by Anu Jain
“Snowflake” is a slang term for young adults who are “less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations”. It is often used to refer to millennials, a generation perceived as attention-seeking and easily offended. Snowflakes are accused of shutting down platforms for free speech and believing that the world revolves around them. The term may stem from the idea that physical snowflakes are both unique in structure and typically fragile.
But not everyone supports the use of the term. Some have suggested it is being used to mask the rising mental health crisis sweeping younger generations.
So, what are the key issues in this debate?
Origins of the Term
A. “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same organic and decaying matter as everyone else” - Chuck Palahniuk, Author of ‘Fight Club’
In 2017, Palahniuk claimed credit for coining the term “snowflake”, and even suggested that young adults of the 2010s exhibit a new kind of “Victorianism”. He related the problem to the modern Left, and argued that they are easily offended.
Following on from this, Palahniuk clarified that he did not intend the term to be an insult and that it had nothing to do with fragility or sensitivity. Rather, it was a reaction to the constant praise he had received in the education system, which had rendered him poorly equipped for the real world: “A lifetime of disingenuous, one-size-fits-all praise had kept most of my peers from pushing hard to achieve any actual triumphs, and therefore we had no internal sense of ability or potential.”
B. “No, ‘Snowflake’ as a Slang Term Did Not Begin with ‘Fight Club’” - Merriam-Webster
Other sources indicate that the insult has been used for nearly 150 years, albeit in a very different way. In mid-19th century Missouri, snowflake was used to describe those opposed to the abolition of slavery. The phrase referred to the colour of snow, and how white people were viewed as superior to black people. Snowflakes hoped that slavery would survive America’s civil war. The use of the word in this context has not persisted.
C. The snowflake generation has an “almost belligerent sense of entitlement” - Claire Fox, Author of ‘I Find That Offensive!’
The phrase “Snowflake Generation” was popularised by Fox’s discussion of a 2015 confrontation at Yale University between students and faculty Head of College, Nicholas Christakis. The confrontation arose after a disagreement regarding insensitive Halloween costumes and the degree to which the university should intervene regarding cultural appropriation.
The student outrage was sparked by an email sent by Erika Christakis, who argued that the university was over-policing students’ behaviour, and that students should “look away” if they see costumes that offend them. students need to be wary of culturally-insensitive costumes. Yale students accused Christakis of being culturally insensitive and suggested that she was ignoring racism.
A Highly Politicised Insult
The use of “snowflake” as a political insult was popularised in 2016 during the aftermath of the US presidential elections to refute the views of the Left, who were anti-Trump. The term is also used more broadly by conservatives to target the Left.
A. “The overreaction epidemic that is endemic in the culture, and the implicit calling for censorship by removing the piece, is what should not be allowable, and it should be called out every time SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] ignore the First Amendment.” - Bret Easton Ellis
Campus uproar in both the US and the UK seeks to defend a “no-platforming” policy which prevents speakers with controversial or offensive viewpoints (often conservative ideologies) from speaking at universities. This policy is seen by some as a violation of the First Amendment (right to free speech). Some of the outrages emphasise the “non-PC” (political correctness) points of view delivered by some speakers.
Shutting down speakers in this way may allow Generation Snowflake to live in sheltered bubbles, refusing to engage with anyone holding opposing opinions.
Regardless of whether their opinions are non-PC, critics such as Ellis insist that we must hear arguments that differ from our own in order to learn how to tackle them.
B. “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” - Donald J. Trump
Yet snowflakes can be found all over the political spectrum, even on the Right. Trump was labelled a snowflake following his outrage over Mike Pence being booed during a Broadway performance of Hamilton.
Following this, the Left reclaimed the phrase snowflake, noting the irony of Trump’s claim that the theatre should be a “safe space”. He was deemed the “most special snowflake of all.”
C. “I keep telling anxiety-ridden snowflakes, we’ve never had it so good… so I hope 2020 is the year we start dwelling on the many positives of modern life rather than the negatives.” - Piers Morgan
Morgan adapted the term to describe people who don’t like hot weather and anyone who argued that 2019 was a bad year. He praised a New York Times column and suggested that snowflakes could benefit from reading it.
Are Millennial Stereotypes Stigmatising Mental Health?
Various global recessions, the rising cost of living, insecure work, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic - to name a few - have all contributed to declining mental health among young people. The stereotyping of an entire generation as weak may create stigma around the role of mental health.
A. “Creating safe spaces is good for us, it’s good for our mental health, it’s good for us in terms of preparing and organising, and then when we want to welcome people into our spaces, we can.” - Liv Little, Founder of gal-dem
Young people are turning the feeling that the world isn’t working for them into something positive. The argument that young people are weak is really a “dressed-up way of saying ‘things were better in my day.’” Millennials and Generation Z grew up in a time of vast generational division, and huge political decisions decided by older voters were very different from the views of the young. Young people are living in a difficult economic climate, and are simply trying to change the narrative. It is unfair to characterise them as weak and oversensitive.
B. “It’s never useful to characterise an entire demographic by its extremes. When we go after millennials, we’re really just attacking new sources of workplace anxiety with which we haven’t learned to empathise yet.” - Cary Cooper
Cooper criticised the “snowflake test” - a 30-point pre-screening checklist designed by an American marketing company to weed out whiny, oversensitive, easily offended candidates. Many of the questions were designed to assess the opinions of candidates on issues such as the police, gun control, and America as a whole. The snowflake test fails to understand millennial anxiety (such as a fear of phone calls) and instead subjects an entire generation to ridicule. Often such anxieties arise from the increasing use of newer communication technology (such as Slack, Snapchat and WhatsApp), which have reduced the need for regular phone calls.
Instead, such anxieties warrant more compassionate attention, as they are natural responses to a hostile environment that older generations never had to experience.
C. “The younger generation isn’t oversensitive or ungrateful. It just got handed a raw deal while being lectured that the choice is between reaching the stars and being a failure. Rather than being made to feel shame, perhaps the answer is to fight back.” - Owen Jones
Jones argues that the “snowflake” caricature of millennials could be masking a national mental health crisis. The stereotype of fragility hides the harsh reality of the struggle of younger generations. In the current socio-economic climate, individual self-worth is often defined by success. As a result, material comparison has led to declining self-esteem and mental health of millennials and Generation Z. Rising rents, the gig economy and zero-hour contracts, and various economic crises has contributed to this decline.
Damaging stereotypes of young people who speak up against society stigmatise important issues and may silence those who speak out from fear of being deemed a snowflake.
There is no doubt that the phrases “Generation Snowflake” and “snowflake” are controversial. Their use has been widespread: from ridiculing an entire generation, to belittling all sides of the political spectrum, the term has definitely left its mark.
It is increasingly important that the term not be overlooked, also given the mental health implications of Covid-19. Now more than ever it is crucial not to make sweeping generalisations about young people. The world we live in is far from perfect, and the outrage against outspoken or controversial individuals may seem only natural.