flour, sugar, transfats, gluten). I will write more about this later.

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