Snowflake haters won’t like this book, but they might want to stop the name-calling and read it
While the differences across the world between people with conservative views and those with liberal leanings have never in living memory been more pronounced than in the past few years, there seems to be one thing people on opposite ends of the political spectrum have in common: a deep and unshakable disdain for snowflakes.
‘Snowflake” is a word used to refer to people you think are easily offended or upset. It is noted as derogatory in at least one dictionary, which means that when someone calls someone else a snowflake, they mean to insult them.
In her book We Need Snowflakes, the proudly snowflakey Washington Post video reporter Hannah Jewell explains that snowflakes are seen as simultaneously fragile – “weak, coddled and mentally frail” – and very dangerous – to freedom of speech, to tradition, to the old-fashioned culture of suck-it-up-no-matter-how-bad-it-is.
“They make up a mob, but a mob of wussies,” she says.
Think of students protesting about statues and fees, and certain people are bound to tut. Snowflakes are usually young and educated (or trying to be), generally feel themselves to be powerless, but are indignant about wrongs so old that they’ve acquired a veneer of respectability. A snowflake does not bow to the geriatric injustices and, while they can seldom undo ancient wrongdoing by talking about it, they refuse to keep quiet about it the way generations before them did. Snowflakes are breaking various codes of shut-up-and-put-up. For this, they are seen as non-resilient and whiny.
Jewell’s book has not received positive responses in traditional media but is very much liked in online consumer reviews.
This reflects what seems like an unshakable truth of current culture wars: those who want snowflakes to toughen up are fundamentally uninterested in what snowflakes have to say. But they are very interested in how snowflakes communicate inappropriately. Snowflake haters, rather than deal with the thorny topics that underlie snowflake protests about anything at all, prefer to mock and ridicule, or fulminate over, how young people speak. It’s not about what snowflakes say, so much as how they say it, that riles their critics. The same is true for the critics of Jewell’s book, who all take her to task for, in general terms, her lack of temperance in writing.
Jewell’s tone is biting and sarcastic and funny and even her title seems to warn snowflake haters away from her book. Where she stands on the matter is not a secret, nor does she attempt to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes by pretending to present a balanced view on the matter of whether it’s okay to deride snowflakes for their many (often imagined, as her reporting makes clear) misdemeanours against the very fabric of society. It’s absolutely not okay, she says. Wholesale dismissal of young people as silly little cry-babies is a colossal arrogance that indicates a firm refusal to engage with the reasons they might be crying, or shouting, or calling you out on social media for your bad jokes.
Oh, by the way, can you still even make a joke in this day and age? Jewell commits an entire one-word chapter to this question: yes.
If the book’s purpose was to convince snowflake haters to be a little more accommodating, I expect she probably failed before she even sat down to write. And yet, I hope that people who regularly worry about trigger warnings, safe spaces, wokeness and cancel culture will take a deep breath and dive into this very accessible book to look at what – other than just fragile, spoiled young people – could be blamed for apparently unbridgeable generational and attitudinal rifts.
Does it really come down to free speech versus hurt feelings? Do students really make a big fuss over nothing, or might it be that people in traditional media make big fusses over nothing?
The reporting on a several well-known cases of what is seen as preposterous snowflakery – including the famous case of Oxford students “demanding” that audiences use jazz hands instead of clapping to spare sensitive types – indicate that if there is a dearth of anything at all, it is the journalistic tradition of fact checking.
In the Oxford clapping case, the Student Union’s vice-president for welfare and equal opportunities, Róisin McCallion, had been approached by the chair of the union’s disabilities campaign about seconding a motion to encourage the use of British Sign Language clapping. Some students with hearing aids couldn’t hear due to ringing after the applause at every motion’s passing at student meetings and had stopped going to meetings. Seeing this as a disability accessibility issue, McCallion agreed. “My view was,” she told the author, “if some of our disabled students don’t feel that they can come to council, that’s bad. Disabled people are underrepresented within politics, and I want to make our political system at the university as accessible as possible.”
This action – which seems like a forward-thinking, rational course for making student politics accessible to all students – was hysterically reinterpreted by the press as wanting to ban clapping and enforce “jazz hands” at public events.
None of this was reported in mainstream media, which preferred to lament how delicate and pathetic students had become.
In another case, the lack of attention to journalistic fact checking and ethics was particularly ironic. A journalism student had written an article, as part of a class assignment, about students who were unhappy with cafeteria food. Particularly food that was presented as Asian, for instance, but bore almost no resemblance and had very few of the original ingredients used in Asian dishes. The story was run in the university’s newspaper, the Oberlin Review. Cafeteria managers read the article, met students and undertook to do better. In other words, this was an example of journalism doing good work.
Six weeks later, however, a right-wing tabloid newspaper picked up the story and embroidered it, no doubt to cash in on the general antipathy towards troublesome students and what is seen as their unreasonable demands. The outrage the story fired up beyond the university led to it being run in several liberal mainstream newspapers that are generally seen as well-balanced and careful.
The student journalist’s lecturer, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, responded to the debacle in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, of all the national and international outlets drumming up clicks and outrage around the sushi story, “No one called. No one.”
It is hard to credit the level of abuse the writer of the original “bad cafeteria sushi” article had to put up with. She is a woman – strike one as far as internet trolls are concerned. She is of Asian American descent – strike two (not white) and strike three (not “American enough”, whatever that is). For weeks she was abused in a filthy manner and, it must be said, completely unjustly, simply because a tabloid journalist decided to slightly twist reality to suit the current fashion for snowflake hating.
Jewell’s book provides an insightful antidote to headlines that play on the trope of the delicate, lazy and easily offended young person.
Language, despite the childhood singsong about sticks-and-stones and words doing no harm, has been shown in various research projects and in trauma science to have enormous physical power. Words can literally – physically – change a brain. An article in Scientific American explains: “Just as extensive diving can change our pupils, and exercise can change our bodies, so can mental activity, such as learning and using language, shape the physical structures of our brains.”
Understanding the limits of your language means understanding the limits of your world. In Speaking and Being, the writer Kürba Gümüşay says we should be glad to learn of our limitations because they might prevent us “from looking at the world only in the light of immutable principles and assumptions”.
Younger generations are far more resilient, creative and resourceful than they’re given credit for, Jewell demonstrates. Simply writing people off as “snowflakes” in the “woke brigade”, is an assumption that says more about the speaker than about so-called snowflakes.
Name-calling is – apart from being destructive to healthy communication – childish. You’d think that the generation inclined to comment on “young people these days” would know that, and refrain. If nothing else than to model dignified behaviour to the very people whose laments they consider undignified. DM/MC/ML
We Need Snowflakes by Hannah Jewell is published by Coronet (an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton)
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations