Comment Of The Day: “A Trigger Warning About A Trigger Warning: Audiences Should Walk Out Of The Movie Theater When This Appears”

“For May wol have no slogardie a-night.
The seson priketh every gentil herte,
And maketh him out of his slepe to sterte.”

  Now who can argue with that?  The passage is from a story Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” “The Knightes Tale,” the English  classic written between 1387 and 1400. I did not expect a substantive comment regarding Chaucer to follow an Ethics Alarms post (Chaucer has been mentioned in passing here in the context of the evolution of the English language), but there it was: Michael West revealed his fascinating discovery that Chaucer may have been a pioneer in more than just English literature. Michael’s Comment of the Day is unusual in another way besides its erudition. It was a comment on a post that is nearly two years old. It concerned the jaw-dropping warning that preceded the “Darkest Hour,” the acclaimed film about the wartime heroism and brilliance of  Winston Churchill:

“The depictions of tobacco smoking contained in this film are based solely on artistic consideration and are not intended to promote tobacco consumption. The surgeon general has determined that there are serious health risks associated with smoking and with secondhand smoke.”

I wrote at the time,

Winston Churchill, you see, smoked cigars. Actually he chain-smoked them, and inhaled. They were among his trademarks. Any adult who doesn’t know that should not have graduated from high school. Interestingly, shooting and bombing people are also serious health risks, so I don’t know why it wasn’t noted that the depictions of warfare contained in this film are based solely on artistic consideration.”

Whatever “based solely on artistic consideration” is supposed to mean…

Of course, showing Churchill smoking cigars is not an “artistic consideration,” but one of historical accuracy and integrity. Does this mean that there was really a debate in the studio about whether or not Churchill should be shown smoking, so as not to trigger good little progressive totalitarians, who believe in changing the past for the greater good of the present? I wonder if they considered making Winston, who was fat, appear slim and ripped, since the surgeon general has determined that there are serious health risks associated with obesity and over-eating. I don’t see why they wouldn’t, if they felt that showing people smoking in the 1930s, when almost everyone smoked,  might be interpreted as promoting smoking today.  Churchill also drank like Bluto in “Animal House.” Why no warning about that? Uh-oh—does this mean that the film, for artistic considerations, only shows Winston sipping soda water and prune juice?

That warning says to me, “We, your Hollywood moral exemplars, think you are an ignorant, illiterate  dummy who can’t tell the difference between a historical drama and a tobacco commercial. We also support the government’s belief that it should impose on every aspect of your life, including your entertainment, to protect you from yourself.”

I had, mercifully, completely forgotten about that asinine warning, and now I’m ticked off all over again. Gee, thanks, Michael, for reminding me.

Here is Michael West’s Comment of the Day on the post, “A Trigger Warning About A Trigger Warning: Audiences Should Walk Out Of The Movie Theater When This Appears”...

Trigger warning in Chaucer???

Up front: I’m inspired to ask this because I listen to an excellent podcast (among many excellent ones I listen to) about the English Language. For full credit, you can find its website here: https://historyofenglishpodcast.com/ . It’s fascinating, start from the beginning.

But the most recent episode highlights a line in the Miller’s Tale that sounds like a “trigger warning”, in Middle English it essentially provides full disclosure that the following storyline contains extreme vulgarity.

Here’s an excerpt of “The Miller’s Tale,” provided by an interlinear translation found here:

https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/milt-par.htm

I’ve deleted out the Middle English portion to provide the current verbiage.

What more should I say, but this Miller
He would not refrain from speaking for any man,
But told his churl’s tale in his manner.
I regret that I must repeat it here.
And therefore every respectable person I pray,
For God’s love, think not that I speak
Out of evil intention, but because I must repeat
All their tales, be they better or worse,
Or else (I must) falsify some of my material.
And therefore, whoever does not want to hear it,
Turn over the leaf and choose another tale”;

Has Chaucer provided a trigger warning to readers sensitive to foul language and vulgar story???

10 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “A Trigger Warning About A Trigger Warning: Audiences Should Walk Out Of The Movie Theater When This Appears”

  1. Hah! Perfect. Old Tongue in Cheek Jeff has insured no reader will walk away or fail to read the story. They’ll dive right in.

    This reminds me of studying Chaucer in Middle English with our Chaucer specialist professor who would would trill it out for us to make it virtually incomprehensinle. I never really appreciated Chaucer until I taught him in translation to high school juniors. He should be taught in translation to all but doctoral students.

    • It’s great marketing! Like the “Parental Warning” stickers that Tipper Gore and other moral scolds had their political hubbys force on the record biz in 1985. Artists were going back into the studio and recording adequately offensive lyrics to qualify for the sticker; kids were buying music that was GUARANTEED to annoy grown-ups.
      Chaucer did wonders for literacy: “This story is filthy! Oh, wait…you can’t read”.

    • Congrats, Mike

      I remember trying to understand Chaucer gave me an interest in the roots of words and how they play out in other languages. I found Shakespeare interesting in this fashion as well (not to mention it was full of blood and guts).

      I think it was fair to say I was the only one who thought it interesting in my 11th grade class, though.

      So we have that going for us.

