Young people today are often denigrated for being overly sensitive and humourless. But how true, or fair, is this characterisation?
By Andrew Hunter Murray
To anyone over the age of 35 reading this: grave news. There is a group of people who are out to get you. They like trigger warnings, safe spaces and campus bans, and they have no sense of humour at all. They dislike cultural appropriation, linguistic violence (whatever that is) and if you say anything ‘problematic’, they will call you out, shut you down and have you cancelled. They are snowflakes.
That is the bad news. The good news is: almost none of them are real.
The two most important things to know about the snowflakes of popular journalism are that they are a) easily offended and b) young. They are po-faced undergraduates at Sussex and SOAS, the new Red Guards who live to tear down statues of the Good Chaps of the last century and replace them with Brutalist Menstrual Art or similar nonsense. They are the spiritual descendants of the Loony Left, the Wimmin of Greenham Common and the soft-headed teachers who banned “Baa Baa Black Sheep” for fear it was racist.
The metastasis of ‘snowflake’ — from a synonym for fragility to an age-based mark of prudery — took place around 2015 in the UK, and it has prompted a journalistic bonanza. These snowflake kids cannot cope with watching Friends on Netflix because it contains jokes about fat people and cross-dressing. They do not like Bond movies because the suited spy comes across as a bit of a sex pest. They want to get rid of statues of Cecil Rhodes, murals of First World War heroes and Kipling’s verse. Some students receive ‘trigger warnings’ that the Shakespeare they are studying contains spicy themes. At Cambridge, students demanded that a college hosting an ‘Africa-themed’ dinner should cancel the meal. Where will it stop? In 2018, The Sun even appointed a short-lived comedy correspondent, ‘Jon Snowflake’, to cover the wacky things young people find offensive these days. (And he was sort of funny, to the really determined reader.)
The denunciation of these revolting youths is not just a journalistic talking point. It reaches the heights of government. Last year, in a strong contender for the least intellectually coherent government policy of the past decade, the then Minister for Higher Education, Sam Gyimah, announced that, to protect free speech, universities that try to prohibit controversial speakers from visiting will face government intervention. (I am eagerly waiting to see precisely how this will be policed.)
The conditions of this new cultural Cold War have even prompted a new political movement, the charming-sounding Turning Point USA, which exists to teach students about the free market and to challenge ‘safe space culture’. In December, its representatives arrived in the UK. The group’s communications director, Candace Owens (herself a millennial), told Telegraph readers unsmilingly that, “Students have gone soft.” Worse still, the snowflakes were even coming for the famous British Sense of Humour. “The Left has killed comedy,” she darkly warned. The group’s founder, Charlie Kirk (aged 25), agreed: “Monty Python would not be allowed in this politically correct culture.”
The origins of snowflakes
How did we even get here? Most dissections of the modern snowflake start with Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, in which we are told: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone, and we are all part of the same compost pile.” Perhaps. But Mr Palahniuk’s iteration had nothing to do with age, nor with offence. I personally date the modern usage of ‘snowflake’ to 2008, to a brilliant cartoon from the xkcd website. A man (I’m presuming here) sits alone, looking at a computer screen. A voice from offstage calls: “Are you coming to bed?” “I can’t,” he replies. “This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet.” Right there — in our inability to share a civil space, albeit online, with a perfect stranger whose opinion differs from our own — was a vivid harbinger of the red-raw state of current discourse.
And when the age-based angle took root a few years ago — soon after the publication of a book called I Find That Offensive!, which suggested young people had been cosseted until they turned into hyper-ventilating, hyper-sensitive, censorious types — snowflakes metamorphosed into journalistic catnip.
And yet, and yet. Most of these protests are just that: protests. The statue of Cecil Rhodes that Oxford students campaigned against? It is still there. The mural of white men at Southampton University, the removal of which was demanded by the student union president herself? That is still there as well. When it was pointed out that the mural actually commemorated the First World War, she issued a grovelling apology. The Africa-themed dinner at Cambridge? It went ahead, after a minor kerfuffle over the admittedly doltish reduction of the cuisines of several dozen countries to a single three-course meal.
In part, there are journalistic economics at work here. Stories like the Friends one can be based on a handful of tweets, and most newsrooms are so desperate for copy these days that a small story like that can go round the world. That is even before the columnists and pundits get their teeth into it. (I will not make the obvious point that the middle-aged hacks spending thousands of words and earning thousands of pounds being extremely offended by thin-skinned students do not exactly come across as terribly resilient themselves. Some fish should be left swimming around the barrel.)
As for ‘no-platforming’, it does happen, but only up to a point. There are precisely six organisations on the official ‘no-platform’ list of the National Union of Students (NUS), including such unlovely chancers as the English Defence League and the pro-caliphate Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. In 2016, ChangeSU, which provides resources for student union managers, asked 50 student unions whether they had banned a speaker in the past 12 months. None had. The NUS points out that student unions are private bodies with the right to invite whomever they like to speak. Not being invited to speak is not the same as being banned.
