Some incoming students at Duke University are refusing to read Fun Home, a critically acclaimed bestselling comic book memoir, because it has sex scenes that violate their religious and moral beliefs, according to the school's newspaper. In the novel, Alison Bechdel, who won the MacArthur Genius Grant last year, chronicles her coming out as a lesbian and her dealing with the suicide of her father, who kept his own homosexuality secret for decades.
"Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind," freshman Brian Grasso told the Duke Chronicle about the book selection. "It was like Duke didn't know we existed, which surprises me." He also said that other students had sent him private thank-you notes after he first posted his objection to the recommended reading in a class-wide Facebook group.
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It is absurd that someone attending a major university can refuse an assignment because it forces them to acknowledge gay people exist. And though the idea may make the prudish uncomfortable, getting a liberal arts education generally involves dealing with sexually explicit material, from Ulysses to Ingmar Bergman's Persona. But the arguments that students like Grasso are using to insulate themselves from discomfort are not very different from the ones progressive student activists are using to make college campuses free of anything that could be construed—however remotely—as hate speech against minorities or women.
Although "trigger warnings" have been around since the earliest days of the internet, the term has only recently made the leap from a cluster of forums and blogs to the larger web and IRL universe. The basic concept is that readers should be warned about certain types of explicit content—like descriptions of sexual assault—so it doesn't awaken memories of trauma.
Trigger warnings have become so prevalent today, however, that there's been a major backlash against them. It's easy to see why when you hear about more extreme examples of books being labeled objectionable. According to a recent article in the Atlantic, students have called for trigger warnings to be attached to Things Fall Apart, The Great Gatsby, and Ovid's Metamorphoses for their respective depictions of colonialism, misogyny, and rape. Professors have supposedly altered their curricula to avoid student complaints, and university administrators are trying to come up with standardized procedures for students who claim that reading a book like Mrs. Dalloway will trigger suicidal thoughts.
But if, as some Columbia students have said, special care should be taken to make sure sexual abuse survivors and people of color aren't offended by reading lists, why can't Christians refuse to read a book because it has a sketch of a sex scene in it?
"The book is a quick read but not an easy one; it made me uncomfortable at times, which I think is one of the most telling reasons why it's so important for students to read," one of the students involved in selection Fun Home said in a press release. "It has the potential to start many arguments and conversations, which, in my opinion, is an integral component of a liberal arts education."
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