Snowflakes are really lovely. Everyone knows that, don’t they? They’re unique and delicate and pretty. But turns out that some people, people who are not “millennials”, people who are not on the “hard left”, people who are not students, are bandying around the term “snowflake” as insult.
Some commentators – mainly belonging to Generation X or the baby-boomer generation, mainly white – are using the term “generation snowflake” to disparage a demographic who are attempting to shape how people of their age talk about and respond to racism, sexism, rape culture, our world.
The millennials are precious crybabies who melt into distressed puddles because they don’t like rapists. That’s the insulting accusation being levelled at young people – well, actually, young women – by Claire Fox, director of something called the Institute of Ideas and author of a new book, I Find That Offensive!
Writing in the Daily Mail today, in an opinion piece headlined “Why today’s young women are just so FEEBLE”, Fox recalls a situation where she made a roomful of teenage girls cry with a sort of sadistic glee. During a discussion about Ched Evans, the footballer convicted of rape, Fox said she “dared suggest (as eminent feminists have before me) that rape wasn’t necessarily the worst thing a woman could experience”.
“I expected robust discussion – not for them all to dissolve into outraged gasps of, ‘You can’t say that!’”
At the heart of the discussion about “Generation Snowflake” is that notion about what you can and can’t say, i.e. there is a concern that students and young people are shutting down debate and free speech because they’re too sensitive to engage with it.
That’s what Fox is getting at, and that’s the message we’re getting from all those who invoke “Generation Snowflake” as an insult. Because free speech is good, right? And if pesky young women want to censor us all, they’re wrong, right?
Giving young people power starts these conversations that would never even occur to the adults in the room, and it its worst, it drives out free speech, wildly and aggressively
The reality of what students and young women want is a lot more nuanced, as shown in a comprehensive report released last month by the higher education body HEPI. Writing about the report, The Pool contributor Gaby Hinsliff noted: “Half of the 1,000 students interviewed thought free speech should never be limited, however offensive. Only a tiny six percent wanted all memorials from bygone days – like the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford which triggered recent calls for its removal – taken down.
“Headlines about students wanting to ban racist and sexist books from libraries meanwhile overlook the inconvenient fact that three quarters of students either didn’t want anything removed from libraries or would only ban ‘extreme and illegal sexual images’. Yup, we're talking here about the censoring of porn so violent that it's, um, censored already by law. Only nine per cent wanted overtly racist texts removed.”
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Yes, student politics is often ridiculous, Hinsliff wrote, but shouldn’t we take seriously the fact that young women feel they need safe spaces so desperately.
Speaking to The New Yorker last month, Lena Dunham (a “millennial”, although perhaps, at 30, too old to be considered a member of “Generation Snowflake”) shared a similar sentiment. Recalling returning to her alma mater, the liberal-arts college Oberlin, an institution she described as a “distinguished arguing college”, Dunham said: “I went in kinda ready, Oh God, am I going to get in trouble. Am I going to get told that I triggered the whole audience? Somebody told me that there was going to be a protest [about] me but they couldn’t really figure out why.
“But what I actually found was a bunch of super-curious people, who wanted to laugh and be entertained. The thing that I felt in when I was at Oberlin, when the word “trigger warning” had not even entered the lexicon, was that there are amazing pluses and amazing minuses to giving young people power over the direction that a community takes. And at its best it starts these conversations that would never even occur to the adults in the room, and it its worst, it drives out free speech, wildly and aggressively.”
And that’s really the crux of it. There are pros and cons, no generation ever had it all figured out. Obviously. Even Claire Fox must know that she lives in a world where Google is racist and white educated perpetrators of sexual violence are handed down paltry sentences. And to pit generations against each other as she and so many are doing is to avoid the real problems and shut down the type of difficult debate, the freest speech, that could benefit everyone.