Friday 23 August 2019

'Snowflakers' will not all just melt away into puddles

Today's much-criticised generation of millennials needs to stop getting upset and start getting angry

Members of the public watch musicans perform during various performances by artists at Apollo House on Poolbeg Street , Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Members of the public watch musicans perform during various performances by artists at Apollo House on Poolbeg Street , Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Eoin O'Malley

Alt-Right and 'Generation Snowflake' are terms that most people hadn't heard of before 2016. Alt-Right, short for Alternative Right, is a euphemism for a group that is racist nationalist. As with any euphemism, we shouldn't use the term.

'Generation Snowflake' is a pejorative term for millennials, those who came of age after the internet existed. They were born from the early 1980s. They are 'poor little snowflakes' as they're easily upset. This happened because their parents, who came of age from the late 1960s, were anxious to protect them from threats, such as losing, failure and being called names. This over-protection led them to become anti-free speech, narcissistic bedwetters.

These are the liberal generation who want statues of historical figures removed because those figures didn't conform to modern liberal traditions. So there were protests this year when UCC decided to name a building after James Watson, one of the greatest living scientists. He, like many other 90-year-olds, holds decidedly old-fashioned opinions, but they don't take away from his scientific greatness. Yet UCC came under pressure on social media not to name the building after him.

The 'Generation Snowflakers' want 'safe spaces' where they can be protected from ideas that offend their outlook. These can be ridiculous, such as the banning of Mexican sombreros - 'discriminatory and stereotypical imagery' - and certain Hallowe'en costumes. The invitation to a 'cry-in' in University of California, Berkeley to help deal with the trauma of Donald Trump's victory further emphasised the generation's feebleness.

But they can also have serious implications for free speech. University presidents throughout the world frequently receive complaints about academic staff who introduce ideas they don't like. But when there are complaints about the work of Mark Twain, and the feminist Germaine Greer, these seem ridiculous.

So while it may seem reasonable to 'no platform' - to refuse to host - professional bigots such as Katie Hopkins, who gets to decide what is reasonable and what is not? The minute you start to say some language or some opinions are beyond the Pale, you start to control what people are exposed to.

The criticism of 'Generation Snowflake' would be fair if it were true. While it's easy to cite examples that seem ridiculous, is that whole generation even like that? Maybe in the pages of the Irish Times you see some genuine, if quite old, 'snowflakes', who as Bob Geldof complained recently, can't 'stop banging on about transgender toilets'.

But beyond those places, the generation isn't as bad as the characterisation of them. There are groups, nearly always liberal, who get upset at risque language, and have complained to me about my jokes in lectures being offensive - they should complain that they aren't very funny. Oddly the religious students, who might have had more reason to complain, never do.

They should not be protected from offensive ideas in universities, just as they should not be protected from name-calling and failure when they are younger. Because eventually we are all going to have to experience failure and worse, and if we aren't used to it, it can be overwhelming.

But most of the so-called 'Snowflake Generation' appear to me to be sensible, hard-working and self-effacing. There are generational differences. They are much more health conscious than my generation (Generation X).

Their willingness to Snapchat their non-dairy kale smoothie after a trip to the gym is a bit tiresome. But who says this is worse that my generation's willingness at that age to wade through vomit to get a last drink at the bar? They aren't as feeble as is made out. They campaign on issues that matter to them, as we see in the occupation of Apollo House. One problem with their approach might be that they are misguided, assuming that simple solutions such as this can help.

They might be able to 'feel the pain' of the homeless, but this is no substitute for policies that actually work.

Their moral narcissism likes to campaign loudly, with a celebrity concert, but it gets bored easily, and they move on to a new campaign.

Paul Bloom in a new book, Against Empathy, points out that empathisers tend to be biased. Dolphins are more attractive than catfish, and so receive their attention.

They focus on what should be the solutions rather than go to the bother of actually finding out what caused the problem in the first place.

So Apollo House ignores the mental health and addiction needs of many rough sleepers. Finding a bed isn't the problem, even if it appears to be a neat solution.

But if they are a little more sensitive to the feelings of others, is that such a bad thing?

James Watson and I can learn something from that.

And are they really mollycoddled? This is the generation (with some Generation X-ers) who more so than any other face the likelihood of being worse off than their parents. Many have to work to financially support their college education, they face years of interning for virtually nothing, moving from precarious job to precarious job, as the prospect of securing a home moves out of reach.

And this generation is being targeted by banks to get them into debt. One bank has a #FOMO promotion, which tries to exploit people's 'fear of missing out', encouraging millennials to take out loans to ensure that they don't miss out on that weekend away.

And look at who's doing the criticism. The term 'teenage' became common from the late 1950s for a generation who grew up with less hardship than those who had experienced the austerity of war. Although the Irish experienced recession, unemployment and emigration, that generation is now taking early retirement on good pensions and rising house prices to fund their fun. No #FOMO for them.

They are leaving a pensions time-bomb for the next generation, and it will be the Snowflakes who pick up the tab. They are boring and excessively sincere, but Generation Snowflake shouldn't get upset, it should get angry.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is a senior lecturer in political science in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

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