The Snowflake Phenomenon: myth or reality?

16 Jul 2018


I’m narcissistic, lazy, entitled and arrogant. I hate drinking alcohol and having fun, and consequently I am confused and lonely. I would sooner take a picture of my own face and post it on Twitface or Faceache (as my father pithily refers to social media websites) than have a conversation with an actual person. To cap it all off, it’s doubtful that I’ll have sex before I’m 26.


It’s no wonder, then, that Ben Shapiro reckons that “millennials are the worst generation”; clueless about money and politics, unmotivated and yet brimming with misplaced self-esteem, we truly are a bunch of useless snowflakes.


Except, ‘snowflake’ has to be the most irritatingly overused and catch-all retort in the history of political rhetoric.


On the one hand, the term is used to describe those who are sensitive and infantile; Louise Mensch told a 17-year old “if Twitter’s too much for you, try Club Penguin”.


On the other hand, it is also used by older generations who seek to compare the raucous hysteria of their salad days with the old-fogeyish timidity of today’s youth. No problem that they personally preferred Abba, their generation is associated with Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols while ours is so preoccupied with fiscal uncertainty that all we can muster is Ed Sheeran.


Simultaneously more liberal and more conservative than our forebears, we are characterised as being babyish and unprepared for adulthood yet also as sensible and boring.


Ignoring the contradictory nature of the term, glib dismissal of ‘snowflakism’ also results in the unthinking disregard for the ideas that the ‘movement’ represents. Just as “it’s political correctness gone mad” became the go-to phrase of those who were closet racists, sexists or homophobes, there is also a suspicion that calling someone out for being a snowflake is a defence-mechanism for suppressing opinions that collide with a particular (outdated?) worldview.


Supporting the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter, opposing racism and Islamophobia, and worrying about climate change and mental health are characteristics that ought to be admired rather than sneered at by older generations.


Despite all this, I can’t help but feel that there is more than a modicum of truth to the accusations levelled at us. In our attempt to create a culture where nobody is an outsider, we have created one where everyone is a victim.


Take, for example, ‘microaggressions’. The idea that an unconscious comment, uttered innocently, can be categorised as an ‘aggression’ gives far too much power to the right to be offended at the expense of the right to free expression.


Not only does the concept of microaggression rely on the notion that only minority groups are capable of taking offence, it is also “operationally vague to such an extent to be unfalsifiable”, as any statement might conceivably be offensive to someone, somewhere.


The tyranny of ‘cultural appropriation’ is similar. Lionel Shriver, author of ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ said "the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn't belong to us is that there is no fiction." Not only no fiction, but no art or cultural fusion whatsoever. If we have got to the stage where we have to question whether it is appropriate for white people to eat pad thai, then we really need to reassess our priorities.


This sensitivity has extended to modern-day feminism. Terms such as ‘mansplaining’, ‘manspreading’ and ‘manterrupting’ are the result of an excessive preoccupation with personal, insignificant experiences, and which cross the line from attacks on sexism to attacks on men. Is it still possible for a man to explain a concept to a woman without being guilty of ‘mansplaining’?


The no-platform culture at universities is a symptom of the same disease. It beggar belief that students are so insecure about their own convictions that they refuse to let their opponents’ opinions be heard, especially when their opponents are as remarkable or admirable as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was no-platformed by Brandeis University in 2014.


All these trivial preoccupations are made more galling in the light of the very real reasons that millennials ought to be outraged, but to which we, as a generation, pay little attention.


When black undergraduates are being pelted with rotten bananas at university sports fixtures, or students are chanting “we hate the blacks” in university accommodation, should our focus really be on Justin Bieber’s dreadlocks?


When Afghan women are being stoned to death for adultery, and women the world over lack basic human rights, is ‘mansplaining’ the hill that we feminists really want to die on?


When interest rates on students’ loans are set at a scandalous 6% and their lecturers strike and they receive no compensation from their university, should their students’ union really be preoccupied with no-platforming speakers who fail to accord with a particular political agenda?


Much of the origin of the concept of ‘snowflake’ can be traced to Orwell’s observation that “each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that came before it, and wiser than the one that came after it”.


However, amongst the intergenerational angst there is a genuine point to be considered about our tendency to whine, our passivity and our preoccupation with trivial issues. ‘Snowflake’ is a glib, lazy insult; but it would be all too characteristic of my generation to get hung up about it.

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