We need to talk about ‘snowflakes’
If you believe some commentators, we are witnessing a widespread chilling of free speech on university campuses, driven by a ‘snowflake’ generation who are too delicate to hear discordant opinions.
‘No-platforming’, trigger warnings and safe spaces are all held up as symptoms of a spreading societal ill.
The recent reports of the University of Manchester Students’ Union ‘banning clapping’ brought this into sharp focus. For some, this was classic ‘snowflake’ behaviour, an absurd and unnecessary intrusion into people’s right to express themselves. To others, it was a polite and reasonable accommodation to students, such as those with autism, who experience disturbing sensory overload in loud places. To some social scientists it could be seen as a progressive and experimental move towards testing how society could be more inclusive.
If you are a student or young person, the chances are, ironically, you have not even heard of these terms, according to a recent study by the University of Leeds.
But that does not stop you being impacted by the very real effects this divisive debate is having on universities and policy making. Earlier this year, the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, called for tough new guidelines to protect freedom of expression, amid claims by his predecessor Jo Johnson that books are being removed from libraries, and speakers banned from campuses.
As I told a House of Lords Select Committee this year, the evidence for these claims, as I see it, is vanishingly small.
Not one book has been removed from a major university library on the grounds of censorship, though some antisemitic ones have been moved to restricted shelves. Hundreds of events have taken place here at the University of Sussex in the past year — not one was prevented through no-platforming.
While, for some, the snowflake phenomenon is little more than an excuse to sling around an unkind name, that doesn’t mean we should rush to dismiss any and all arguments put forward. Beyond the overblown headlines, this conversation gives us the opportunity to talk about some serious issues. Take the rise in young people seeking treatment for mental health issues, for example — depending who you listen to, this could signal either declining resilience or better services and fewer stigmas. Similarly, while our digital lives create spaces for new connections and conversations, many suggest that social media has created ‘echo chambers’ where only agreeable ideas are digested and amplified.
So, does ‘generation snowflake’ exist?
Well, we each have the right to draw our own conclusion — but first a conversation must take place. Regrettably, the polarising nature of modern media is making this increasingly difficult and divisive.
Yet it cannot be ignored that ‘generation snowflake’ certainly exists as an idea. I strongly believe that it is only when ideas are shared, tested, pushed and pulled that true progress begins to take place.
This is precisely what we plan to do at our very first live event for The Exchange, our flagship free-expression platform. In ‘Generation Snowflake: Fact or Fiction?’, an energetic and diverse panel of speakers will spark discussions and offer fresh perspectives on this issue.
I hope you will join us on the 15 November to see The Exchange in action.