This has got to be the own goal of the year. Millennials want people to stop calling them ‘snowflakes’ because it is an unfair term of abuse that damages their mental health. Get your head round that if you can. In response to the accusation that they’re soft, oversensitive and too easily wounded by words and ideas, young adults are effectively saying: ‘No we aren’t. And if you keep saying we are, we will be plunged into mental despair.’ There aren’t enough faces and palms in the world to express the exasperation such a self-defeating defence deserves.
This epic self-own was uncovered in research by Aviva. It surveyed 2,022 Brits aged between 16 and 24 and found that three quarters of them think the snowflake jibe is ‘unfair’. They also said that hearing this jibe might ‘negatively affect their mental health’. Which proves it is not unfair! Their very discomfort with the snowflake label demonstrates why the snowflake label feels so apt. The idea that mere words, mere terms, could harm one’s mental health is the very definition of ‘snowflakeism’. ‘Stop calling us snowflakes’, say snowflakes.
‘Snowflake’ has become the go-to putdown for those frustrated or irritated by the super-sensitivity of many young adults today. Something is clearly amiss when millennials will ban sombreros for fear of offending Latinos; switch off pop songs they judge to be too lusty; hound off campus any speaker who says Islam isn’t wonderful or Caitlyn Jenner is still a man; demand trigger warnings on Shakespeare lest his occasional mentions of rape or murder startle and bruise their self-esteem; create ‘safe spaces’ in which redtops may not be read, certain words may not be said, and where even using ‘hand gestures which denote disagreement’ is frowned upon (they could make the person being disagreed with feel bad). Many millennials now behave like the censorious stiffs and sex-allergic squares that earlier generations of young adults stood up to.
And, strikingly, they justify their weird authoritarianism, their clamour for censorship, in the language of mental health. Everything from the controversy-deflecting safe space forcefield they have surrounded themselves with to their drawing up of blacklists of unacceptable speakers is presented as a necessary measure to guard their fragile feelings from plunder by rough thinkers or scurrilous commentary.
They have helped to facilitate a new era of therapeutic censorship. In the past we had religious censorship and political censorship, designed to protect gods or ideologies from contemptuous, reviling or simply critical thought. Now we have mental-health censorship, designed to ensure no individual ever has to encounter, or even be in the same space as, an idea, word or image that might rattle his mind or shake up his soul. This new censorship is, if anything, worse than the old censorships, because it’s so much more subjective, and unwieldy, and rampant. We’re all little Jesuses now, deserving of our own private blasphemy law. The Aviva survey findings unwittingly speak to this new insecure, stifling climate: the claim that a word could negatively impact on mental health confirms both the fragility and the instinct for silencing among the footsoldiers of therapeutic censorship.
As it happens I don’t like the word ‘snowflake’. I think it is shallow and ahistoric. It has become to the right what the cry of ‘fascist!’ has become to the left: a catch-all brand designed to write off whole groups as wrong or stupid. It implies that the very large problem of today’s victim culture and casual censorship is the handiwork of a bunch of super-fragile 20-year-olds, when in fact it has been growing for decades. But if youngsters want people to stop using the term, the worst thing they can say is: ‘It makes me mentally unwell!’ Far better to prove you aren’t ‘snowflakes’ by never, ever allowing any person or idea to be silenced in your name.