Nonfiction Novella

Ground Zero in the Culture War, Part I: Cross-Dressing, Sharing Sticks and Trigger Warnings

Brock Eldon
September 3, 2023
Brock Eldon entered Canada’s elite universities a true believer in everything they represented: the integrity of these institutions of higher education, the quality of their professors, the rigour of their scholarship, the purposefulness of their syllabi, and the meaningfulness of the degrees he would earn. He left confused, disillusioned and disgusted. Rebuilding his life in East Asia, Eldon clung to two things: an unshakeable conviction that the truth exists to be discovered – that two plus two really do make four – and a burning determination to tell his story. In the first instalment of his nonfiction novella – published here for the first time – Eldon recounts his youthful faith followed by his first, worrisome encounters with a graduate department in the throes of wokist nihilism.
Nonfiction Novella

Ground Zero in the Culture War, Part I: Cross-Dressing, Sharing Sticks and Trigger Warnings

Brock Eldon
September 3, 2023
Brock Eldon entered Canada’s elite universities a true believer in everything they represented: the integrity of these institutions of higher education, the quality of their professors, the rigour of their scholarship, the purposefulness of their syllabi, and the meaningfulness of the degrees he would earn. He left confused, disillusioned and disgusted. Rebuilding his life in East Asia, Eldon clung to two things: an unshakeable conviction that the truth exists to be discovered – that two plus two really do make four – and a burning determination to tell his story. In the first instalment of his nonfiction novella – published here for the first time – Eldon recounts his youthful faith followed by his first, worrisome encounters with a graduate department in the throes of wokist nihilism.
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Just because I’m further away from it now doesn’t mean that I do not question – in the beginning, in laying out the contents that follow, in concluding – whether or not I should proceed.

This fear re-emerges. Sometimes it’s over a choice of words or phrasing; most often it comes at the end of a draft, when I’m re-examining what I’ve committed to words. Other times it’s when I’m walking around with a printed copy of the manuscript at work or at the café. I scribble over it. I cross things out. Though they’re always open, I draw as little attention to the pages as possible. I’ve feared having it in my possession, this document, more than a few times now.

Call the pages that follow a memoir; call it an essay; call it an attempt. Call it conscientious objection; call it a farce – or a confession. Call it a polemic…

We’re living in the middle of a culture war, aren’t we?

An attempt:

To not be a sheep…

I

I walked around the streets of the old downtown a lot at night over those first few months. Following two years of travel financed by my teaching overseas, first in South Korea, then China and Vietnam, I developed a frequent habit of clasping my hands together and involuntarily forming a fist inside my jacket pocket whenever I felt particularly anxious. It started in Beijing, over my first stay of any substantial duration in the Communist Chinese capital. I’m not sure why; there are so many possible reasons…

Life at home as a student versus life abroad, travelling and teaching: In Canada everything appeared flat and lonely to the author, compared to the crowded and “textured” environment in steaming tropical Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), Vietnam. (Source of bottom photo: David Bokuchava/Shutterstock)

Home in Ontario to begin my M.A. in English Language and Literature following those two years abroad, I noticed it most often walking to or from the library on campus. In the weeks leading up to the official start of semester, I’d been battling with my comically large, 1,434-page Penguin Classics edition of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. My wrangling with the text was a truly valiant effort. It weighed down my backpack as I headed to and from those old, revered, stately-looking buildings on campus. One could feel the wealth and the power within those institutional walls. A group of students – undergraduates, I presumed, from their faces – drove together in a pack of Maseratis and Porsches through all the stoplights on the main cobblestone street running down the centre of campus, the sons and daughters of the Ontario elite.

There is an important context in my having lived overseas. Everything looked flatter in Canada than in Vietnam. There was no “texture” to the residential architecture (or in any of the residential areas, period). Clean, straight, sharp lines – that was all. One was far more alone with their thoughts in these vast, relatively uninhabited countries of the northern hemisphere like Canada, in contrast to that tropical wedge of coastal land so densely populated, in Vietnam, I thought. It was too quiet. Physically, I was on home soil in Canada; psychically, I was still very far away. I was still walking through the traffic in Saigon. I was still lost, drifting back inside the various clouds of smoke from motorbike exhaust pipes and street food stall grills, and the scents of burning incense drifting down from inside temples along the route through the 21st-century sensory squalor of Saigon. I buried my head in my books to escape that feeling of slipping back through time and space, hoping that the reading and “getting ahead” in the program would ground my thoughts and restore the sense of centredness I had lost in the transition between life abroad and life at home.

