The Snowflake Debate
Millennials, a.k.a ‘Generation snowflake’, the avocado-loving Instagramers responsible for censoring free speech. These are just some of the myths perpetuated by the media about the younger generations, now homogenised by the stamp ‘Millennial’. This umbrella term has come to denote many things, but what does ‘Generation snowflake’ really mean?
In a 2018 article The Sun defined the term, as “young people who think they are special and unique, like real snowflakes”. According to them, the “term is used to describe an overly sensitive person who thinks the world revolves around them. Snowflakes gasp in horror when they hear an opinion they don’t like”.
It may be impossible to ignore the familiar hyperbolic intonations common to the publication, yet the colloquial tone masks a far darker message. Not a far cry from the ‘political correctness gone mad’ line often cited by the right, this view of the younger generation’s drive towards grass-roots activism only serves to dismantle the work many put into staying informed, or ‘woke’.
It is true that the younger generations are more open to speaking about the harm caused by certain topics of conversation, and the mental damage it may cause those affected. It is also true that misogyny and racism often masquerades as ‘free speech’ rhetoric, which it is imperative for us to unmask. Our editors weigh in on the ‘snowflake’ debate after a recent debate at the ACCA, which tackled the issue head on.
There is an overwhelming feeling that pervades young people: we need to have a huge impact on how the world works. It’s ingrained in our society, through the extensive use of social media, that we need to be #livingourbestlife. This intense desire to make a change, with the tool of social media, gives young people, and others, the platform to do just this.
The idea that we are all living our best lives, which is portrayed through photos on the Internet, is deeply flawed. This phenomenon perpetuates unrealistic ideas of how a millennial should be living. Whether that’s entering the property market, getting a promotion at work, or being increasingly popular on Instagram. These notions create feelings of anxiety and depression for many young people, which is could be why the words ‘sensitivity’ and ‘offended’ are being coined to describe our generation. Yet what is the impact on us millennials?
The term itself entered the populace during the tumultuous events of 2016, including the EU Referendum results in which a divide became apparent between younger and older generations. It then proceeded to be added to the OED in January 2018.
Derogatory, informal: An overly sensitive or easily offended person, or one who believes they are entitled to special treatment on account of their supposedly unique characteristics.
- ‘these little snowflakes will soon discover that life doesn’t come with trigger warnings’
- ‘these parents think their kid is such a special snowflake that they should be allowed to circumvent the rules’
Do we complain, or get easily offended, and yet sit there and do nothing about it? Or are we too overly offended and make a change on something that doesn’t need to be changed, i.e. Kleenex scrapping of man-size tissues, or an article last month by the BBC titled, ‘Should women be spelt womxn?’
The most common searches of Generation Snowflake have come from universities, where the Independent last month addressed the issue surrounding fancy dress. The University of Kent’s student union wanted to ban offensive fancy dress such as Tories, chavs and cowboys. The article stated that this provoked ‘an angry response from students’. So where is the ‘snowflakiness’ here? The student union wanting to ban these outfits, or other students being furious at this ban?
The confusion surrounding the term ‘Generation Snowflake’ begs the question of whether it is even a real thing. It seems to have been built up in the media, constructed to criticize the power of young people’s’ voices in today’s society, alongside the power of the Internet and social media. Many people, millennials included, have probably never even heard of the term. This seemed to be the general feeling at the ACCA’s first ‘The Exchange’ event that took place on Thursday 15th October.
The Exchange encompasses live events and digital content to spark ideas and perspectives, ranging in and out of the university, about current social and political topics. It is a place to think critically and challenge viewpoints. And what better way to start the series of events with a millennial standoff.
Yet, as previously stated, the overall feeling from the event stemmed from whether this should have even been a term in the first place. Most of the panelists seemed confused by the term itself, questioning the generation generalization, but also the progressing society in where you have the freedom to be offended and make a change.
Solomon Curtis stated on Thursday evening that the term and topic is an elite discussion in an elite bubble with little relevance to what is happening in our society. The debate isn’t whether we are snowflakes, its why was this term even formed into existence.
Reflecting on a previous article featuring an interview with Gina Martin, she held a firm belief that injustice against women was being played out in society. Was she sensitive about the subject of upskirting? Yes. Did she do something about it to make a change? Yes.
From the activism of this woman alone, I think this is a pretty good indication of our generation continuing to fight the equality and justice in Britain and across the world that is now ‘snowflakey’.
The panelists themselves, hosted by Dr Sharif Mowlabocus, a Senior Lecturer in Media and Digital Media at the University of Sussex included a brilliantly diverse range of young people seeking to make differences in the world:
Solomon Curtis, an engaging speaker with skills in political communication and social enterprise, who was also a Labour Candidate for MP, Brighton Pavilion last year;
Alon Harshak, a freelance educator and researcher supporting young people, refugees and asylum seekers;
Grace Campbell, a writer, comedian and activist, who co-founded The Pink Protest and wrote and starred in Riot Girls on Channel 4;
Edward Wilson, a current student at Sussex who participated in the free speech society Liberate the Debate as well as holding the position of vice-president of the conservative society.
With three out of four panelists being a former or current university of Sussex student, these people are showing their innovation into the world, and precisely how this term generation snowflake is potentially irrelevant.
These vibrant panelists are young people seeking to change the way the world works by their views and their ways of thinking. They all participate in societal and political issues to become stronger members in society. Solomon and Alon have been involved in working with young people for many years, and Grace has used her comedic abilities to make light of injustices in society in her Channel 4 programme Riot Girls.
The term ‘Generation Snowflake’ with its assumptions of complaining, offending and laziness is not what is reflecting in the millennials we see on the news, and particularly within our communities. Campaigns and organisations around the UK dealing with gun and knife crime, refugees, domestic abuse, and environmental matters, all have significantly high numbers in the amount of young people working and volunteering. The term is yet to provide any relevancy in our day-to-day lives.
‘Generation Snowflake: Fact or Fiction?’, which took place at the ACCA, explored a question that has been debated greatly in recent years: is the younger generation overly sensitive? It is widely regarded, particularly within the media, that millennials are easily offended for trivial reasons, hence the term ‘snowflake’; the younger generation supposedly believe that they are more and unique than others. However the debate highlighted that the issue is not quite as two dimensional as this.
The debate opened with several video clips of Sussex students voicing their opinions on the topic. Statements ranged from, ‘generation snowflake is true in some respects as we have more access to information telling us what is politically correct’, and, ‘I think we are easily offended but we’re also more accepting’, to ‘it’s a way of putting down informed people; you shouldn’t chastise people for having an interest in the wider world around them’.
It was generally regarded amongst the panel, with the occasional exception of Wilson, who stated that sometimes we have to just ‘crack on with things’, that ‘generation snowflake’ is a fictional construct. Curtis argued that the term has been ‘created by the media’, and Harshak added to this by suggesting that it is in fact ‘society that has the problem’ and not young people. Campbell then stated that ‘I really don’t think that generation snowflake is a real thing’.
The four panellists discussed the problematic nature of the term ‘generation’. Wilson highlighted that it is not only our generation that can be sensitive, and Campbell continued to state that the term ‘snowflake’ is one that is ‘used to minimize young people and shut them up’, and even went as far to say that those who apply the term to young people are in fact those who are afraid of the power the younger generation possesses.
Another key discussion that took place within the debate was that of freedom of speech and echo chambers. Wilson believed that if we deny somebody’s right to an opinion on the basis that we disagree, or are offended by it, this defeats the point of free speech. Therefore the argument was made that even though we may disagree with someone, they should still be allowed a platform to voice their opinions.
It was highlighted by all panelists that when we only interact with those who harbour similar opinions to our own, an echo chamber is formed, which may defeat the point of democratic discussion, by not allowing for engagement with alternative views. Campbell, in agreement with the other panelists, stated that denying certain people platforms ‘closes conversation and causes divisions’.
This raises the issue that whilst interaction with a variety of opinions is a good thing, some opinions may spread views that encourage inequality, intolerance and even violence. Wilson was adamant that banning speakers from Universities, which has been seen at intuitions such as Bristol University, in order to avoid causing any students offence is solely negative in that it reduces free speech, and argued that this behaviour could be labeled as somewhat ‘snowflakey’.
Yet Harshak argued that despite the importance of free speech, ‘we still need to be careful as not to spread intolerance’, as language can easily be translated into acts of violence. Campbell also pointed out that ‘we should be allowed to be offended’ at comments and actions that spread intolerance, and to label someone a ‘snowflake’ for being offended is to deny that person their right to stand up to inequality and intolerance.
