In her pithy, ebullient addition to Biteback Publishing’s Provocations series, Claire Fox makes a rousing appeal to Generation Snowflake to throw off their bubble wrap and embrace the liberating responsibilities of adult life. To those of us born before 1980, it is mind-boggling that the age-old wisdom Fox dispenses in her book should be considered ‘provocative,’ or offensive, at all. Consequently, older readers like myself who have not yet been completely lobotomised by the culture of adult colouring books and naval-gazing ‘mindfulness’ can almost smell the author’s refreshing pasquinade lurking in the subtext of each page.
Fox launches her manifesto with a prologue ‘Tale of Two Schools’. The first of her tales recounts the furious blowback she endured when she led a discussion on free speech post-Charlie Hebdo. The second tells of her attempt to debate the motion, ‘Ched Evans: social justice or mob rule?’ At both speaking engagements, Fox was confronted by teenage pupils adamant that viewpoints contrary to their own are a cause of serious harm and who felt belligerently entitled to have their feelings given precedence above all else. However, Fox is not content to sneer at the younger generation by dubbing them ‘snowflakes’ and cry-babies because it would not account for epic scale at which this prickly tendency to take offence is spreading. She delves deeper into the new cultural norm of fragility and its privileging of victimhood to identify root causes.
Fox’s book is divided into three sections. The first is a thorough survey of the contemporary offence scene in Britain and America. This is followed by a chapter on the older generation’s contributions to this trend, through insidious therapeutic educational interventions and industries that promote endless new pathologies and narcissistic tendencies in the young. The third and final section is a stirring ‘letter to a generation,’ which challenges the young cry-bullies to adopt a more authentic form of rebellion, and offers to their critical peers (generation anti-snowflake) a ‘new model of personhood’ and ‘a new philosophy of freedom’.
Fox recalls how, before the corpses of the Charlie Hebdo journalists had even grown cold, many who had initially supported the journalists and defended the principle of free expression had U-turned to denouncing the cartoons as inflammatory and offensive, implying that the Hebdo staff were to blame for the violent consequences. The culture of censoriousness on campus, from the no-platforming of progressive left stalwarts like Germain Greer and Peter Tatchell, to the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign at Oriel College, Oxford, is, claims Fox, only an extension of the chilling climate in which refusal to parrot the orthodox script results in excommunication from the public arena. So low has the tolerance bar fallen that one no longer has even to be conscious of her own ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘homophobia’, ‘cis-sexism’ or ‘Islamophobia’ in order to be guilty of these thought crimes. An entire ‘microaggressions theory’ has sprung up to diagnose your unconscious bias and to legitimise the victims’ macro-aggrieved feelings. Orwellian-styled British hate-speech legislation only bolsters this imbalance between victim and perpetrator by defining the latter’s ‘hate speech’ as any speech that someone else claims is racist, irrespective of the speaker’s intentions or the context of his speech. Who needs blasphemy law when we’ve got this? Effectively, such a law opens the door to freewheeling, arbitrary, and infinite re-definition of terms like ‘racism’, so that in the future it could feasibly encompass just about anything. This is particularly worrying because, if racism means everything, then it ceases to mean anything. Anti-racism should be a vivid, living ethic, not a dead dogma that we unthinkingly apply more promiscuously than a two-peckered Billy goat.
Fox observes how today’s self-defined victims acquire perverse authority through adopting their ‘oppressed’ status, to the extent that even mild criticism of their beliefs is tantamount to hate speech, effectively giving them or their beliefs special immunity. In the politicised version of this, notes Fox, oppressed groups, historically denied equal rights, all too often cast themselves as perennial victims. Thus the legitimate progressive ideal of universal equal treatment has degenerated into apolitical victim privileging.
Whereas past liberation struggles focused on the aim of uniting people across cultural, gender, ethnic and religious lines, today’s pseudo-progressives relentlessly compete to out-rank one another for cultural recognition, using victimhood as currency for resources and power. For veteran leftist social justice activists, the ease with which the younger generation of would-be progressives fall into the trap of divide-and-rule in-fighting is vexing. While the illiberal puppeteers pull the strings, the “liberal” puppets are so smugly ensconced in their roles that they imagine themselves to be speaking their own lines. What they are really doing is accomplishing regressive reactionaries tasks for them: destroying liberalism from within.
