A freshman at Duke University was featured in the Washington Post today, on the subject of why he refused to read Fun Home. Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel/autobiography Fun Home is a story of her young life, her sexual exploration, and as such features many graphic images: naked men, women, and masturbation.
The student in question, a young man of conservative beliefs, took these images to be pornographic and, quoting Bible verse, explained his views:
Viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex
Now, while I would absolutely adore for the Washington Post to publish my excuses as to why I didn’t do my course reading, I find his definition of ‘pornographic content’ to be slightly troubling at best, narrow minded at slightly worse, and completely wrong at the end of the spectrum that would rile angry replies on Twitter. Even the slightly worse option got me a few users complaining that I was conflating my own opinions and facts, and as such I’d just like to address a couple of these criticisms:
1) Protests from the left wing are immediately lauded as brave/principled, but you (and others) are only criticising this person because they are Conservative.
While I am left wing, I take issue with a poorly formed argument than I do with an ideological one. And I like Fun Home, and would prefer more people to read it. That’s why I’m taking up this position.
2) People can choose to describe content in one way, but that doesn’t rule out a different reading.
Quite – yet while differences in readings are to be encouraged, to change the genre of a piece requires a little more academic research. Fun Home is not, by definition of pornography, pornography. It might have revealing images in, but that is a different thing altogether.
3) Your definition of pornography is not the right one. You’re turning opinions into facts to suit your argument.
Turning opinions into facts is far too much like hard work for me. I’m just Googling definitions. And the student’s claim that Fun Home is pornographic misses out a key aspect of the definition of pornography:
That final part, “intended to stimulate sexual excitement” is why the student’s definition of pop culture or Renaissance art as pornographic is incorrect – the artists main intention is not to sexually excite the viewer, and so it cannot be pornography. Obviously, there is an argument to be considered about authorial intention, and I don’t know what sort of English student I would be if I missed invoking Roland Barthes’ thoughts into any of my essays. That, certainly, would be a more interesting argument – where the line is drawn between authorial idea and a de facto definition. However, that’s not the argument made. The student instead claimed that the novel encouraged looking at women amorously, and the Bible states “that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” in Matthew 5:28-29. Of course, what the student was looking at were not women, but drawings of women. I rather feel that any thoughts of lustiness are of his own volitions, rather than the intention of Bechdel.
4) You don’t get to decide what some students want as a trigger warning
This is a point I found particularly hard to challenge. On the one hand, yes, all students should be allowed a trigger warning for any content that is going to cause them trauma. However, this student does not find Fun Home causes him trauma. In his words:
I believe professors should warn me about such material, not because I might consider them offensive or discomforting, but because I consider it immoral.
If he does not find the material offensive or discomforting (and trigger warnings are inherently discomforting) then he should not be given a free pass to avoid content based on loosely defined morality. If he does find the material offensive or discomforting, then he should make that clear, and that student obviously needs help in overcoming it, and has every right to that. Avoidance may be a temporary solution, but it is my opinion that overcoming an a traumatic experience (incredibly understated language here) is better than endlessly avoiding it.
Of course, I could be wrong.
I think what might be the most telling piece of this article is this message the student was sent in support, which he quotes:
But though many students denounced my decision publicly, almost 20 people privately messaged me, thanking me for my post. I received many messages from Christians, but a message from a Muslim man stood out. The man, currently a sophomore at Duke, wrote, “I’ve seen a lot of people who just throw away their identity in college in the name of secularism, open-mindedness, or liberalism.” Is this really what Duke wants?
Throwing away your identity in college (or university) in the name of open-mindedness is exactly what you should do while in college. I was socially objective before I got to university and was opened to ideas about gender, or literary theory, or economics or [insert another subject name here]. University is meant to make you readjust yourself, to try and engage with new, ‘immoral’ thoughts. William Blake called his radical poetry the Bible of Hell for a reason – and not just to give Literature students like me something to analyse.
And a final reminder of something that, really, shouldn’t need reminding: when you find something immoral, you shouldn’t avoid engaging with it. If you did that, how would you know what to challenge?