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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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