A good example Fox cites in her book is the vicious unrelenting civil war between (rather than against) feminists on social media, as women’s movements splinter into ever pettier, narrower identity grouplets. Additional erosion of leftist politics can be seen in multiculturalism’s annexation of anti-racism. With state support linked to identities, Fox cites a case where a group of mainly ethnic minority women artists was ‘encouraged’ to self-identify as a Muslim group and subsequently focus their output on Islamophobia (none of them were religious) in order to merit consideration for future funding. Then there was the feminist organization that allied itself with a group of men from the Islamic Society who wanted to shut down ex-Muslim feminist and human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie when she attempted to address the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society at Goldsmiths University of London. If the Muslim men really felt that their “safety” was threatened by Namazie’s speech, wouldn’t it have been easier to not attend a meeting that was intended for secular humanists anyway? What they wanted was to ensure that not even humanists could not listen to Namazie, not that they be protected from her impious discourse. The bigger picture, though Fox does not spell it out, is that ‘multiculturalism’ trumps all other progressive left values when they conflict, as they have consistently done ever since “diversity” became the new orthodoxy from which no one may differ. Since religious authoritarianism flies under the ‘multiculturalist’ banner, waving it will ensure fast-track entry into the public members area, while liberal values must politely stand aside.
Fox is not alone in her analysis of toxic identity politics. She cites cultural commentators from US writer Cathy Young, to the Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch, University of British Columbia professor Graham Good and Kenan Malik. All have noted, in various ways, a trend towards inverting old hierarchies of power so that a person’s perceived oppression and disadvantage grant them superior institutional status or state support. No longer do we appeal to universal human reason to win an argument. Having a better argument is less important than being the right type of person. It is a kind of ad hominem fallacy in reverse. What one says is less important than who says it.
Fox observes that those without sufficient victim status try to compensate by overzealously empathising with victim groups, as though other people’s suffering might rub off some credibility. According to her, this explains the escalating trend for privileged liberals to be especially offended on behalf of victim groups and dress it up as a form of social justice political activism. Many of those traditionally associated with left-wing movements have hopped on this bandwagon, resulting in a pre-emptory refusal to criticise migrants that has chilled discussion and paralysed intervention in cases such as the sexual exploitation of young girls in Rotherham and Oldham. Self-censorship is rife on issues that are perceived as ‘culturally sensitive’, from FGM and child marriage to religious satire. Nowadays, older liberals need an offence lexicon to navigate the endlessly expanding victim-centred speech-crime minefield.
Making victimhood into a valued social commodity has also led to an endless search for it, resulting in screwball scenarios where professional minority fakers and fraudsters cash in on what author Michelle Malkin describes as the ‘cult of oppression chic’. Fox cites the Black Lives Matter campaign’s own Shaun King, the scourge of white privilege, who was disgraced when his own supporters conceded that his birth certificate shows he is white, despite passing as a person of colour. Then there was the bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal who built her entire career as an African-American civil rights activist despite being born Caucasian. Interestingly, Dolezal only began to ‘identify as black’ after losing a lawsuit against Howard university for anti-white discrimination.
So who or what generated these susceptible students anyway? Fox points the finger at us – their elders – for socialising the snowflakes in a culture of health and safety mania in which we demonise life’s challenges and obsess on health scares and child protection. All of this over-protection of children by a risk-averse culture that pathologises both social challenges and young people’s state of mind, has blurred the line between physical and psychological harm. Perhaps the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who led relatively ‘free-range’ childhoods watched too many Hollywood disaster movies about endangered kids and heroic parents. Perhaps their offspring, born after 1980, got a consistent message that life is dangerous. But adults will do everything in their power to protect them from harm. Hysterical zeal for children’s safety has become cliché, spiralling into an outright moral panic in which the child protection industry actively encourages children to see potential abuse everywhere.
Until very recently, liberals have followed J.S. Mill in defining ‘mental harm’ rather narrowly. Mill, the architect of liberal political philosophy, did not deny that there is such a thing as ‘mental harm’. He saw mental harm as involving impairment of an individual’s development, for example, in refusing to let children have an education. He regarded this as much more serious than merely having one’s feelings hurt (which often does help us to develop). He also understood harm as something that happens against our will. When we find someone offensive we can avoid them and continue our lives with no damage done. As for the claim that we are harmed by the mere existence of people who live in ways of which we disapprove, Mill’s response is that our ‘interest’ in not being offended is relatively less important than our interest in not being physically injured, detained, or criminally deceived. Claire Fox urges her readers to get back to this more robust understanding of ‘harm’ – one that eschews promiscuously applying it to everything from legitimate parental discipline to proper academic pressure. Children’s charities and NGOs, in constantly broadening definitions of abuse, actively encourage children to be suspicious of such harmless interactions and tensions as ‘being pressurised or manipulated into making decisions’ or when someone (like a parent) ‘tries to control you or push you too hard’. Many youngsters would, if adults let them, claim that having to get out of bed in the morning, let alone revise for exams, constitutes being ‘pushed too hard’. Nowadays questionnaires encourage children to examine all of their everyday interactions through the prism of bullying, says Fox. In a culture where expanded definitions of bullying routinely link it to the psychological realm and mental illness, she fears it is the anti-bullying industry that is the real danger to young people’s state of mind. Widening the scope of ‘bullying’ to include everything from ‘spreading rumours’ to ‘just being ignored’ creates an environment where kids are discouraged from developing coping mechanisms and are instead taught to exaggerate minor emotional growing pains as so devastating to their mental health that they need psychological ‘support’ in order to cope. Instead of helping young people to put unpleasant experiences into perspective, we emphasise how traumatic they are and encourage children to over-react. Today’s young adults have been cocooned, and schooled to view every problem in therapeutic terms. We have pathologised what were once considered basic experiences of student life at university, including being broke, staying up all night to get an essay finished, and periods of loneliness. Disappointment, stress and frustration are integral parts of life, not mental illnesses.
