Greek and Roman myths are violent and ugly, sure. But apologizing for art — especially the classics — is a bad idea
Friday, May 15, 2015
A band of enraged women tear a young king limb from limb. An eagle eats the liver – over and over again — of a god, chained to a mountain, who was foolish enough to help out human beings. A distraught king lays his own mother and rips out his own eyes. Rapes happen nearly as often as the sun rises. The wife of an emperor poisons her rivals. Another emperor has sex with one of his sisters and pimps out the others. And on and on.
But these days, it seems, this stuff needs special handling. Four students at Columbia University – the school that pioneered the core curriculum based around the classics – wrote in the college paper:
Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.
People on the political left and the hipster-and-hip-hop side of the spectrum – Thurston Moore, Chuck D – flipped their lids when Tipper Gore’s PMRC tried to put warning labels on albums with sex and violence. Musicians, music fans and liberals in general defended the rights of rockers like Marilyn Manson and rappers like 2 Live Crew to rhyme about whatever they wanted. It was all about freedom of speech back then.
Teenagers and college students these days live in a world drenched in sex and violence; if they have cable connection or a cell phone they’re exposed to a vastly harsher and more profane world than the X’ers and Boomers or Silents who either eagerly read or slept their way through their Western civ requirements. Why start protecting students from Ovid in a TMZ world?
So it’s not just the wrong way to go – it’s awful PR for those of us who think literature and the liberal arts matter. You are giving the reactionaries at Fox News – who hardly seem invested in Sophocles or Suetonius – a cannon’s worth of ammo against the “political correct” campus left. And you are treating some of the greatest, most resonant, and, yes, most painful work in the history of humanity as something we need to apologize for.