Peter Mullen: BBC Radio 4 Should have trigger warnings for the right

Trigger warning

What is a trigger warning? I looked it up in the dictionary and found that it is “a warning that some people may find parts of a text, video or other form of publication offensive.” Why, then, I wondered  have I never come across a trigger warning at the start of the offensively banalStrictly Come Dancing or the offensively lewd Game of Thrones? The trouble with issuing trigger warnings is that once you’ve started, how do you know where to stop?  I am offended at least ten times over every time I open a newspaper and twenty times over if I accidentally find myself listening to The Today Programme.

Then I read a paragraph that I thought must be a satire. They’re not pulling a trigger: they’re only pulling my leg. But no, it’s all true. Theology students at Glasgow University studying the course Creation to Apocalypse: Introduction to the Bible (Level 1) are being given trigger warnings that the scenes of the crucifixion may be upsetting. The University authorities explain: “We have an absolute duty of care to all our students and, where it is felt course material may cause potential upset or concern, warnings may be given.”

(I don’t suppose the university authorities issue trigger warnings to students thinking of visiting the night clubs or going on a Gay Pride march: Warning – You Will Come Across Scenes of Perversity).

Let me, as they say these days, try to get my around this. The university is not a junior school full of innocent and impressionable children. By the time people start a theology degree, they must be eighteen at least and presumably have spent time doing religious studies GCSE and “A” level. In other words, pupils must have been coming across descriptions and images of crucifixion for upwards of five years. They will have learned the extremely distressing facts that those crucified have their wrists and ankles pierced by nails and that they die a lingering, agonising death, usually from suffocation.

A thought arises: shouldn’t I have given readers a trigger warning before I wrote those words?

What do these infantilised, otherworldly theology students at Glasgow imagine crucifixion to be like – a nice sunny stroll in Regent’s Park or an afternoon at Lord’s watching The Ashes Test and eating ice cream? Presumably, at secondary school these pupils had been shown books containing reproductions of paintings by the great masters? They will have seen representations of the crucifixion by such as Giotto and Albrecht Durer? They might even – though perish the thought in our dumbed-down, pop-infested culture – have been taken into an art gallery and looked at even larger versions of these representations? God forbid, a few might even have attended church and seen a crucifix! They wouldn’t need to stray even as far as the parish church: many a war memorial in the middle of town features a crucifixion scene.

If the university professor is now obliged to speak to young adults, old enough to vote, to marry and to serve in the armed services as if they were infants and toddlers, we will have to admit that whatever piece of paper students emerge with when they’ve completed their degree is worthless. Moreover, there is a general truth to be stressed: no one has the right to go through life unoffended. Indeed, it is impossible to do so, because parts of life are intrinsically offensive. Of all people, teachers and students reading about the life and death of Jesus should know this already.

I can make no sense of the absurdity of the trigger warning. Only I’m tempted to get a gun, point it at the stupid authorities who decreed this nonsense, put my finger on the trigger – and pull it.

Peter Mullen


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