Tom Whyman,  August 7

Operation Snowflake

Mysteries of the all-powerful—yet infinitely fragile—generational stereotype



“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are all part of the same compost pile.”—Fight Club

Those pesky snowflakes. Every week it seems, some new story breaks about how they’ve been up to no good. Fatally coddled by too many participation awards, raised on an endless loop of PC fairy tales and NPR segments, and otherwise rendered unable to conform to the good, normal world their well-meaning parents only wanted them to be able to thrive in, this selfish rabble of campus militants and anime-avatar keyboard warriors have been busy trying to—oh, I don’t know—whatever has been on the news recently: get Moby-Dick censored for misgendering the whale, or make it so there’s only one big toilet on campus, and you all have to go at the same time.

We’re all familiar with this genre of news story by now. One early iteration reported on events at Yale in November 2015, when students were filmed aggressively confronting administrators over an email asking them to be more open-minded about un-PC Halloween costumes. The following month, scandalized attention was focused on students at Oberlin College, who were protesting the bad Asian fusion cuisine served on campus. The dining-hall sushi, the protesters complained, was not just an affront to their gastric juices, but to social justice writ large—nothing less than an act of “cultural appropriation.”

Meanwhile in the UK, the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, imported from South Africa, was making impressive strides at Oxford. Indeed, if you’d taken certain broadsheet newspaper columns from the time at their word, you’d have thought the history of the British Empire was all but set to be eliminated in the event that activists managed to win their campaign to get the statue of colonialist ideologue/diamond tycoon Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College (postscript: they didn’t, so the British right’s brains remain mostly un-exploded as yet). Around the same time, students at Cardiff University in Wales were protesting a talk by feminist scholar Germaine Greer on the grounds that she holds transphobic views; a few months later, veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell received similar treatment after signing an open letter in which he was seen to support Greer.

In the years since, the mediagenic activities of these youthful PC thugs have, if anything, only got more extreme. To go by the breathlessly alarmed dispatches surfacing in some newspapers, militant snowflakes have managed to do everything from forcing the university of Cambridge to “drop white authors” from its courses, to bullying the British army into changing its marketing campaign. Recently in the UK, a group of campus activists at the University of Manchester were called out for painting over a mural containing some of Rudyard Kipling’s doggerel. And this news cycle is of course intertwined with a thriving cottage industry of columns by aging hacks handwringing about the state of “kids these days.”

Through their activities, the snowflake even seems to be able to bring the goddamn army to its knees.

The coming generation is too mollycoddled for edgy old leftists who grew up with punk; too moralizing for blunted old right-wingers who want nothing more than to turn back time to an era when pretty young interns still giggled politely at their racist jokes. The Sun, which is still somehow the best-selling print daily newspaper in the UK, recently started a “snowflake hotline,” where readers can report incidents of young people getting upset about seemingly innocuous things to their “resident outraged leftie,” “Jon Snowflake.” Even British government ministers have got in on the act: higher education minister Sam Gyimah has complained that “at one university” (it’s unclear which one exactly, as no evidence has been found to back up this claim), “when I turned up to speak to students they read the safe space policy and it took twenty minutes.”

The Neurotic Supervillain

Beneath all the alarmist bluster, there is a clear cognitive dissonance about how the activism of these snowflakes is reported. On the one hand, we are repeatedly told, the problem with young people today is that they just can’t handle the way reality is. This is why they demand “safe spaces” away from traumatizing political and academic debate on campus. This is why they want all their course content marked up with laboriously specific “trigger warnings” to prevent them brushing against an abrasive idea or an indelicately confrontational literary work. This is why they can’t openly debate those holding any kind of different views; it’s why they want to “erase history”—especially the history of the Confederacy and the British Empire. It’s why young people today can’t seem to get jobs. And it’s why after college they all seem to wind up living back with their parents in their teenage bedroom where you—if not qua parent, then qua taxpayer—are forced to bankroll them, as they spend all day surfing the internet in their social media bubbles. The snowflake, then, is a cringing, fragile, simpering idiot—too weak and sensitive for the rigors of the “real” world.

