Who’s afraid of the big bad world? On trigger warnings, snowflakes, and politicising respect

(Just in case you were wondering, yes, even Fox News uses trigger warnings.)

It was nearly thirty years ago, in 1988, when I was a fresh young graduate student in Edinburgh. I went to see the new Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ. I am pretty squeamish, and both my mind and body could not take the scenes of torture and execution, so eventually I had to walk out. It took me a number of years before I finally caught on TV the controversial ‘dream sequence’ ending of the film, and discovered what Scorsese was trying to do.

Fast forward to December 2016, and this time I was in London to see Scorsese’s more recent religion (Catholic) themed epic, Silence. My fears of queasiness induced by torture and execution were still with me. I therefore felt quite relieved (perhaps smug) that when the most gruesome beheading occurred I had foreknowledge (from reading the book) to look away in advance. Like the protagonist, I survived the film intact.

Apparently, the students in the university school where I teach — Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow — are now being treated like precious ‘snowflakes’ who need trigger warnings, giving them an ‘opt out’ on being taught about the crucifixion.

I’ll put aside for a minute the trigger terms of snowflake and trigger warning. I will also just briefly note here that I don’t teach biblical studies (or any other branch of theology), and instead I am on the (non-Christian) religion side of the teaching at Glasgow. I have no particular theological axe to grind in this respect.

What I do not like, however, is when journalists are sloppy in their reporting and comments, or perhaps deliberately misrepresent.

In November last year (2016) a freedom of information request came round the university to myself and colleagues, asking if ‘trigger warnings’ (‘warnings about potentially offensive or upsetting content’) were issued in any courses.

Although the request itself did not say as much, it appeared to be a fishing expedition, trawling for some juicy bites about cossetted Scottish students hiding from reality in ‘safe zones’. I can only guess that this was itself triggered by the issue being highlighted in late August by the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students making a controversial public rejection of ‘trigger warnings’ in a letter to new students.

There were a number of responses from my colleagues to this FoI request (unfortunately at the time I was too busy to reply by the deadline given). In retrospect, one of these responses stands out in particular:

Classes sometimes contain ‘graphic scenes of the crucifixion, and I do flag that with something like: “For anyone who doesn’t like blood on screen, there will be some in the clips I am going to show.”’

As far as I understand, this response was provided to the journalist who made the FoI request, and in early January a piece was published in the Daily Mail that headlined on the above quoted comment.

The story grew legs, and was picked up by the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and a number of outlets the next day.

And, of course, it is the type of story that looks good for re-circulation, as evidenced by Kevin McKenna’s resurrection of it in the Observer this past weekend.

This most recent piece by McKenna was a strange account, beginning with this lazy condemnation of the ‘snowflakes’ of Glasgow University, and ending with his dislike of such timidity being applied to the growing ScotRef debate. (You really have to read the piece to find how the connection is made.)

Normally, I have little time for the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Their agenda is clear, and their readers largely find it easy to believe that students at all of Scotland’s universities are cossetted snowflakes looking for safety from the big bad world. The gap between what the FoI had said and what they reported is, perhaps, only to be expected.

However, I normally find myself agreeing with a lot of what McKenna has to say, and so was quite surprised to see him falling into the same nonsense.

To put this simply, a trigger warning (if used) is simply a warning — it is a comment that draws attention to what comes next.

We are given them on a daily basis, such as in the news when we are warned about graphic or potentially upsetting content, or of strobe lighting (see the image above from Fox News). Such a warning simply allows us to make an informed choice — do we look towards the screen (the TV or at the powerpoint in the lecture room) or do we look away for a moment?

It is, of course, possible that a student may choose to leave the room at that point rather than look away. If that happens then there may be good reasons for them doing so, and they should receive support for making that choice. We must also recognise that students often make many other such choices to not be present in the lecture or seminar room (ranging from work commitments, to essay deadlines, to illness, and much more).

But missing a class does not mean that a student then gets to skip the curriculum. It is a misunderstanding to assume that a trigger warning about material entails that the material is then left out (or not assessed).

And so, to say this again. A trigger warning is simply a warning. When it happens, it is not a failure to teach: it is a way of trying to teach as effectively as we can. A student with PTSD who is triggered (in the absence of a warning) is not likely to take in the contents of the class. If there is no prior warning, then the affected student might as well be out of the room.

Thus, trigger warnings are not an ‘attack’ on academic freedom. They are not a means to censor content, or leave important (challenging) material out of the curriculum. When given, trigger warnings simply flag up particular types of challenging content, and most likely occur on the most challenging of courses.

So when Kevin McKenna writes the following, he is completely missing the point:

Perhaps fragile and emotionally vulnerable students could be given an introductory series of lectures on how life can be utterly shite at times and a bit rough, too.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where some of our students have experiences of sexual and other forms of violence and abuse, and/or of race-hate, Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia, suicide, or PTSD. In this respect, Glasgow University students share much in common with the rest of the population of Scotland.

Or to put this another way, the world (and the universities) are full of what McKenna (rather dismissively) calls ‘fragile and emotionally vulnerable’ people, who are already well aware of the fact that ‘life can be utterly shite’.

No one needs an Observer columnist to tell them that.

And indeed, no one needs a newspaper columnist to laugh at such vulnerability.

Recognising this does not turn our students into ‘snowflakes’. It’s quite the opposite.

The presence of trigger warnings are themselves an indication of the depth and challenge of the education they have chosen to immerse themselves in. And indeed, the term ‘snowflake’ is best left with the proponents of the ‘alt-right’ fascists where it belongs (such as the recently defeated candidate for the University of Glasgow Rector).

Thus, the students of theology and religious studies at Glasgow University do not escape from learning about the mess of the world that earlier generations (such as myself and Mr McKenna) have created for them. Just a little bit of basic journalistic research about the subject and its teachers would have shown that.

So, I will repeat here my invitation on Twitter last night to Kevin McKenna.

If he is really concerned that the University of Glasgow is creating a generation of snowflakes in its use of trigger warnings, then he is very welcome to come and meet with us to learn how in fact his presumptions are based on nonsense.

This is a world where the adherence to the truth should remain at the heart of both journalism and academia. And McKenna (and others’) representations of current students as victims of what he calls the ‘snowflake syndrome’ could not be further from the truth.

Malory Nye is an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

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