Why do I come back to those fists inside my jacket pockets? It was as if, from the outset, I had some foreboding about the many months ahead.

I was into Audible by then – that helped. I’d started listening to audiobooks on subways in South Korea or while waiting for my (invariably delayed) flights from Southeast Asian airports. I was fully immersed when I listened, concentrating, jumping up from the chapters of Clarissa I had just completed reading at the library, then listening through the next few epistles between characters before turning to the physical text itself in my evening hours of reading once more at my rented apartment on the outskirts of the city’s student district.

The thoughts in my mind dispersed, fists unclenching.

***

It is true that I romanticized our institutions of higher learning. From age 18 to 22, that was absolutely true. I’d embraced the idea that the work that academics pursued in departments throughout the Humanities (literary theorists, historians, philosophers) was the work that shaped peoples, nations, civilizations and cultures – for the better, and only for the better. The academics could do no wrong. What other purpose could there be for such work? I felt lucky to attend a pinnacle institution such as the one I’d attended for my baccalaureate: stained-glass windows, impressive architectural achievements, sprawling lawns, one of the country’s largest and widest-circulation libraries. I used to pause and gaze out at those old buildings, those ivory towers, with complete faith in them and their potentiality.

I shared the view of literature as a kind of “linking device,” connecting past to present and one individual to another. It went beyond any notion of “the state”; it broke down all possible barriers that could divide us, and possessed the power to rescue and restore the world from conflict.

Before entering university and through most of his B.A. years, the author romanticized Canada’s institutions of higher education, having almost unlimited faith in their integrity, importance and potentiality for societal betterment. (Source of photo: Brock Eldon)

Beginning my junior year, working towards my B.A., at my proudest heights, I used to stack up, then unstack, the newly printed books collected from the campus bookstore for my courses: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Joyce’s Ulysses – all scheduled for assigned reading in the same week in different courses. I was marathoning (cravenly bingeing) on the better part of a millennium’s worth of English literature’s most powerful output. I used to roll the words of Chaucer’s “General Prologue” around in my mouth, the words like earthy stones of so many colours, textures and flavours. And I did the same for “The Oxen and the Sun,” reading and listening to that famously challenging episode from Ulysses.

We spoke of the creative process in connection with the arts in general, but literature was that art where the artist most literally “found their voice.” I was completely immersed in and entirely invested in this work. Our world would be fine, so long as we had our philosopher-kings to rule over it. I’d written it down. It’s still in my notebooks from that time, packed away in boxes in my home country. I believed that to be justice then.

This trust in our former institutions for higher learning would be compromised.

II

“So what’s a grad school party in English like these days?” my Gen X colleagues sometimes asked when I first started at the department in Hanoi in 2018. It made for an amusing conversation at the Bia Hoi, the streetside venues where one could buy beer for about 20 cents after a day’s work preparing materials and teaching.

It was always better if it was a “bigger thing,” I answered, retelling what I remembered most clearly. “If we went to one of the pubs or wine cellars downtown to celebrate a particularly special occasion, it was alright.” Most often, though, we’d just end up at someone’s apartment with Ru Paul’s Drag Race or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy running on repeat. There were whole Ru Paul and new Queer Eye premiere parties, often involving the other students dressing in drag. “It was surreal,” I said, like living inside a painting by Salvador Dalí (The Great Masturbator), male M.A. and PhD candidates dressed up in women’s clothing, female PhD candidates dressed up in men’s. Scenes unfolded, melding into a blur even at the time.

At some point at the first such party I attended, I found myself surrounded by empty martini glasses and at least a dozen bottles of wine. This was all rather lavish, I remember thinking. All that alcohol: certainly none of the cheap shit I’d gotten used to out East. It struck me as a little low-brow, decadent, excessive. No drama though. Queer Theory was having its moment: let those students have their fun.

I found the party host alone. Walking out to the back porch for a “social cigarette,” I saw that she was the only person there, smoking out back.

Under the heavy, black edge of her hood, it was obvious she’d been crying for some time. Her boyfriend had apparently broken up with her that week. The justification for the party was that it would supposedly help to “take her mind off things.” (When I was most despondent, I preferred to be alone, but I understood the more extroverted personality type for whom this sort of gesture might mean a great deal.) I was new to the program. I knew what had happened and what to do.

I was trying to make her feel better. She was alone with dark thoughts.

If you were to drop into a party of PhD candidates in an English Language and Literature program, you’d think that asking about the best book someone’s read recently would be a safe enough question to get the ball rolling, no? What a person is reading reveals a lot about them; no one knows this better than the student of literature. And so I dared pose the question: “What’s the best book you’ve read recently?”