But on the other hand, somehow, the snowflake seems to be all-powerful. Through their activities, the snowflake threatens to overturn the entire tradition of academic instruction. They threaten to completely destroy all established gender norms. They even seem to be able to bring the goddamn army to its knees. The snowflake threatens to no-platform, decolonize, and genderqueer the whole world.

So what’s going on here? Just who are these snowflakes, anyway? And if they’re really so pathetic, then how come they constitute such a threat?

The Enemies Within

If the parts of history that the snowflakes have yet to erase by their cunning strategy of concerted whining can teach us anything, they can provide us with a helpful analogue to the current media storm. Indeed, one striking point of comparison, also flagged by Amanda Hess in the New York Times, is with the red menace—the ubiquitous commie-pinko infiltrator of the McCarthy era (and the Wilson era before that).

Like the snowflake, the commie red failed to identify sufficiently with “our” norms; they therefore constituted a threat to “our” institutions. Indeed in the case of the red insurgency, communists represented a threat grave enough for blacklisting and show trials, not just outraged thinkpieces. But the affinities here run deeper: in pretty much the same vein as the snowflake, the twentieth-century red was, considered as an individual, supposed to be somehow weak—not least, defectively masculine. And indeed, just like the snowflake, this weakness was part of what made them so threatening. McCarthy purged homosexuals alongside communists (the so-called “Lavender Scare”) precisely based on the rationale that closeted federal functionaries in the national security state were susceptible to blackmail, and therefore represented a dire security risk. In the UK, at least part of the salaciousness of the Cambridge Spy Ring derived from the proclivities of its members.

If the red had been a “real” man, he would have been happily American (or British, or whatever). Instead, he belonged to Moscow. “Communist members, body and soul,” as J. Edgar Hoover declared in a 1950 speech, “are the property of the Party.” (This, by the way, remains a powerful trope in Western Russia-baiting; in the blockbuster Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Red Sparrow, the title character is dispatched to an elite spy training center specializing in psychosexual manipulation, known colloquially as the “whore school.”)

But of course, there is another contemporary analogue to this sort of McCarthyist rhetoric: the discourse surrounding Trump and Putin, increasingly accelerating from demented Eric Garlandisms to an actual plausible legal investigation, which also often involves speculation—though to be honest, rarely sincere—that the two brand-name political leaders in the scandal might be gay lovers. Nowadays, if the Russians are thought to be controlling anyone, intervening on behalf of anyone, it’s not the PC left; it’s the populist right. The weak and the measly have found themselves abandoned by their Kremlin puppetmasters, who nowadays apparently prefer their pawns to come in some flavor of brash charlatan. 

None Dare Call It Alternative

Then again, in the 1940s and 1950s the Soviet threat was precisely that it constituted an alternative world order—an order which those too weak, too weird, too queer for our good and proper capitalist lifestyle could retreat to. But for the whole period in which the snowflake has grown up, capitalism has—as the late Mark Fisher put it in Capitalist Realism—“seamlessly occupie[d] the horizons of the thinkable.” There simply is no alternative to “our” world—or at any rate, no real one. Russia of course remains strongly associated, in the Western popular imagination, with the Soviet Union. But if Putin himself represents anything, it is just a more brutal, more nihilistic version of our own system—one even more corrupt, even less democratic, even less egalitarian.

Thus if the red infiltrators performed their misdeeds out of fealty to Moscow, the snowflakes lack even the dignity of acting in accordance with any principle higher than themselves. One illustrative example here, among many: a few months ago, UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was smeared as a Czechoslovak spy; his young supporters, by contrast, are typically spoken about as being, simply, deluded. Likewise, conspiratorially minded Yank Democrats of the Garland persuasion have rallied to the suggestion, in Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of thirteen Russian internet trolling specialists, that the sinister Russians also sought to buttress their grand Trumpian disinformation strategy by turning Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein supporters into compliant stooges—grassroots socialism reduced to a subplot in the grand conspiracy to deny Hillary Clinton her rightfully earned turn in the Oval Office.

