Sunday, September 11, 2016

Warnings and Cautions, No Triggering Required

The Atlantic piece cited Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as two classic texts that have
stirred calls for trigger warnings due to their racially motivated violence
and domestic abuse, respectively.
— Katy Waldman "The Trapdoor of Trigger Words"
Slate on Line 5 Sept. 2016

            Before "trigger warnings" became widely known (and conditioning their meaning), there were — still running and more widely seen than trigger warnings there are: MPAA ratings on films, and less formal cautions for parents and others on games and music. And these ratings and cautions and warnings make judgments about what may harm kids and disturb some adults, and most of them, like literal trigger warnings, concern violence and sex, with taboo words and drug use a close third and other potential triggers in line to join the list, if the more fastidious posters on the Internet will set the standard for sensitivity.

            In the early 1980s, putting together a "List of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF," Thomas P. Dunn and I anticipated the current crop of the fastidious and decided that sex and violence and "dirty words" were far from the only potential dangers in works we annotated; so we began adding additional CAUTIONs and a few WARNINGs, with the desire to provide useful information and perhaps chide those overly concerned with sex, violence, and dirty words.

            Thom and I did this for the "Lists of Works Useful" accompanying the essay anthologies The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction (1982) and Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, and also for Clockworks: A Multimedia Bibliography [sic] of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF (1993).

            To start with an example of an innocuous, there's this one with Dan Simmon's The Fall of Hyperion: "TEXTUAL WARNING: If using the 1990 Doubleday edition, be sure there's an errata sheet giving p. 305." This alert we thought would be useful, but it might also reflect a bit my own mild annoyance that the folks at Doubleday had managed to misplace a whole goddamn page.

            Arguably less innocuous examples can be found among the whole range of CAUTIONs we used in Clockworks. For example:

                        For Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon (1913) we note failed attempts at ethnic humor, including attempts to render non-WASP dialects that might be offensive to contemporary ears, or, on esthetic grounds, the ears of those who grew up reading Mark Twain, who had some talent at reproducing on paper different varieties of English.

                        We found Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis (1926) silly in its conclusion (though we didn't mention that), but still great visually and of profound importance for an early female robot; but we thought Thea von Harbou's novel version (1926/27) should bear the "Caution: The owner of the Metropolitan exotic-drug and whore house is negatively characterized in terms of the nations contributing to his genealogy." Hint: They're not Aryan, and "The politics of the novel generally (definitely including its gender politics) differ from the film's somewhat, but may be even more simplistic."

                        Anne McCaffrey's The Rowan (1990) was more bellicose than we had expected from her The Ship Who ____ series, outside of The City Who Fought, and also strongly pronatalist, a political position of great importance but one insufficiently recognized by heterosexual readers as political, and one that should be highly controversial.

                        For the re-issues of Philip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon — 2419" and "The Airlords of Han" (1929), we added the "CAUTION: As [Alan] Kalish et al. demonstrate, the revised versions remove the 'Yellow Peril' language of the original but are still racist (sexism in the revised stories is more complex)." These seminal Buck Rogers stories are significant in prefiguring atomic warfare, but also genocide, and to have genocide "normalized" and even celebrated for young readers is, we thought, a more serious matter than some scenes of fornication or repetitions of the word "f*ck" or even some racial slurs.

                        Dealing with an insightful but definitely post-structuralist reading of Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky (2001), I felt a need to add, "CAUTION: Some proofreading problems aside, this is an excellent essay in the late-20th-c. style of cyberpunk critique, quite useful for studying fictional characters and real people as social-cultural creatures living in postmodern, late-capitalist, sophisticated urban areas of the planet Earth. For such postmodern people, nature is safely inside of human culture and identity is problematic; however," I thought I should remind our readers, "there is a good deal of natural world beyond our small planet, and even in advanced-capitalist countries it is arguable that most people are barely modern, let alone pomo. And it is possible that human beings are spiritual as well as social-cultural animals, and as certain as anything can be that we are animal animals, with an evolved genome and a range of basic behaviors that preceded specifically human culture." Like, a lot of theorists of postmodernism really do need to get out of The City more and deal with a nature that has existence, validity, and power outside of and without humans and which can deconstruct humans quite quickly. And readers into postmodern theory should, on occasion, be cautioned about that. (Such readers — and more so authors — need stronger and more specific cautions before, say ocean sailing or backpacking on glaciers.)

                        Most useful, I think, was our suggesting the need to note the cop stories, movies, and TV shows — even in science fiction — for which people should exercise, "Caution: Contains material offensive to the 4th Amendment and other parts of the American Bill of Rights." If Americans and others have been too acquiescent in the chipping away of our rights in the interest of safety and police power, part of the reason is watching all those television cop shows and shoot-'em-up movies in which police respect for the Bill of Rights, due process, and simple courtesy — is for wussies. Consider the case of a sympathetic White cop with racial prejudices but who follows rules and has the courage to take a bullet rather than shoot an unarmed suspect; and consider a sympathetic cop of impeccable attitudes and sentiments on race and is militantly equal-opportunity in "Taking out the trash" by manfully shooting first and asking questions … pretty much never. Other scholars and teacher issues warnings about racial attitudes; I thought we should say something about the Bill of Rights and US  Civil War Amendments.

                        And we should note racism, sexism, xenophobia, jingoism, religious hatred, natalism, teen-bashing, homophobia, authoritarianism, macho assholery, and other nastiness with assiduous militancy equal to those who spot sex and violence. And we should note them where they appear, e.g., I'll remind people that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), mentioned in the headnote, can do probably without a trigger warning for racial violence necessary for the story, but should have a mild caution that it is certainly open to a charge of casual acceptance of traditional sexism.

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