Monday, May 19, 2014

Orwell Call Your Office.

Warnings for children bad; warnings for college students good.

We live in Crazy-land.

But trigger warnings have come in for criticism and mockery even on the left. Jarvie concludes her piece with this sensible observation: "Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them." She reports that the feminist website Jezebel, "which does not issue trigger warnings, raised hackles in August by using the term as a headline joke: 'It's Time To Talk About Bug Infestations [TRIGGER WARNING].' " And Susannah Breslin provoked outrage in 2010 when she "wrote in True/Slant that feminists were applying the term 'like a Southern cook applies Pam cooking spray to an overused nonstick frying pan.' "

The Times reports that targets of campus trigger-warning demands include F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" (for "a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence"), Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" (anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" (suicide).

Here's what this reminds us of: "Rated R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout." That's the Motion Picture Association of America's warning for the 2012 film "Spring Breakers." Or how about this: "Rating Category: M. Content Descriptors: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Mature Humor, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Violence." That's the Entertainment Software Rating Board's evaluation of "South Park: The Stick of Truth," which the ESRB helpfully explains "is a role-playing adventure game based on the animated South Park TV show."

There are similar rating systems for television programs (the TV Parental Guidelines) and popular music (the Recording Industry Association of America's Parental Advisory Label, or 'Pal,' program). (This column, published as it is by a family newspaper, will occasionally include a warning when linking to an external website that contains family-unfriendly content.)

The MPAA, ESRB, TV Parental Guidelines and RIAA warnings are all designed to strike a balance between freedom of expression and parents' interest in shielding their children from the fouler aspects of popular culture. For the most part free expression wins out, especially in the Internet age, as it generally requires enormous effort to prevent a determined adolescent from gaining access to "adult" material. And the law isn't of much help: In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law restricting the sale or rental of "violent video games" to minors.

Still, efforts at establishing such warning systems have occasioned free-speech controversies, most notably in 1985 when the Parents Music Resource Center, led by Tipper Gore, called for warning labels on record albums with explicit lyrics. It was a bipartisan effort--Gore, a Democrat, was joined by Susan Baker, wife of then-Secretary of State James Baker--but it drew wide derision from pop musicians and the left. In 1992, the Associated Press reported, vice presidential candidate Al Gore "fielded questions from an MTV audience" of college students about his wife's efforts and was put on the defensive: "He said neither he nor she supported censorship."

In those days, "mature" content held a certain allure for teenagers and young adults. By contrast, it would seem that today's young adults are anxious to be infantilized.

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