I've been thinking a lot about triggering language and how it plays out in books. We've talked before about how a lot of things can be triggers, even things the author might not necessarily know about, and as a writer, I think about it a lot. Because... I don't like being triggered. And I don't like triggering people. So this is sort of an opinion piece thinking some stuff out.
I don't really like Huckleberry Finn.
I don't. I feel bad admitting that; I'm embarrassed about it. I know it's a classic, but I just didn't enjoy it when I read it. I liked it when Huck said that he'd go to hell, that was a good bit. But when I came to Huckleberry Finn I was an English major in college and I had just about had it up to here with books by dead white guys who wrote almost entirely about men and none of the women in the books were women I could identify with or seemed to have depth or dreams or desires that I could really personally identify with. I was in a place where I needed "The Yellow Wall-paper" and "The Gilded Six-bits" (those came later) and instead I was being fed another book about men and boys doing manly and boyish things. I wasn't in the right place, I guess.
And I also kind of thought the book was racist.
Not because of the N-word, actually. Because of the final chapters. And I guess I wasn't the only one who didn't like the final chapters because Ernest Hemingway, despite loving the book more than sliced bread, apparently felt like the whole end of the book should have been lopped off:
So what's the problem? Only this: Twain's acknowledged masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, inspires almost universal ambivalence among its biggest fans. "It's the best book we've had," pronounced Ernest Hemingway in 1932. "All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." Oh, but one more thing, counseled Papa: "If you must read it you must stop where...Jim is stolen from the boys [and imprisoned by a slave catcher]. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating."
As Powers puts it, "Huckleberry Finn endures as a consensus masterpiece despite these final chapters" in which Tom Sawyer leads Huck through elaborate, ineffectual, and grotesque machinations to rescue the runaway slave from Tom's Uncle Silas (even worse, we eventually learn that Jim has in fact been free the whole time). Most critics feel that once Tom Sawyer shows up, Huckleberry Finn devolves into little more than minstrel-show satire and broad comedy that cheapens the deep, transgressive bond that has evolved between Huck and Jim.
You see that bold bit up there? It's actually sort of incomplete, in my opinion. Tom Sawyer leads Huck Finn and Jim The Slave through elaborate, ineffectual, and grotesque machinations to 'rescue' Jim, even though Tom has the power to set Jim free at any time by revealing Miss Watson's will to everyone, and when Jim finds out that Tom has been endangering his life all this time for a game, Jim is humbly and abjectly grateful to Tom. For reals, or at least... it seemed that way to me as a reader. I didn't feel like Jim was faking it for socially-required reasons. And that bothered me -- a lot, really -- because that wasn't how I felt that adults thought. It wasn't how I felt Jim would have thought. Well, I didn't think so, anyway.
And when we talk about the scene, and everything that is wrong with the scene, I get a little frustrated that we still talk about how Tom misled Huck. Not Jim. Even though he did mislead Jim. But Jim isn't even in the story at that point as far as the quote up there is concerned. And... in a way... he's not. Jim sort of devolves at that point from a deep, conscientious man to, well, a "minstrel-show" caricature. And, personally, I saw that as... racist. Changing a black character's established dignity at the end like that in order to make a scene work just seemed... wrong. Ruined the whole book for me, and it wasn't like I was sweet on it to begin with.
But, to each their own, you know? It's an American Classic and has influenced a lot of American Writers, and it should probably be studied in schools, I guess. Or not. Whatever makes you happy, really. Up to the school district and the parents and the students, and I'm not any of those things. So what do they think?
Some school districts seem to think that it's a good idea to replace the N-word in the novel with "slave".
And you know what? I'm... kind of okay with that.
No, really. I'm okay with someone making an N-word-free version of the book and schools picking it for study if they think that's what their students need and the parents are on-board and it's all very open and clearly explained to everyone what's been changed. And if I cared about reading the book again at all, I'd probably get that version.
