Anyone with the slightest understanding of rhetoric will know that insults are rarely persuasive. Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ comment was hardly likely to endear her to wavering voters. Likewise, when decent people with genuine misgivings about the European Union were smeared as racist in the run-up to the referendum, a victory for the Leave campaign was secured.
The same could be said for the epithet ‘snowflake’, now synonymous with a certain type of censorial university student. We can all agree that illiberalism is on the rise in UK campuses: spiked’s latest Free Speech University Rankings makes that abundantly clear. But complaints about the ‘snowflake generation’ aren’t going to change anything. As a rhetorical strategy, it’s right up there with Jim Jefferies telling Piers Morgan to ‘fuck off’. The impulse is natural enough, but it’s ultimately counterproductive.
That is not to deny that emotional fragility among students is a growing concern. Anyone in any doubt about this should read Peter Gray’s article on the subject for Psychology Today, or, better still, talk to any lecturer. Whereas students in previous generations sought to reject the in loco parentis approach of university administrators, many students today are turning to authority figures to solve their problems. That said, we need to recognise that millennials are the products of an over-pampering culture. If anyone is to be criticised for this increasing trend of hypersensitivity, surely it should be the older generations who allowed these conditions to flourish in the first place.
The snowflake slur became commonplace around November 2015, after Erika Christakis, a professor and head of Silliman College at Yale, sent an email questioning the wisdom of banning certain types of Halloween costumes. We all know what happened next because it was captured on camera and shared widely on social media. The Yale students clustered around Christakis’ husband in the college quad in order to berate him. One particularly shrill undergraduate is heard screaming: ‘It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!’ Her peers click their fingers approvingly, because applause is a potential ‘trigger’.
It is difficult to feel anything but contempt for this kind of behaviour, coming as it does from some of the most privileged members of society. The same can be said for the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University, where a group of students declared that the statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College made them feel ‘unsafe’, and called for the Grade II* listed building to be irrevocably changed.