Controversy surrounding potentially offensive comedy and the ‘overly sensitive’ reactions of millennials was further explored, questioning whether or not we have the right to be offended at jokes. People are often labeled as ‘snowflakes’ if they take offense to something that was intended as a joke. Yet even small acts such as jokes may become part of a bigger, more harmful culture, such as rape culture.
Finally, the debate turned to the important topic of mental health within the younger generation, as sometimes it is said that the high prevalence of depression, anxiety and other issues in young people is a result of there being a lack of resilience amongst them. Mental health issues affect approximately one quarter of all young people, and all panelists held the belief that struggling with mental health was not a sign of weakness and it’s wrong to criticise the younger generation for this.
Campbell and Wilson both suggested that previous generations had also suffered from mental health ‘epidemics’, but a public discourse had not yet been formed around the topic. They then stated that it was actually a positive thing that the younger generation has a more open discourse surrounding mental health, and is not ‘snowflake behaviour’.
Ultimately, the debate did not come to a solid conclusion as to whether ‘generation snowflake’ is a factual or fictional concept, however the overall consensus seemed to be that we cannot generalise such a large group of people in this fashion. Whilst engaging with those who have different viewpoints to ourselves is a positive thing, we do have the right to be offended by discourses that spread intolerance and violence.
Following the debate, a selection of students were asked how they feel about ‘generation snowflake’ after listening to a variety of opinions surrounding the topic. One student said that ‘I found the debate to be eye opening and engaging. It highlighted ideas of hypersensitivity in the youth, the impact of the media and the conflict between freedom of speech and ‘no platforming’, both online and in university contexts’.
Another student said that ‘the debate, whilst interesting, didn’t change any of my pre-existing opinions on the issue. The term ‘generation snowflake’ has no relevance outside the media, and to me is often just used by the right wing as a snide insult to undermine oppositional views which may pose a threat to them’.
One of our features editors, Mollie Lindsay-Bush, stated that ‘social media, online newsfeeds and the Internet in general has a huge effect on everyone, not just on the younger generation. Everyone is capable of finding something offensive. We are living in an increasingly diverse society where crucial issues such as institutional racism and period poverty are being tackled, but these changes do not happen overnight. People need to continue to act in order to avert these crises. If the media is more concerned about highlighting menial topics such as the debate over man size tissues, they are creating a bigger fiasco than the ‘snowflake generation’ itself’.
What has been highlighted here is that the media often focuses on trivial topics when applying the ‘snowflake’ label to younger generations, and ignore the fact that young people are actually doing a great deal to fight for equality and tolerance. When it comes to institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice, we have every right to take offence. What is considered as ‘snowflake’ behaviour by the media might actually be progressive and may be helping to create a fairer, more tolerant society.
When people talk about ‘political correctness gone mad’ I have to laugh. Being politically correct is just being a decent human being. When I hear old daily fail readers complaining about this generation, I think it’s just their way of feeling better about themselves.
Language is the most powerful tool we have. We can use our voices to make change, to speak out for ourselves and others, and that’s important. The idea of labelling our generation in this way is a way to discredit our attempts to make the world a better place through the little things we can do. If you can start a movement for change from your bedroom, then why wouldn’t you want to? If you can stop using a certain word and it will improve someone’s life, then why wouldn’t you try?
There is a concept which still permeates our culture that says we must suffer to succeed. Our generation is calling that out for the ludicrous lie it is. We are stepping up to say that we don’t want to let each other suffer. We aren’t just waiting around for gradual change – we’re going out and making it happen.
Why is snowflake the descriptor? That’s the derogatory term used to explain away our attention to uniqueness. They call us snowflakes because we want to be treated as individuals and to treat every individual with respect. So sure, we’re a snowflake generation. We can celebrate each other’s uniqueness without resorting to identity politics. We fight against prejudices and are working tirelessly to get rid of discrimination. We are willing to change our language and actions in small ways to make a big change.
That’s not something negative in my opinion – it’s something to be proud of. You want to call me a snowflake? Go ahead. I’d rather be a snowflake than be so caught up in wanting to defend my own hatred that I choose to write off another generation.