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The myth of Generation Snowflake: how did "sensitive" become a dirty word?

If my generation are a heap of fragile snowflakes, then the internet is a snow machine – and that's no bad thing.

I don’t remember the exact words my father used to describe my home-made shortbread but they weren’t kind. I was ten years old, I had made the biscuits during my Year Seven cooking class, and for homework I had to ask a family member to taste and “review” my work. A week later, when I peered over at my classmates’ worksheets as we handed in our homework, I realised most of their parents had marked them a respectable but diplomatic seven out of ten. My father, not bothering to shield his disgust, gave me a “four”.

I wasn’t raised wrapped in bubble wrap. My parents never once called me “special”. My schools never offered medals for participation. I’m telling you this not so that you feel sorry for me (do, though) but because, by popular logic, my upbringing should have made me tough as old boots. I’m not. I sobbed uncontrollably at 4am on the night Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Go on, say it. I am a snowflake.

For those who have somehow missed this, the insult of the year, a “snowflake” is a young person who is perceived to be too sensitive, easily offended and weak. Not content with insulting us individually, however, baby boomers have also coined the expression “Generation Snowflake” to tar everyone born in the Nineties with the same brush. This definition entered the Collins English Dictionary last year, and can be found, much like a reference to Hitler, in every internet argument.

How can an entire generation be too sensitive? One theory, put forward by Claire Fox, the author of I Find That Offensive!, is that we were all mollycoddled as children. Other writers have argued that “participation medals” (which, incidentally, have been around since ancient Greece) made every last one of us feel entitled to praise.

Fox and her ilk are wrong. No one I know ever got a medal for participation in their youth, and we all got plenty of scraped knees. Yet it is undeniable that we are more sensitive (to my mind, this is not an insult) than earlier generations. Why?

We have the internet to thank for this. I grew up in a town of 6,000 people. Most of them were white and even more of them were old. Collectively, we were outnumbered by the local sheep. As I was never confronted with anyone remotely different from myself, I spent my teenage years thinking that being offensive was the highest form of wit. I didn’t meet a single person who changed my mind – I met thousands. And I met them all online.

Having instant access to millions of different viewpoints at once changed everything. Blogs opened my eyes to experiences outside my own, YouTube videos allowed access to the lives of strangers, and tweets flooded my narrow world with opinions. In particular, the social media project Everyday Sexism – which encourages women to tweet their experiences of normalised ­sexism – made me realise that the street harassment I faced wasn’t just “life”.

Yet if the internet is the reason we all became more empathetic, it is also the reason the “snowflake” myth spread. According to Time magazine, generational nicknames originated “with writers and journalists”, but the internet meant that a term first coined on an obscure blog could quickly spread into mainstream use. “Special snowflake” was used in the Noughties on Tumblr, the social blogging site, to insult those with dyed hair and alternative gender pronouns. It was not until the past couple of years that “snowflake” morphed from someone who thought they were special to someone who was weak and sensitive. How did that happen?

Honestly, the University of East Anglia’s student union probably shouldn’t have branded a local Mexican restaurant “racist” for handing out free sombreros. This (I concede, ridiculous) move opened the way for some of the earliest examples of what we now call fake news: stories of students insisting on trigger warnings and “safe spaces” which were exaggerated far beyond reality, but were believable because of a few, rare instances of “political correctness gone mad”. Last December, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail published a story claiming that the Oxford Student Union had insisted students use the gender-neutral pronoun “ze” instead of “he” or “she”. It later emerged that this was untrue, but the damage had been done.

The internet has allowed both students’ ideas and mainstream disdain of them to spread beyond university walls. Students have, by and large, been progressive to a fault, but social media allows outsiders an insight into their world. When Asa Dunbar stood on a Harvard University dining chair in 1766 and declared, “Behold, our butter stinketh!— Give us therefore, butter that stinketh not,” there was no Facebook on which
Terry from Surrey Quays could call him a “lazy, entitled snowflake”, followed by the angry face emoticon.

It was in June last year that the term “Generation Snowflake” was given its greatest boost, when a Daily Mail article described us as “a fragile, thin-skinned younger generation that can’t cope with conflicting views, let alone criticism”. From that point on, the right-wing media ran with the insult. Last week, Michael Gove used it to describe anyone who was offended or irritated by Boris Johnson comparing the French president, François Hollande, to a Nazi guard.

Social media allowed my generation to become more sensitive and also allowed exaggerated myths about our sensitivity to spread. If we are snowflakes, the internet is a snow machine. Now, we must use online networks collectively to adopt our pejorative nickname and wear it as a badge of pride. If that fails, at least the internet offers up a few decent shortbread recipes.

Amelia Tait writes for NS.com

Helen Lewis returns next week

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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