When I began to study Latin in my freshman year in high school, one of the first texts we were asked to translate concerned the “rape” of the Sabine women. Even though the Latin text used a word that looked and sounded like it should be translated as “rape,” we were told that the Romans “abducted” the Sabine women and that the word should be translated as “seized.” Not long afterward, we read a story from Ovid in which a nymph named Daphne was turned into a tree in order to escape being raped by a God. I found both of these stories puzzling.
I had not heard the term “rape culture” which was coined much later, but the fact that I can still visualize the words “virgines” and “raptae sunt,” as well as the pictures that accompanied both stories, suggests that I was aware that something was wrong in these texts and in the way they were being taught.
When, as part of my first full-time teaching job, I was asked to teach the Iliad as the foundational text in the required Humanities course at Columbia University, I was able to find words to criticize it. I understood that even if Homer mourned the “tragedy” of war, he also celebrated it, and seemed to view war as an inevitable part of “heroic” culture.
I was also able to see that the central human drama of the epic, Achilles’s “metaphysical dilemma “ of whether to choose to stay and fight in a war in which he would be killed yet immortalized in memory, or to choose to return home and live a long, yet uneventful life, was set in the context of his quarrel with Agamemnon over a woman my colleagues referred to as a “spear captive.” In fact, Briseis, like the Sabine women, was a “spoil” of war, a captured and captive woman, who might more accurately have been called a “raped captive.”
When I tried to discuss the moral failings of a work that celebrated rape and war in the seminar for teachers of the course, I was told that I had missed the point of a beautiful and complex text that was at the heart of “civilization.”
This spring at Columbia University, student members of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board posted an op-ed titled “Our Identities Matter in Core Classrooms” in the campus newspaper Columbia Spectator stating that:
Students at the forum [called to discuss problems students were having with readings in core courses] expressed that they have felt that Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization’s curricula are often presented as a set of universal, venerated, incontestable principles and texts that have founded Western society.
Sounds like not much has changed the teaching of these courses in the past four decades.
The students stated that there should be “trigger warnings” attached to the courses, so that students who have been raped would be forewarned that they might have difficulty with the assigned texts. For me, the requirement of a “trigger warning” is a red herring. When I taught women’s studies and women and religion, the subject matter of my courses and the way in which I taught them, frequently “triggered” women to come into my office to tell me that they had been victims of incest, rape, and abuse.
The problem is not that feelings are triggered by course materials. The issue is how students are treated when they bring up questions triggered by the material. Will they be told, as I as a student and a teacher was, that these questions are trivial and miss the mark?
Or will their professors respond as the authors of the op-ed piece suggest they might, acknowledging that:
While these founding principles [found in “classic” texts may] have been liberating in many ways, instructors should more consistently acknowledge during class discussions that many of these same principles have created an unjust, unequal, and oppressive existence for many.
The op-ed piece provoked a response—published in the New Republic—titled “Life is ‘Triggering’: The Best Literature Should Be Too.” In it Jerry A. Coyne ridicules the student op-ed, stating that:
After all, what body of literature, including the Bible and the Muslim hadith, doesn’t mention violence and sexual assault? The Bible even sanctions rape. Should divinity schools put trigger warnings on the Bible?
What Coyne perhaps does not know is that in non-fundamentalist divinity schools, certain Biblical texts are now, following Phyllis Trible, labeled and taught as “texts of terror.” In liberal divinity schools moral questions about foundational and even allegedly revealed texts can be asked—at least in some classes.
My response to Coyne is a simple one. If all of the so-called “great literature” of the world places “violence and sexual assault” along with war and slavery at the “heart” of civilization and culture, then why are we not asking how “great” this literature really is? Why are we continuing to teach students that if they want to be considered intelligent they must fall into a lock-step in which they too learn to ignore the “great injustices” enshrined in the texts they must learn to call “great literature?”
As long as we teach students that the criteria for judging what is “great,” “civilized,” and “cultured” require all of us to celebrate or turn a blind eye to rape, genocide, and war—what are we teaching after all? Why are questions raised about the morality and humanity or lack of it enshrined in these texts still being silenced?
My suggestion is that if moral questions about foundational works were seriously considered and answered, the whole house of cards that we call “western civilization” would fall.
We would be forced to recognize that what Mary Daly called the Unholy Trinity of Rape, Genocide, and War, really is at the center of what we have learned to call “culture.”
At the end of the recent Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a woman who had come on the tour simply because she wanted to travel with women confided to me that what she had (unexpectedly) learned was that “we have been brainwashed.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!
Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter). Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol: Maureen Murdock.