By: Joseph Zummo  | 

Grappling With Exposure

This past summer, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel was assigned as Summer reading to incoming freshmen at Duke University. The assignment became controversial when multiple students refused to read it because of its sexually explicit nature. The memoir depicts a closeted gay father committing suicide after his daughter comes out as lesbian and two sexually explicit images. The extent to which these images are considered “pornographic” is disputed (based on how one would define this term), however it can be agreed on that they both display sketches of naked women. In an article written in the Washington Post, freshman Brian Grasso took issue specifically with this aspect of the novel, noting that “If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it.” His reasoning was based off of a verse in the new testament. Many have been supportive of Grasso’s decision not to read Fun Home, even calling him “heroic” for standing up for what he believes in, while many others have accused him of being ignorant (at best.)

Initially, I agreed with Grasso, because I felt that everyone has the right to shield themselves from images, or even ideas, that they believe go against their values. However, while this notion protects religious freedom, authorizing students to become their own filters of information has its downsides. In an article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Professors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff discuss the negative implications of students self-monitoring ideas they are exposed to. They note that a significant number of college students are beginning to demand “trigger warnings” on books that contain material that may be offensive to some. These trigger warnings allow students to avoid material that they may find uncomfortable, for a plethora of reasons. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, has been called on to be labeled because of the misogyny and physical abuse portrayed in the novel. Some colleges have begun to appease students who demand these warnings. According to Haidt and Lukianoff, in 2013, Oberlin College recommended to faculty that “materials that might trigger negative reactions among students be avoided altogether unless they contribute directly to course goals.”

Students are not just attempting to monitor books, but also the way people speak. They claim that many are guilty of a concept called “microaggressions.” According to Haidt and Lukianoff, these are defined as “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” For example, asking an Asian American student, “Where were you born?” is an example of a microaggresion because it “implies that he or she is not a real American.” The problem with this, Haidt and Lukianoff continue, is that these beliefs stem from “emotional reasoning”- defined as individuals assuming “that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it so it must be true.’” Going through life with this mentality can be crippling- causing oversensitivity and close-mindedness. My doubt in my initial belief came when I realized that perhaps Brian Grasso is also committing this mistake. He feels that the sexually explicit images portrayed in Fun Home are “pornographic” and that this makes it “immoral” for him to read it. If we allow Grasso to not read Fun Home for sexually explicit pictures, then how do we force other students to read, for example, Huckleberry Finn, despite their insistence that the ‘racism” that they perceive is against their morals? The cliche question of, “Where do we draw that line?” comes into play.

This question may not be popular at Yeshiva University. Many may say, “Our Torah gives us “that line!” I am not disputing that claim, and I believe that Torah guidelines should certainly reflect the materials that we learn at YU (whether or not they do is not the concern of this article). However, how should other colleges determine what materials are acceptable to expose to their students? How do they protect religious freedoms, while not jeopardizing academic pursuit?

In order to attempt to answer this, it’s important to understand exactly what college education strives to succeed. Our current system focuses on a common saying, that educators should not try to teach students what to think, but how to think. This goal is achieved by having students confront ideas that they are unfamiliar with. Only in this way do students begin to think critically and examine their own beliefs in a constructive, yet perhaps uncomfortable way. The “trigger warning” and “microaggression” movement aims to avoid these uncomfortable feelings. However, with this, they hinder the educational experience by not allowing for critical thinking and reexamining their own beliefs. They remain stagnant, unable to reach their full academic and personal potential. Many would argue that Brian Grasso, and those who identify with him, fall under this category as well. However, I believe that there is a clear distinction that can be made between him and the former.

Instead of colleges using students’ emotional reasoning to determine what is acceptable in the classroom, they should use scientific data. In this way, colleges can avoid appeasing some students’ sensitivities over others. They can teach students how to think, without potentially endangering students’ minds.

Scientifically, pornography is a disputed topic. According to the American Psychological Association, there are those who argue it can ruin marriages, while others argue it “provides a safe recreational outlet.” Regardless, the APA notes that “while many viewers of adult content don't seem to suffer ill effects, porn can become problematic for others.” Therefore, colleges should not force students to view images that may or may not cause them damage. While Fun Home and other novels may have ideas that can be beneficial, the benefit versus cost ratio should be weighed by each student. Brian Grasso did not make his decision on scientific grounds, but his argument has factual backing that colleges can support their decisions on. Those who argue for trigger warnings are concerned that novels that contain racism, or physical abuse, could cause mental harm to students, especially those who have experienced intense personal distress regarding such issues. However, Haidt and Lukianoff assert the psychological principle that “helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” If an individual has a fear of elevators, it is important to slowly expose them to elevators, in order for them to function properly. By avoiding elevators, the fear is being fed. Physical abuse and elevators should not be equated, but the principle remains that the answer to anxiety is not protection; it is quite the opposite.

This issue is extremely complex, and there is still a vast gray area that is difficult to explain. For example, Brian Grasso’s religious views happen to agree with many scientific reports, but what if a student’s beliefs conflict with his/ her college’s scientific reasoning of what is appropriate for students to be exposed to? Is this limiting the student’s religious freedom? I do not know how to, or if there is an answer to this dilemma.

However, I believe that colleges must educate students by properly exposing them to ideas that will improve their mental state, not hurt it. This should not be measured by what is “comfortable or uncomfortable” for the students, rather by what will enable proper mental growth, as is defined by proven psychological principles.