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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

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

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.