The strength of language displayed in the recent blog by David Robertson suggests that something really silly has taken place. He talks about "pathetic, weak, moralistic, mollycoddling", saying that universities must think students are "stupid and infantile" and that some aspects of modern life are "more Pythonesque than [Monty] Python".
What have universities and students done to provoke the ire of Robertson? Answer: Some universities are putting trigger warnings before aspects of their courses. (Trigger warnings are "small advisories placed before the presentation of material that people may find acutely upsetting" - Professor Erika Price)
I think this reaction from Robertson is unjustified and disproportionate.
Trigger warnings often constitute a line above material, or a brief mention before the presentation of traumatic material. And what happens after a trigger warning? Those difficult topics are discussed and students get on with their life (which makes David's reference to "keeping them [students] away from the Book of Revelation" confused). This isn’t about censorship - instead, it’s about providing an appropriate context for the study of harrowing topics, and ensuring that they aren’t surprising to students.
We engage in this kind of reasonable courtesy in our everyday lives, in ways that are accepted by people across the political spectrum. Before watching the film Silence at the weekend (reviewed on our blog here), both the website and the cinema screen warned me that the film contains "strong violence and scenes of torture".
Or what about casual references over the dinner table to not discussing certain topics while you’re eating food? Or the flagging of graphic content within articles on the Daily Mail (those famous snowflakes) such as ISIS beheadings. Or perhaps the avoidance of certain topics that you know will upset a friend e.g. it’s probably inappropriate to start proclaiming the wonders of motherhood to a someone who has just had a miscarriage.
"Letting people know that disturbing stuff may be disturbing”, as journalist Madeleine Davies pithily puts it, is a logical and harmless extension of this politeness.
Trigger warnings are designed to meet a real need
Trigger warnings are designed to meet a real need. There are genuinely unsettling topics within these courses. Looking at the Gender Studies course which Robertson refers to (and belittles unnecessarily), one can see that the Director of the Masters Course has published multiple articles discussing violent pornography, child abuse, rape and prostitution, which are obviously upsetting topics.
In the example of Glasgow University's theology students being warned before watching a scene of crucifixion in a lecture on Jesus and cinema, it is perfectly feasible that some students may not know the material will be graphic. Suppose the student is an international student coming from a country where Christianity is unheard of? Or suppose the student is not completely aware of the full process of crucifixion - very possible in today's society, especially when you bear in mind this includes extensive flagellation with whips often with shards of glass attached, the lengthy carrying of your own cross, the nailing of one’s hands and feet, and the final death by suffocation if not by blood loss or shock, sometimes sped up with the breaking of arms and legs. Is it unthinkable that this could be disturbing and surprising?
It is mean and foolish not to apply trigger warnings - particularly if they are appreciated by trauma survivors and persons with mental illnesses.
Some students are by nature more squeamish or sensitive, and may have a strong revulsion toward some of these topics - which, last time I checked, wasn’t one of the seven deadly sins. Others may be persons with mental illnesses such as depression or PTSD and for whom trigger warnings are championed as being made to help (the "trigger" in trigger warning refers to PTSD). Others may be survivors of trauma such as rape or domestic violence, and the mention of these topics without warning or context may cause a reliving of the experience which is deeply damaging. By giving a trigger warning, students can be prepared appropriately for these topics, and then included within them (and sometimes to choose to avoid the topics) - in other words, this is a support for academic freedom, rather than a sign of illiberalism.
The repeated testimonies of trauma survivors (see here and here for example) is that trigger warnings are helpful to them, enabling them to prepare appropriately for these discussions (and though there is some debate over the role of exposure to distressing topics in recovery, it seems that the appropriate place for exposure is with the assistance of a psychiatric professional, not within the lecture theatre).
It should also be acknowledged that trigger warnings aren’t a silver bullet which solves all possible problems - instead they are a key step in the right direction, which should be used appropriately.
The flipside of this is that sometimes trigger warnings aren’t applied, and this can cause great distress. Erika Price recalls some horror stories within her article on the topic: panic attacks induced by a rape scene; a student vomiting after watching a scene of crucifixion; and so on. When these are so avoidable through trigger warnings, it is mean and foolish not to apply trigger warnings - particularly if they are appreciated by trauma survivors and persons with mental illnesses.
Paul instructs us to "clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3) - to let compassion, kindness and gentleness exude from us. By supporting trigger warnings, we take a step towards embodying this kindness.
Joshua Parikh is a student studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University
This is a response piece to David Robertson's blog: 'The student 'trigger warning' about crucifixion is pathetic mollycoddling'