Enough anec-data, what about the stats? They, too, are a sad letdown to the Candace Owens of this world. Polling by YouGov found that two out of three Britons agreed with the statement: “Too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.” Specifically, they agreed with that statement over the rival statement: “People need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds.” Not only that, there was very little variation between age groups. The youngest group surveyed, those aged 18–24, actually showed slightly less sensitivity on this matter than other cohorts. Score one to the anti-snowflakes. In the US, YouGov asked a broad range of Americans, broken down by age, whether it was offensive for someone to dress as a geisha, or a Native American, or in a Mexican sombrero, if the wearer was not part of that culture. The youngest group were likeliest to think it offensive — 34% of those aged 18–34 said it was — but even in this group, 37% said it was not.
Finally, in June 2018 a British YouGov survey examined whether students were likelier than the general public to think someone with views they found offensive should be banned from speaking at a university. They found it rather depended on the opinion. Students were more likely to want to ‘ban’ a speaker who claimed vaccinations caused autism; non-students were more likely to want to ban a speaker who believed in the abolition of the monarchy. But the overall non-trend was pretty plain; as YouGov put it: “The results do not find any evidence that students are more hostile to free speech than the general population.”
The ‘right’ to be offended
So the anecdotes are not true. The statistics do not bear it out. What, then, are we saying when we call someone a snowflake? In effect, the term says only this: the causes you think important are unimportant, and you have no idea what really matters. Offended by something cultural, or social? Grow up. There are wars on. Just as in the old gag that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac, today anyone more socially aware or sensitive than you is a snowflake, and anyone less aware is a bigot.
Ah, but, the thing is, kids today are offended by the wrong things. The 1968-ers and their successors were protesting about Vietnam and apartheid. These were real social ills. Today the message to students who kick up a fuss is that there are people dying in Syria while they are worrying about Halloween costumes. It is easy to pretend people can only care about one thing at a time, but it is manifestly untrue. In the absence of a pan-global calculator of suffering that measures exactly which evils we should be most outraged about, people make their own messy lists, generally prioritising matters closer to home.
The core conflict is over what ‘should’ matter to people in their own societies. But, the aforementioned blockheaded policy idea put forth by the UK government aside, there is no state intervention here. This is the exercise of free thought and dispute over language — and, yes, statues and murals — and how they make different members of society feel welcome or excluded. Rules on what is ‘offensive’ can only apply universally in relatively constrained, uniform societies. It is part of the remit of modern western society — which accommodates an extraordinary range of opinions — to contain these debates without violence. In the absence of violence, or threats of violence, what is going on here is society.
Arguments over the language we use — or the make-up of our universities and civil spaces, whether we name buildings after slave-owners or decide not to honour those memories any more — are not worthless. The real, subliminal concern of so many journalists is that the rules are changing. It can be disconcerting. I myself am frequently disconcerted. But outside a small core of the terminally outraged, the flurries listed above are mostly well-meaning attempts to ensure other people are comfortable and happy. On an individual level, this sounds rather closer to old-fashioned ‘good manners’ than anything else.
Where these protests do exist, they are frequently about more than the pretexts the newspapers seize on. The irritation over a Cambridge ‘African dinner’ or a large statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford may be more to do with a prevailing feeling that BAME students are not made welcome at Oxbridge. This matters, even if you think that the existence of a hunk of stone does not. It would be a civilised society that tried to understand these debates and the underlying causes, rather than simply laughing at what is perceived to be students’ hang-ups.
A history of snowflakery
To anyone still worried, here is one last crumb of comfort: snowflakery has been around a long time. But, just as today, there was generally a reason for it. Consider Nahum Tate, a 17th-century poet laureate and playwright now remembered chiefly for rewriting King Lear with a happy ending. Tate is mocked today, but a bit of context reveals his motive: in 1681, with Charles II on the throne of an England torn apart by civil war in living memory, society was understandably a little prickly about plays in which kings are deposed and killed. Context matters, just as it did to the Reverend Thomas Bowdler, who re-wrote Shakespeare without the rude bits. Was Bowdler just another Victorian dog-collared god-botherer who could not stand the crudity of England’s finest playwright? Well, up to a point: but he explicitly made clear that his edition, The Family Shakespeare, was one in which “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family”. Content warnings in Shakespeare, all the way back in 1807! It is easy to laugh, but this was explicitly Shakespeare to be read en famille. Is this really snowflakery? If you genuinely take the position that all Shakespeare is appropriate for all ages, I have some Titus Andronicus tickets to sell to your six-year-olds.
Where does this leave us? Young people today are not more likely to want to ban speakers, or worry about offensive language. Those protests that do happen frequently have substantive underlying causes, even if this is often lost in news coverage. Patches of snowflakery undoubtedly exist but, for the most part, this is an enjoyable element of the ongoing debate that runs through modern society. Take a seat and enjoy the scrap.
Andrew Hunter Murray is a journalist and comedian. He writes for Private Eye and is a QI Elf
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 4 2018–19