She immediately reversed the question, examining me: “I dunno. What’s the best book you’ve read recently?” she squinted against the smoke, on her second menthol cigarette in as many minutes, it seemed, at the rate she was smoking.

The truth was: I hadn’t really read that much in Vietnam, after my year in South Korea and brief summer-school teaching stint in China. No, that wasn’t exactly correct. I hadn’t read many novels or much poetry. I was reading history instead; when I did read fiction or poetry, it was almost exclusively by Eastern authors. Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War hit the hardest of any Vietnamese novel I’d read. Naturally, it was the text that came to mind first, but it was too obscure, too serious to bring up in such “polite conversation,” and so I ended up talking about Jonathan Franzen’s latest book, Purity. “Not as good as The Corrections,” I conceded with a shrug: The Corrections was “a perfect book.” That was fine though: one National Book Award was “quite enough” for “one writer’s lifetime.”

“Jonathan Franzen is an asshole,” the party host exclaimed, almost in tears again. “Jonathan Franzen is an asshole, and you’re an asshole!”

“Discursive violence”: Despite his impressive literary achievements, wokists abhor contemporary American novelist Jonathan Franzen, including his award-winning books The Corrections and Purity, for their “privilege,” “whiteness” and heterosexuality. (Source of left photo: jonathanfranzen.com)

“Sorry?” I said, still holding the unlit cigarette. I was prepared to blame the wine; we’d both had plenty.

“Jonathan Franzen is an asshole, and you’re an asshole!” she repeated.

How could I be so ignorant? Of course, she reminded me: Jonathan Franzen was an asshole because all white, privileged, heterosexual characters living in nuclear families (the kinds of characters Franzen was concerned with) were inherently assholes on the basis of their “privilege,” which was in turn determined by their race, their “whiteness.” He was an asshole because of what he’d done to Oprah, for his daring to have had a laugh in an interview about her “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker appearing on his books, most likely cutting off a significant percentage of his male readership. Finally, the white, male, middle-aged author was an asshole because he reinforced and maintained the white, male, heterosexual patriarchy that maintained the “status quo” in the realm of American letters, stealing away the spotlight from minority voices. He was therefore complicit (if not active) in “discursive violence” as a beneficiary of the oppression of others through his work.

What’s a grad school party like in English these days?

It’s like walking on eggshells.

III

First classes.

It was such an unpopular opinion that I never gave voice to it at the time, but the truth is that, from the very start, I was never so keen on the idea of an Indigenous Gender Studies seminar. I was skeptical about it. Part of this came simply from reading the course titles. Indigenous Gender Studies, snuck inside the modular structure of an English Language and Literature M.A. or PhD program seminar stream?

The first thing one may notice is that there is no mention of a text, author or literary movement in said title. Then again, as I had soon found out, the same was true of at least two-thirds of the titles and/or course descriptions. Many appear comical in retrospect: besides Indigenous Gender Studies, there was Shakespeare and Crossdressing, The Refugee Crisis, The Literature of Addiction, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Incarceration, and Victorian Vampires (followed soon after I left by Queer Victorians), along with mandatory presentations or dissertation presentations on topics like Queerness and Ice Hockey.

The trend is only comical in its absurdity; the program’s left-wing agenda was so blatant that one did not even need to consult an online syllabus to check assigned primary and secondary source reading lists. The titles said it all. I was told by one PhD student that my course selection sounded stuffy: Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries, The Whole Show: Eighteenth-Century Drama, and Samuel Richardson and the Rise of the Novel.

The syllabus for the author’s M.A. in English Language and Literature was so radical and openly woke that his choice to study Jane Austen (left), Samuel Richardson (middle) and William Shakespeare (right) – even in a course entitled “Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing” – was viewed as “stuffy.”

The course listings are even more radical now. It is possible, it happens all the time: a PhD graduate in Literature in Canada has never studied works of such foundational importance as Chaucer, Austen or Shakespeare. I bit the bullet on Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing only because I thought we’d be able to discuss something Shakespearean other than the binary of male and female genitalia in his plays. I was one of the rare students to only have one of the overtly woke courses. I suppose that’s why my course selection looked “stuffy” to most of my evidently woke peers. I didn’t get the full brunt of the courses that everyone was talking about.