Indeed, one way of understanding the threat that the snowflake is supposed to present is precisely that it involves a sort of self-assertion gone wild. The snowflake, we are told, wants to be able to identify as whatever they like—man, woman, dolphin, dragon, whatever—just by saying so. Enclosed in their narcissistic bubbles, snowflakes are only interested in learning things they already know that they’ll like; anything they don’t, they want to be able to denounce as somehow beyond the pale of what’s acceptable to think, let alone say—racist, sexist, and so on. The snowflakes want to be comfortable at all times; if they can even bring themselves to take on any sort of challenge at all, they’ll want it to be accompanied by an easy way out. Of course you can’t get them to work. They never want to do all the things the rest of us have to.

But why does the snowflake so manifestly fail to warrant empathy? What is it about the snowflake that prevents strained attempts at understanding?

Hence at least part of the force of the Fight Club quote that serves as our epigraph. In invoking the snowflake’s quaintly misguided denial of their own mortality, author Chuck Palahniuk likely originated the enthusiastically pejorative adoption of the term on the Anglo-American right. For Palahniuk, the snowflake is a pusillanimous figure who simply refuses to accept the brute fact of collective animal decay. In adopting this stance, snowflakes willfully maintain a sense of their own specialness—a specialness well-adjusted people in general, one must infer, are supposed to have given up. The objection to all the virtue-signaling and safe-space hunting on the precious campus left is that it is developmentally regressive. Like infants, snowflakes long for womb-like repose amid all the many rude, character-building challenges to their moral sovereignty in the “real” world.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Nazi

In an era where so much nonsense gets justified with the imperative that “you gotta see both sides,” it’s striking to note how singularly unsympathetic the media coverage becomes anytime the subject of “snowflakes” and their putative political outlook comes up. There is no campus equivalent to that interminably vast genre of fawning “dispatches from Trumpland” periodically regurgitated by every supposedly respectable news outlet. No one seems particularly keen to do the work of untangling the grievances of tumblr SJWs in the way that Angela Nagle did for 4chan keklords. The New York Times has never hired a columnist their entire readership is obviously going to hate on the basis that the writer might provide some sort of special insight into “snowflake culture.”

But why does the snowflake so manifestly fail to warrant empathy? What is it about the snowflake that prevents strained attempts at understanding?

When reporters meet Trump voters (or their UK equivalent, Brexiteers) in their native environment (usually a depressed, depressing post-industrial town), we are typically told a number of things. First off, these people—if they are anything—are real people. They have real worries and real problems—that is to say, we are usually assured, their worries and problems are in the first instance economic ones. They feel “left behind” by politicians, again in the first instance economically: they’re seeking to cobble together some ad hoc livelihood now that post-industrial decline has left their area low on jobs. Of course, these voters also feel like they’ve been left behind culturally. Partly this is because young people keep leaving their area to find work elsewhere . . . but OK, yes, it is also at least on some level because they feel like they’re not allowed to say the n-word—or in the more anodyne, Fox News-branded view of things, “Merry Christmas”—anymore. It’s not always completely clear what this has to do with the economic worries—but who cares, in the final analysis? These articles are, ironically enough, their own brand of virtue signalling from elite newsrooms to the scary Trumpist interior—and as such, they leave precious little room for any sort of joined-up thinking.

In short, the message is supposed to be: these people are authentic. In contrast to the reporters profiling them, and probably also in contrast to the assumed audience of these reporters, these people experience reality directly—in a way not buffered by financial or cultural capital or education. Hence this authenticity is allowed to become, in a way, its own justification: you (as reader) can’t know that if you weren’t placed in the same situation, you wouldn’t have also voted for the racist option as well.

