August 11, 2015

Sensitivity in Fiction: Trigger Warnings, Xenophobia and Complex Characters

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:00 pm by chavalah

Somehow this carnivorous "Harry Potter" textbook feels appropriate to this post :P

Somehow this carnivorous “Harry Potter” textbook feels appropriate to this post 😛

In recent book drama news, the Romance Writers of America found themselves under public scrutiny when a certain novel was nominated for an “inspirational” (read: Christian) award. Said book chronicles a Jewish concentration camp prisoner who falls in love with a high ranking official; in their redemptive arc, he renounces genocide and she converts to Christianity, and together they save some Jews.

As an ardent bibliophile I take a hard stand against book banning, but this one has surely tested me. 😛 Maybe I can rewind history and just stop it from getting published altogether. Surely there was something less offensive and just as well-written or riveting or what have you that they could have accepted instead; that’s how publishing works. Only the bare minimum of worthy books actually get their shot.

It pains me that so many people, from the editors in the publishing house to the readers giving it star reviews and nominating it for awards couldn’t conceive how insulting this is to Jewish people. To a degree, I suppose this encompasses Evangelical Christianity’s relationship to my religion; they’re so blinded by their narrative that they are showing us the right path that they deny our own complex history, culture and peoplehood. I’ll return to that theme later.

Before all of this mishegas, I was concerned enough about literature from a progressive standpoint. It’s easy for me to accept that the majority of book banning is wrong; born out narrow-minded fears of confronting a portrayal of life that challenges the status quo. But lately, progressive discourse has been littered with words like “trigger warning” and “problematic.” I fear if we lose our handle on such words, we’ll be looking at the same type of censorship.

I get “trigger warnings,” I do. For years after my mother sat me down to watch Schindler’s List, I’d get physically ill whenever I read memoirs about the Shoah. But I certainly didn’t want to excise such material from libraries or school curricula, either. The public conversation should remain on the atrocities of genocide, or rape, or other violence, and fiction is a great platform with which to do that with empathy and complexity. A “trigger warning” should just serve as a quiet, private exit for those who need it.

“Problematic” is one of those see-saw words. When an author portrays a world in a racist, sexist, or antisemitic light, that’s a problem. Like I alluded to above, it’s a failure to see other groups of people as human. For example, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (though a criticism of European colonialism) chronicles “the African race” as “dark” and “savage,” with no indication that Africans are actually a collection of diverse and complex individual people.

But when a character is called “problematic,” usually the opposite issue is in play. In the recently released and highly controversial novel, “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee, there’s been wide-scale upset that Atticus Finch is racist. But real-life people are racist all the time, and Finch’s opinions about African Americans and Brown vs the Board of Education are pretty in line with popular opinion from the 1950s white, southern perspective. More to the point he’s still treated as a complex individual with his own character arc.

With some genre exceptions, perhaps, characters in fiction aren’t meant to be our friends, nor should they be perfect. The fact that they have flaws means that they are human, and this makes them genuine agents in stories that explore our culture and heritage. The best characters may also remind us that we are also not perfect, and that we should always strive to expand our own horizons.

The book that sparked this blog post may be here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call it out for what it is. It’s a formulaic romance novel with an externally-mandated need for evangelical redemption. But Jewish suffering, institutionalized antisemitism, and the Shoah in particular (complete with several real-life accounts of Nazi officers actually raping prisoners) aren’t some convenient platform to espouse the “glory” of converting to Christianity. Our history and our lives are worth more than racial scapegoating in someone else’s narrative. We have our own stories to tell.


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