I felt physically uncomfortable in those first classes. Unwillingly clenching up my fists and unclenching them, I felt my face redden. There was a subliminal (deliberate?) shaming in the discussion of all course materials, and students earned merit in their professors’ eyes for their willingness to lay themselves down on the coals of that shame. We were compelled collectively, with the exception of one female Chinese and one female Bangladeshi student, to identify as “settler scholars,” signalling that we were all the beneficiaries of a colonialism dating back to the settlement of Canada by the “white, heterosexual, Christian European male.” The tone for the rest of that seminar and, indeed, of that entire 2016-17 academic year was established immediately with the opening of classes.

To start, the white, heterosexual male in charge chewed up the first 20 minutes or so of our opening class introducing himself and his relationship with Gender Studies “as the child of devout Second Wave Feminists” (former public school teachers in Southern Ontario). Next, he likened this background on “gender” to his background in “indigeneity,” including an elaborate display of burning sage, and the recitation of a local Indigenous poem or prayer (in translation), after which we were to “join hands” in the common blessing of this classroom space: its glassy, grey, brutalist, madhouse institutionalist concrete walls.

Within the same 15- to 20-minute span, we were introduced to the “sharing stick.” (I remember it having a red or yellow ribbon at the end, but I’m not sure which. (Maybe blue?)) If a student was not holding the stick and wished to speak, they were compelled to politely ask the present speaker if they might “chime in” or “say a few words.” It amounted to pleading very often: an insufferable display that continued over the duration of the course.

And so the stick went around, and class members were invited to introduce themselves however they liked, at least sharing their “full name, institutional background, and ‘preferred pronouns.’” When all those present introduced themselves and their pronouns according to the “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers” pronouns that they’d been assigned at birth, there followed an excruciating silence, a pronounced awkwardness as we awaited a response from the professor. The shame and the guilt were all I saw: an acknowledgment of some element of truth immediately replaced by resignation, discomfort, shame and then personal remorse. Two students were in tears from the opening of that first class.

With topics such as “sexual harassment,” “race,” “sexual orientation,” “war” and “depictions of suicide,” among others, necessitating “trigger warnings,” no discussion of Shakespeare’s great tragedies was immune from censorship. Depicted clockwise from top-left: Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath, by Théodore Chassériau, 1855King Lear in the Stormby Benjamin West, 1788; Romeo and Juliet: The Tomb Scene, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1790; Antony and Cleopatra, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866.

Bad as “the sharing stick” was, what concerned me most was our introduction to policies surrounding mandatory “trigger warnings” in the classroom. A formal trigger warning from a speaker, reader or presenter meant that students could leave the classroom if they found what was to be discussed too “distressing.” According to class code documents, trigger warnings were to be used when dealing with topics including (as just a few examples) “rape, sexual harassment, race, derogatory language, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, war, torture,” and “depictions of suicide.” What great Shakespeare tragedy – or comedy, for that matter – does not involve not just one but some combination of the above as preoccupations or themes?

I was informally reprimanded not once but twice for not using trigger warnings. The first came in Indigenous Gender Studies when I had no idea, or had simply forgotten, that the trigger warning was a requirement. I gave the mandatory trigger warning in most classes at the start of a reading after that, though apparently that was not enough. I also received a 3 percent deduction on my seminar reading in the Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing course for including passages from Othello. I never did find out which passages had proved so “distressing” in this latter case: looking over the paper carefully, I realized it could have been any of them.

Gathering disillusionment: Forced to self-identify as a “settler scholar” and required to use a “sharing stick” in order to speak in a graduate seminar full of M.A. and PhD candidates, the author began to wonder what he had gotten himself into. (Source of photo: Brock Eldon)

I received this information via email. Neither incident ever escalated. Both gave me anxiety, though. I shook, processing the feedback, condemning myself for having crossed this or that “discursive line.” The guilt factor was built in, inherent in the process and felt by the other students as well. An anxiety arose inside me like a void I fell into. I was aware that if these “offences” were repeated, I could very well end up facing a panel at the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI, or “DIE”) Office on campus, with “unconscious bias training” already in place and assigned for repeat offenders like myself. It was Newspeak. All aforementioned offences were documented and held permanently in the university’s online records.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four…Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” I repeated under my breath as I made my way around town (from the grocery store, for instance). It was so deeply ingrained in our education, or so I thought. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.”

Bunching up my hands, I repeated those words

Editor’s note: Certain titles above have been altered to protect identities and individual privacy.

Brock Eldon teaches Foundations in Literature at RMIT University in Hanoi, where he lives with his wife and daughter. A graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, he writes fiction and non-fiction and can be followed here on Substack.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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