But one thing that confuses me about the controversy is that the argument that I've always heard for why Huckleberry Finn is not racist (at least the one that revolves around the N-word because I've yet to see anyone online call the book racist for the final chapters and Jim's abject gratitude to Tom Sawyer for being a jerk so bad that it would make Edward Cullen jealous, so fixed that for you, Internet, I guess) is that the N-word back then didn't need to be racist, that Twain and Huck were using it because it was colloquially correct, and that we should approach the book as thought the term was a neutral one.
And that we shouldn't dwell on the term during classroom time because that's how people were back then and getting bogged down in the language would distract from the literary merits of the book and the relationship between Huck and Jim which were, after all, the whole point of studying the book in the first place and why it definitely shouldn't be removed from the reading list just because of the N-word. In that defense, the N-word was something that wasn't part of the lesson plan, it was something that we were expected to sort of... get around in order to get to the 'important' stuff.
But now that someone is saying -- best I can tell -- okay, if it's really just a colloquially neutral term, let's replace it with a modernly neutral term now because it's upsetting some of the kids, now the argument seems to be that the repeated uses of the N-word must be retained because otherwise how can the schools have a conversation about the racist history of the term? Which strikes me as so very odd, because we weren't having that conversation anyway, at least not in my class, because anytime a student said, dude, this book is racist, the Official Response was that no, that was the term of the time, and it was totally neutral and you had to approach the book as such.
And... the other weird thing is that if we need to retain the word to have the conversation about racism and language, why do we need to use Huckleberry Finn? I can think of a lot of better ways to introduce language marginalization than through the back door via Twain. Like, for instance, reading more African American voices. So... I guess I find that argument confusing.
But then there's all these trigger issues on top of the whole thing. If you have a common trigger word used 200+ times in a mandatory school book that covers days or weeks or months of a lesson plan and if the teachers and parents and students really don't feel like that level of excess is necessary for a talk about language marginalization, then... then I feel like there's room for a compromise balancing the needs of education and the needs of the students to not be triggered while they're trying to get their education.
I know that schools are not, and never will be, truly safe spaces. But the flip side, of course, is that will be cold comfort for anyone who finds the N-word triggering and is required to read Huckleberry Finn unaltered in school. If my high school had felt the need to include an American Classic that had, say, 200 instances of the word "cunt" in it, or 200 instances of the word "retard" in it, I would have had serious problems with, well, everything. Reading the book. Writing about it. Discussing it in class. Hearing the other students use those words. Writing about it right now distresses me.
So if a teacher -- or several teachers -- have floated the idea that, we really want to teach this American Classic, but the language of the time period is triggering our students so what if we search-and-replace a single word, and if the parents are happy and the students are happy and the educators are happy, then I'm personally kind of inclined to clap the educators on the back for a clever solution to a thorny problem. And I wonder if the discussion, and the fact that a community actually took seriously the concept of "triggering", wouldn't be way more educational from a language marginalization standpoint than Mark Twain would be.
Which kind of brings me in a round-about way to new books.
I wrote a book this year. The setting is sort-of-not-quite Italy in the vaguely-probably-kind-of 1400s. There are characters in the novel who, for various reasons, are assumed by other characters to be mentally ill. I use the term "mad" once, "madness" once, and "insane" twice, and I used them as carefully as I could. I do not use the term "crazy". I mostly use the alternative terms "mentally ill" or "sick" or "needs help". This is not historically accurate. The concept that mentally ill people should be referred to with a minimum of linguistic respect is, if I understand correctly, pretty new. (The historically accurate version would probably be for the characters to assume the other people are possessed by demons, which I find very triggering indeed.)
In my book, I used historically inaccurate language on purpose, because I feel like 'not triggering my readers' is more important than historical realism. I mean, my book is not historically realistic, anyway. My book is about magic and fairies and talking beasts and curses and magical fruits and roses. None of that is historically accurate, so it seemed kind of arbitrary to say, but yea verily I wilt use yonder damaging term.
