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Report from The York Union: Is Generation Snowflake a slur or reality?

Source: The York Union
Source: The York Union
Source: The York Union

On 20th February, The York Union hosted libertarian writer, Claire Fox, to lead a discussion on whether the term ‘Generation Snowflake’ is a slur or a reality, as debated in her recently published book, I Find That Offensive. Fox’s general view on the matter was that today’s students are more fragile than they have been in previous eras, and she is genuinely worried with how upset some young people get by offensive ideas and hateful words, with a mood of fragility and victimhood overhead. She emphasises that she does not mean this offensively, merely that it is an interesting concept to explore.

Firstly, who are Generation Snowflake? Fox cites the Collins English Dictionary definition, that they are “the generation of people who became adults in the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations”. The Sun ironically set up a ‘snowflake hotline’ for anyone easily offended by their content. Furthermore, an article published by The Sun on the day of this talk showed a headteacher claiming snowflake millennials are “entitled, spoilt and molly-coddled”. Unsurprisingly, there is a huge backlash against the given term and, as Fox emphasises, is part of a free-speech hysteria, moral panic, and a caricature of modern-day students. Fox argued that there are writers who argue against the slur, such as Owen Jones, who states that the term was only made to stop young people ‘getting in the way’ of older generations who openly discuss controversial topics.

Regarding her opinion that students are more fragile than before, one of Fox’s justifications is that we “were born this way”. She suggests that the younger generation have been betrayed by the older generation, as we were socialised and educated into an atmosphere of scaremongering over a constant sense of fear to which we were exposed. She uses the ‘endless panics’ about children’s safety that we see in society today as an example of this. One instance, of many, is parents being told that sugary drinks are the “crack cocaine for kids” by doctors, heightening fears of obesity, diabetes, and more. Thus, safeguarding has become the new normal, so we now have ‘cotton-wool kids’ who are overprotected. This is not the fault of our generation, more the fault of the older generation, pushed through parents, institutions and schooling. Therefore, as our generation has grown up, moving away from our home comforts to university was ultimately like ‘ripping the bubble-wrap off’ through exposing ourselves to controversial topics and opinions that may challenge our own beliefs.

Fox spoke at length about the issues of safe spaces and free speech on university campuses, as a result of Generation Snowflake. She described how safe space policies are now routine on almost every university campus, including in America and increasingly throughout Europe. To show what a necessity people think safe spaces have become, she explained how the King College’s Student Union needed backing from implemented ‘safe-space marshals’ at controversial speaker events on campus. The NUS define a safe space as, “an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable and safe” and is not faced with “intimidation and judgement”. Yet, Fox argued that this has been taken too far, and prevents debates on new, controversial topics that students would not have been faced with previously. Ultimately, this takes away from the point of learning and point of going to university.

Fox argued strongly that there could not be anything worse than going to university and “feeling at home”; in her opinion, the whole point of university is to escape home and experiment with different topics and viewpoints that challenge one’s own. When controversial speakers, such as Germaine Greer, are invited to speak to students on university campuses, they are faced with huge backlash over students “wanting to feel safe at university”. This was shown at York in late-2015, when Milo Yiannopoulos was pressured by students not come to our university, despite being invited by YUSU. Ultimately, he cancelled his trip here. In this, Fox worries that the safe space movement halts the ambition of students and limits intellectual life, largely through a new concept on what ‘safety’ means. In this instance, she discusses safety from psychological harm (which Fox describes as,“I don’t want to hear that because it will damage me psychologically in some way”) , rather than political or physical harm.

In Fox’s opinion, one of the greatest threats to free speech today is “the conflation of words with physical harm and real violence”. She argues that this is something that started in schools, largely through the anti-bullying campaign, in which young people internalise the message that ‘words can hurt’ and make it interchangeable with violence. Fox put it well; stating that this “counter-productively encourages people to overreact and undermine one’s coping mechanisms, and see life’s everyday challenges through the prism of psychiatric diagnostic labels”.

