The topic of free speech has been tied to events on college campuses for decades — think Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley — and the last few years have seen a resurgence of college students doing what they do best: challenging the dominant social order.
Vocal challenges have risen against racial violence, cultural appropriation, certain political candidates, and more. But novelist Joshua Cohen thinks the impact of a college student's voice should be weighed against the real-world experiences of mature adults. Cohen particularly objects to the concern expressed over violent language in literature classes, and the debate over the value of so-called "trigger warnings" meant to warn students of language that could revive memories of past traumas.
"The whole point of the Greeks is that you never know what your trigger warning is because it’s your hamartia," says Cohen. "It’s your fatal flaw. If someone told you what your trigger waning was you probably wouldn’t end up, you know, killing your father and sleeping with your mother, you know."
Cohen's latest novel is Book of Numbers.
Joshua Cohen: I don’t give a fuck what anyone says in college. I think if you’re in college you shouldn’t actually have an opinion about anything, you know. I think that you should probably even if you had a tough childhood I think you should probably spend a decade in the workforce. Or if not in the workforce you should spend a decade hating yourself and becoming fatter and uglier and balder and just, you know, I mean you should. And then someone you love should leave you. With that said, you know, my biggest problem is not what happens on college campuses because I try to stay away from college campuses as much as possible. Is really just, you know, what happens to language and people’s free use of language.
I think that, you know, speech should be harmful and defanged speech is not speech. I think speech should always have the power to wound and I think it should be allowed to wound because not only is that the right pressure valve that brings you away from actual physical violence, you know. But more importantly it is a preparation for true pain in life. In the sense of, you know, when you’re spoken to in a certain way that’s harmful. But when you read a book with content that you consider harmful, right, you can’t talk back to it.
You can ignore it. You can, you know, tell other people not to read it, right. But the idea of translating our standards for interpersonal speech to a standard for literature or even just written communication that has stood some test of time is perverse to me. The whole point of the Greeks is that you never know what your trigger warning is because it’s your hamartia, it’s your fatal flaw. If someone told you what your trigger waning was you probably wouldn’t end up, you know, killing your father and sleeping with your mother, you know. I mean implied in the history of literature, Western literature is essentially people who were confronted with – people who were not warned or people who did not heed warnings, right. And these things are supposed to be lessons for us not to set up our own warnings. But they’re actually just supposed to be examples of what life will do to all of us and maybe conciliations for how to abide.