  2. There is an old adage in education:
    * Tell the student what they are going to learn
    * Tell the student
    * Tell the student what they just learned

    A so-called “trigger warning”, when properly executed, is simply good pedagogy. If I show up to class, having read the syllabus and expecting a lecture about “x”, and instead we discuss “y”, I am not going to be as prepared as I could be to learn the material. The more controversial the unexpected material, the less ready I’ll be to absorb or discuss the material.

    Students should have a reasonable expectation of what material might be covered during class. The issue is when “trigger warnings” become mandatory, because it interferes with academic freedom. Students need to be flexible and resilient enough to handle reasonable curve balls, and a professor cannot be prohibited from discussing a topic because some arbitrary formula for communicating pedagogical intent was not followed. Of course, deliberate disregard around sensitive topics is both unethical and bad pedagogy.

    Such mandates, and especially the penalties for violations, stifle free thought and expression diminishing the potential for education. It is of course a function of pedagogical skill and bit moral luck as to whether education actually occurs. Feedback should be focused pedagogical effectiveness, rather than whether someone was sufficient warned to prevent “triggering”.

    Here, Chaucer is simply showing himself to be a good teacher. His syllabus upfront says the story contains vulgarity, and to take it or leave it.

  3. Well, I wouldn’t have left the theater (and didn’t) because I wanted to see Gary Oldman as Churchill.

    There are trigger warnings I would advise, particularly when they deal with what is blatant historical fiction.

    I had the opportunity this weekend to watch 2016’s “The Exception” about a wounded German officer who is assigned to babysit and spy on the former German Kaiser Wilhelm II, now in exile in the Netherlands. It is 1940 and, as the Nazis are wont to do, keeping an eye on VIPs during wartime is a necessity because, even if Hitler isn’t a fan of the Kaiser (nor is the Kaiser a fan of him), the old man still warms the hearts of many Germans.

    This is a completely fictional story, of course, that would reduce all the characters to caricatures were it not for the wonderful performance of Christopher Plummer in the role of now just-plain Wilhelm Hohenzollern who spends his days chopping wood, feeding ducks and plotting with his second wife a return to his throne some day. The Kaiser really did live into the Second World War and he really did get visits from German soldiers in occupied Holland.

    No trigger warnings here, though, about artistic license being taken with the Old Man finally realizing that the world has passed him by or a chilling dinner conversation with a visiting Heinrich Himmler that shows him that the possibility of getting his Crown back isn’t worth bargaining with the Face of Evil.

    It would have been wonderful to have seen a non-fictional film about the Kaiser, a largely ignored historical figure, and, as I mentioned, Plummer is marvelous in the role, but instead, we are left to relish his scenes while largely trying to ignore a contrived romance between a wounded German officer haunted by war atrocities and a Jewish servant who might be a British agent out to kidnap or assassinate the Kaiser.

      • Well, it used to be an adnired creative skill to allude to adult topics without cluing in the kids. Sine mid-century, letting it all hang out has been an unkindness to the young, putting more pressure on an already tumultuous period.

  4. I wonder if that qualifies as a trigger warning at all. Is it more likely a device used to get the reader’s attention, along the lines of, “well, I heard this the other day and I don’t know if it exactly true, but check this out . . .?”

    This does call to mind an experience when I recently re-read Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” I was horrified by a footnote the first time one of the characters says, “nigger”. The publishers had to disclaim The Word, writing that it was used all the time in the 1800s but did not reflect more common practice. So, remembering that, I googled this: “Twain Sawyer nigger”. This appeared in my search results:

    https://patch.com/maryland/takomapark/the-adventures-of-tom-sawyer-why-it-isnt-a-book-for-kids

    There is this little gem:

    “Huck responds: ‘Well, what of it? They’ll all lie. Leastways all but the nigger. I don’t know him. But I never see a nigger that wouldn’t lie…..’

    “I looked at my dark-skinned daughter – who has had struggles with honesty typical of a 9-year-old. Her face looked blank. It hurt her so much she shut down.

    “She got up out bed, said in a flat voice: ‘I’m going downstairs to Daddy.’ She went to the living room and sat in his lap.”

    She concludes with, “In fact, I would understand if anyone of any age – and especially anyone black – told me that they just couldn’t get past the N-word and the casual insults and racism in the book. It’s undeniably a great book but nobody needs to get slapped in the face repeatedly with that. Nobody.”

    Got that? Nobody should read Mark Twain because Twain with repeatedly slap the read in the face with the “N=word”.*

    jvb

    *Ed. Note: The incompetent drafter of this post used an equal sign instead of a dash when writing The Word. We have sent him away. He knew he made a mistake; in fact, he said that he was going to change but he liked the inadvertent comment on censorship. He, in his mediocre and superficial thought processes thought that using an equals sign was subtle. He stupidly believes that making a typographical error equating using a capital letter (“N”) in place of the actual word with censorship was erudite and inspired. It is not. How can someone be so dense to think that substituting a capital letter (out of respect for, and in solidarity with, our Readers of Color) would amount to censorship? Rest assured, we here in the editing room don’t think it is so meaningful. We actually think it shows how shallow the poster is. We sincerely apologize to anyone who might have been offended by that typo. It won’t happen again. Promise.

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