Which isn't to say my book doesn't have trigger topics. It does! I have a whole section that a reader can skip to before reading just to see what all the triggers in the book are. "Discussion of mental illness, including ableist terminology," is one of them. But you'll know in advance what you're getting yourself into, and knowing is half the battle!
And maybe I can kind of explain my Huckleberry Finn thoughts above a little better by saying this: My book isn't going to be an American Classic. It won't influence generations of writers and, as such, it won't be mandatory reading in schools for children who need to be influenced in the same way. But... if one of my books ever did reach that level of fame and it turns out that a word I used 200+ times in my 60,000 word novel turns out to run the real risk of triggering a large number of the school children and I wasn't around to be asked about it... I'd be really okay with everyone erring on the side of caution and figuring that I would prefer young kids not be triggered by my writing while they were being exposed to my influential thoughts and writing style.
Or, I guess, if it was that important to save my words exactly a certain way, I'd be okay with people not teaching me in mandatory classes. Electives would be fine.
And that's kind of the biggest problem with triggers: even if you're really careful, it's impossible to get all of them.
Not too long ago, I was moderated at Shakesville for using ableist language. I used the term "idiot" and the moderators had to replace it with "fool". I felt really... foolish, because I didn't know "idiot" was considered an ableist term in that space. (And it was in the moderation policy faq, so it was really my own fault. I should have read more closely before posting on someone's board, but I failed to.) But I especially felt bad because if you'd grabbed me and said Ana! Quick! Which one of these terms is ableist?, I would have guessed "fool" over "idiot".
And the more I thought about that, the more I got it in my head that probably someone, somewhere, is more triggered by "fool" than by "idiot". In a world this big, I have to think there's at least one. What does that person do?
I know these kinds of conversations usually evoke a little fear, like, what if we let the bullies take all the words? And... I really do understand that. That's why this site doesn't currently have a "list" of safe and un-safe words. I ask everyone to use discretion and be polite and I think/hope that the politeness softens the trigger as much as possible. That's the direction I took with my book, as well: I used a few of what I hope are the mildest trigger words for something, posted a Trigger Warning page, and... I'll hope for the best. It's not a magical shield for the people who will be triggered, but I do try to be open and upfront with it so that they can chose not to read my writing rather than read and get hit without warning. I hope that helps.
But would it be possible, someday, for there to be a way to avoid being triggered entirely via intelligent search-and-replace routines? For the person who finds "fool" triggering, but not "idiot", to configure their web browser to always display the one and not the other? It'd be a tricky thing, since a lot of words like "mad" pull double meanings, and of course it would only cover words and not concepts but... it's not inconceivable for me.
I think... I would like that. I'm reading a book right now for book club -- World War Z -- and it's a book I picked, but I'm utterly distracted by how often the word "crazy" is used when really the author means "silly" or "dumb" or "ridiculous", but he's writing in the vernacular and "crazy" is a huge part of American vernacular. And... I'm really tired of reading that word. I find it distracting at this point. I would kind of like a really really really intelligent algorithm to go through my book and replace that word with silly/dumb/ridiculous as appropriate. It wouldn't change the meaning, and I'd be able to better reach the message if I wasn't being blocked by the medium.
But... I realize that this stance is not 100% controversy-free. Maybe the answer isn't "trigger-free accessible algorithms", but rather "trigger warning algorithms" where before I start the book the software can tell me how many time a word appears. Maybe the author's right to express themselves without alteration is more important than my desire to read their message without being blocked by their word choice. But... maybe that answer means that people with lots of triggers will be blocked from enjoying works that they would otherwise enjoy but can't currently access.
I don't know the answer to this. I really don't. But... I will say that when I publish my book in the coming weeks ahead, I will welcome any and all feedback on how I can improve the trigger warning system I've implemented and what, if any, words you would like to not see in any future books. I plan to keep writing, but I'd like to not keep triggering.