The speaker then discussed the related issue of free speech on campus, using the example of trigger warnings. Fox believes that trigger warnings are having a negative effect on teaching because any policy that censors out “content that might trigger the onset of symptoms of PTSD” puts a huge strain on teaching material. She argued that great literary works, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, could bring on these symptoms of PTSD for its presentation of misogyny and domestic violence. Similarly, Virginia Woolf’s Mr Dalloway contains discussion about suicide, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses contains sexual assault. So, should they be banned?

In 2015, the exam board AQA actually removed Durkheim’s Suicide from it’s A-Level Sociology syllabus, fearing it might trigger suicidal thoughts in students. Likewise, last year Oxford criminal law students demanded trigger warnings on any possibly distressing material they might be taught in criminal law. Fox was confused by this, and argued that surely anyone wanting to study criminal law should be prepared to face the challenging topics of rape, murder, assault, etc. Even further than this, law departments in the United States actively steer away from teaching about sexual offences (and some dropping rape law altogether), over a fear that they might cause psychological harm to the students. Fox describes this as an “absolute step back for women, for justice and for intellectual endeavours”.

Next Fox discussed how notions of mental health have now been normalised into discussions, and this is the true problem in Generation Snowflake. People are more willing to integrate the language of mental health into their everyday life (including being self-diagnosed), meaning that the younger generation are taught to internalise their psychological damages as the norm. This then plays out on free speech issues later on, both on and off campuses. For instance, Fox referenced the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in Oxford, in which protestors spoke about the statue of Cecil Rhodes the same way one could talk about experiencing a physical act of violence. Links were made between slavery and the statue by the protesters, and Fox argued that there is an issue if protesters see walking past the statue in Oxford as threatening or psychologically damaging as being physically enslaved.

In a report of two-thousand young people (aged 16-24), the majority said being labelled as ‘snowflakes’ would negatively affect their mental health. Fox sympathises slightly – straight out of university she worked as a mental health social worker, so she is fully aware of the severity of mental health issues and the need to challenge the issue of psychological harm, further stating that it is a tricky situation. But, she argues that when the NUS reported in 2015 that 78% of students in the UK thought they suffered mental health problems in the year previous to that, we need to ask what they mean by ‘mental health problems’. There is also a 300% anxiety increase in students since Brexit. Fox described that the best way to show disapproval against Brexit on the university campus was to have open discussions and debates, rather than “collapsing into a heap of anxiety”.

There is no doubt that students are under pressure at university, especially facing upcoming exams and deadlines. But, Fox believes that these pressures should not equal a mental health crisis. In her opinion, the best way forward is to promote open dialogue between everyone, both on and off campus. I agree with this, but I think there is a further question of how to open up people who have previously been resistant to controversial discussions.

When safe spaces and mental health are pathologized in everyday life, it is interesting to look at this combined with identity politics and victimhood. This is the area that causes Fox the most concern. She describes that it is not what is said that is pathologized as such, but more who says it. For instance, many people will say that men are not allowed to discuss rape. According to Fox, an atmosphere of “competitive victimhood” is produced as well. She cites US writer Cathy Young, who describes this phenomenon as “akin to a reverse class system in which a person’s status and worth depends entirely on their perceived oppression and disadvantage”. This brings ‘hierarchies of suffering’ – a fight over who is most oppressed.

One of the founders of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, Ntokozo Qwabe (a law student in Oxford), made a visit to South Africa a few years ago, and refused to give the white waitress a tip. Instead, he wrote on the bill that she could have a tip “when you return the land”, making his point of racial repression. Amidst backlash Qwabe defended his actions, stating that “even if she’s working-class…by virtue of her skin colour she is privileged” and “there is no such thing as an oppressed white person”. The point Fox makes is that an Oxford scholar from a privileged background decided that the white waitress in South Africa was working-class and ‘lower down the order’. For Fox, the prospect of having privilege through victimhood is very disconcerting in the modern day.

Overall, Claire Fox’s discussion on whether the term Generation Snowflake is an accurate slogan for our generation was fascinating. I think she brought up some interesting concepts that deserve to be looked into a lot more by students. I believe that only by opening ourselves up to frank discussions on controversial topics can we begin to shed this slur from our generation.