“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” Tyler Durden
The first time I recall hearing anyone called a “snowflake” was in the 1999 film “Fight Club,” based on the 1996 eponymous novel by Chuck Palahniuk. It was just the kind of thing that the antihero Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, would say.
It would be nearly two decades before I heard the expression used again. This time, the setting wasn’t a movie but a college campus, specifically, Yale University. The occasion was a dispute between some students and Erika Christakis, a lecturer in Early Childhood Education, and her husband Nicholas, a professor and the Faculty Head of Sillman College.
In October 2015, Erika Christakis sent a memo to some of her colleagues saying that people should chill out when it came to other people’s Halloween costumes. Quoting her husband, she wrote “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Some students were — what else? — offended and demanded both of the Christakis’ resignations. A video of students haranguing Nicholas Christakis went viral, and the expression “snowflake,” as in “Generation Snowflake,” re-entered the lexicon.
Stories like this one and the “food fight” at Oberlin College over “culinary cultural appropriation,” i.e., ersatz Asian food in the cafeteria, have made “snowflakes” an expression almost entirely associated with people, especially Millennials and “Generation Z,” on the left side of the political spectrum. It’s part of a rhetorical toolkit that includes “political correctness” and “social justice warriors.”
This has led many people to infer that “snowflakism,” and the emotional fragility and intolerance that is associated with it, is the result of liberal/progressive ideology. Stated differently, while not all liberals/progressives are snowflakes, all snowflakes are liberals/progressives or at least their grievances have their origins in liberal/progressive ideas such as “identity politics” or what NYU professor Jonathan Haidt calls the “social justice religion.”
This is only true if you define “snowflakes” very narrowly: those who take offense and react emotionally to violations of the norms of “social justice” or “political correctness,” in particular those relating to issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation/gender identity.
But it only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that if a “snowflake” is someone who takes offense and reacts emotionally to ideas and expressions that violate norms they hold dear then the universe of “snowflakes” extends far beyond adherents to Haidt’s “social justice religion.”
Case in point, the new book “Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities” by demographer Eric Kaufmann of the University of London. In anticipation of the book’s release the Times of London couldn’t resist having some fun at the expense of “snowflakes” on British campuses: “You can imagine university libraries around the country getting their trigger warnings ready for the arrival of [Whiteshift].”
But British university students aren’t the only people being “triggered.” To grossly oversimplify Kaufmann’s 600-page argument, he attributes the rise of right-wing populism, e.g., Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the success of parties like Germany’s AfD, etc., to the “demographic anxiety” felt by the white majority in countries undergoing rapid demographic change.
Kaufmann, much like David Frum in the Atlantic magazine, argues that we not only need to take this anxiety seriously but that doing so requires giving serious consideration to reducing immigration levels as a way of avoiding a more extreme response. The title of Frum’s piece captures the essence of the argument: “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will.”
Let’s bracket the implicit threat in this argument — “Give anxious whites what they want or they will subvert liberal democracy” — and focus on the question of what is making people anxious. As Kaufmann acknowledges, there is very little factual basis for fears about immigration-related “terrorism, crime, or unemployment.” And when you examine the data closely it becomes clear that these fears are not driving the aforementioned anxiety.
What is driving the anxiety is what Kaufmann calls the fact of “ethno-cultural change.” It isn’t necessary to have any personal experience, adverse or otherwise, of this change to cause someone to move to feel the anxiety and change their political views, not only about immigration but also on other seemingly unrelated issues.
To put it in terms that a conservative media outlet would use if the topic was an analogous phenomenon on a college campus, the mere knowledge that, in this case, the United States is becoming more racially and/or ethnically diverse is enough to trigger these folks.
If “Generation Snowflake’s” berating of Nicholas Christakis made them “snowflakes,” then the same can be said of the guy in New York who was set off by restaurant workers speaking Spanish to each other or the woman who berated two women for speaking Spanish in a grocery store.
As at Yale, someone witnessed something they didn’t like and instead of looking the other way or expressing their displeasure in a calm and reasoned way, they went straight to angry confrontation.
While you may say “these people are outliers and hardly representative of Kaufmann’s “White Majority,” the same is true of the students at Yale who demanded the Christakis’ resignations. They’re all “snowflakes.”
And not just them. The Christian cultural bubble is every bit, if not more, the “safe space” as places like Yale or even Middlebury.
What happened at Middlebury was pathetic. Part of an education worthy of the name is engaging with new ideas and perspectives and before you can engage with an idea you must be exposed to it. By pre-emptively canceling an appearance by Ryszard Legutko, Middlebury officials failed not only the students who wanted to hear what Legutko had to say but especially those who did not.
But what would happen if a student group at a conservative Christian college decided to invite, say, Anthony Romero, the Executive Director of the ACLU to address their group? Or Pete Buttigieg? I’m not talking about a debate. I’m talking about inviting them to hear what they have to say and discuss it with them.
What would be the reaction both on and off campus? Would it be seen and characterized as evidence of incipient apostasy?
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” It’s a standard few of us on either side of the culture war divide meet. Let’s not pretend otherwise.