Not only have the older generation’s over-protective policies made a ‘health’ fetish of purging life of all discomforts, they have also begun to medicalise student politics. Fox points to how university culture is dominated by therapy-style political discourse whereby demands to ban speakers are framed in the language of psychiatry. All manner of political disagreement are labelled as ‘phobias’, conveniently making rational argument with the ‘diseased’ opponent (i.e. the ‘patient’) pointless. The demand for self-examination (‘check your privilege!’) levelled against anyone who disagrees with the status quo is emotional blackmail reminiscent of repressive Soviet-style “medicine”.
Moreover, there is an insidious paternalism in the trend to foster dependence in young people that is antithetical to autonomy. Even children’s informal activities are organised and supervised, ‘free time’ is structured and monitored, ‘helicopter parents’ have abandoned their duty of socialising children to grow up and be self-reliant. Instead they nurture children’s expectations to be reliant on outside intermediaries, encouraging the young to wallow in dependent victimhood, thereby furnishing them excuses to avoid grown-up responsibilities. The younger generation gain a false sense of empowerment from their dependency on external agencies and institutions. Their reduction of responsibility and autonomy has political ramifications. It fetters them to external authorities and undermines their liberty, since implicitly they are not capable of living with the risks involved. An attenuation of the individual’s responsibility is always accompanied by a proportionate erosion of his liberty.
Fox identifies a few other culprits in the creation of this generation of entitled narcissists. Among them are ‘student voice’ and ‘self-esteem’. Fee-paying students now see the teacher-pupil relationship in terms of customer service. Education has come to resemble any other business arrangement in which the provider is in competition with many others for market share, and ‘brand image’ and reputation can be damaged by customer dissatisfaction. Viewing teachers primarily as service providers undermines their authority and ignores the fact that teaching involves an unequal relationship. Lecturers who have the temerity to actually lecture have missed the memo from today’s academic rule book that requires them to be “co-learners”. Thousands of years of literature, philosophy and historical insight are being sidelined to accommodate identities. This approach gives students’ unchallenged opinions, however childish or poisonous, a sense of privilege. The demand to express unconditional positive regard for young people’s views, says Fox, “effectively destroys the intergenerational duty of passing on knowledge, setting boundaries for behaviour and the broader task of socialisation”. Consequently, students never learn to cope with disappointment or accept criticism, essential skills that they will need as they grow up. Instead they are taught to ignore all criticism as a matter of principle. Injuries to our pride keep us honest and introspective. An over-emphasis on self-esteem tells youngsters that they are fine just as they are and that “their judgement says more about them than it does about me”. Teachers are told that in order to engage their pupils they should make all subject matter relate to them. The aim of discovering in literature or art something transcendent and universal about the human condition, something that binds our experiences to other people throughout history, are secondary to finding ways to turn the gaze of art and literature inwards on what is specific to being ‘me’.
Fox concludes her book with a direct address to this generation intended to awaken them to the harsh reality that their rebellion is not against the prevailing orthodoxies. Rather, it is an orchestrated recitation from the cultural authorities’ script. These self-styled ‘rebels’ are kicking an open door, singing from the cultural relativists’ PC hymn sheet, not saying anything new. They are tools of those in authority. Their unpaid youthful zeal lends credibility to existing policies that leave real progressive causes floundering. Authentic rebels need the kind of moral autonomy and independence that is achieved through genuine intellectual argument, not just smearing the opponent or depending upon infantilising authoritarian ‘protection’ from superior reasoning. Today’s zeitgeist, says Fox, venerates the vulnerable victim form of personality such that strength is demonised as arrogance or misrepresented as violence.
What then is to be done?, asks Fox. First, instead of taking misanthropic nihilism as a premise, why not foreground human potential that looks to the individual’s strength instead of assuming his weakness? The young will need to courageously wage war against all those forces that stress security above civil liberties and free speech, forging their own philosophies but also shamelessly standing on the shoulders of giants. And they will need to grow a backbone to face down all those who want to shut them up, or launch accusations at them for being offensive. It is crucial not to let our universal values be fractured by internal schisms. Equally, this generation will need to be sufficiently confident to remain consistent in defending Enlightenment principles, even when it means defending free speech for the counter-Enlightenment’s most dissembling advocates, while simultaneously arguing uncompromisingly against their duplicity and irrationality.
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years