This point was continually underscored in the language employed by one of the most extreme examples of this genre, from November last year, in which New York Times journalist Richard Fausset travelled to Huber Heights, Ohio, to interview Tony Hovater—a man who wasn’t just a common-or-garden Trump supporter grumbling in a diner in a trucker’s hat, but an open and committed neo-Nazi. The piece opened by describing Hovater’s recent marriage to his wife, Maria, making a point of listing all the normal-sounding items on their wedding list: “a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer,” as if this particular couple hadn’t laid out for customized versions of these items with swastikas on them. It closed by describing a pasta meal shared by Hovater and his wife, during which—in between a running exchange about the implications of the then-recent Charlottesville rally—they talked about their dreams for the future (“about moving to a bigger place, about their honeymoon, about having kids”).

Meanwhile, in the main body of the article that these vignettes were innocuously bookending, Hovater was described as having “Midwestern manners” that “would please anyone’s mother.” His “political evolution” toward the extreme right was, we learn, “largely fuelled by the kinds of frustrations that would not seem exotic to most American conservatives.” A heavy metal drummer, his embrace of fascism was likened to “the hipster’s cooler-than-thou quest for the most extreme of musical subgenres.” Here, the article seemed to be telling us, was a regular guy: he could be a work colleague, or your neighbor. A guy with the normal hopes and dreams and worries we all have. But this guy, for reasons never fully illuminated by the article, “just happened” to be a Nazi. In short, the piece normalized Hovater’s views just as reporters typically apologize for those of the “people of Trumpland”: by presenting us with a sense of his authenticity, his groundedness in what is taken to be “real” reality, as “normal” people experience it.

The media’s line of thinking on things, then, appears to go something like this: the response to reality shared among members of the far right might be an unpleasant one, but at least—in obvious contrast to the snowflakes—they never lose sight of it. This is why they warrant understanding. Whereas the snowflakes—who can’t even confront reality at all, despite having been afforded every advantage by their nice and definitely not-embittered parents—only warrant telling off.

Reality Without Principle

But when we talk about reality here, what exactly is it that we mean? “Real” is a disputed concept, the sort of phrase that is said in many ways while not clearly denoting anything in particular. In Capitalist Realism, where the term is very much at issue, Mark Fisher quotes a 1996 Simon Reynolds essay about “reality” in hip-hop in order to tease out something of our ordinary-language understanding of the phrase. Here’s Fisher quoting from Reynolds:

[In hip-hop] “real” has two meanings. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover. “Real” also signifies that the music reflects a “reality” constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police. “Real” means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by . . . downsizing.

“In the end,” Fisher comments, “it was precisely hip-hop’s performance of this first version of the real—‘the uncompromising’—that enabled its easy absorption into the second, the reality of late capitalist economic instability, where authenticity has proven highly marketable.” He then draws a parallel between realism in hip-hop and the perspective of gangster movies such as Scarface, The Godfather, and Goodfellas, which on Fisher’s reading derive their common appeal from a sense that they have “stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality.”

This is precisely the same “realism” that Fisher likens to “the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.” Not coincidentally, this is precisely the way in which, as Fisher has it, the capitalist class tends to justify its conservatism. Here Fisher employs a quote from Alain Badiou:

[T]he partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

Our understanding of reality—i.e., “what counts as ‘realistic’”—is thus ultimately seen to be “defined by a series of political determinations.” Hence the species of realism evoked in Fisher’s title—the ideology that represents neoliberal capitalism as the only truly “workable” economic system.

Having established this point, Fisher introduces a distinction from Lacanian psychoanalysis between “the Real” and “reality.” In this context, “reality” is just the psychoanalytic reality principle—the set of norms which any individual must conform to in order to count as “psychologically healthy.”

By contrast, “the Real,” as Fisher puts it, is “what any ‘reality’ must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression.” Fisher then cites three examples of such Reals that our social world represses today: the possibility of environmental disaster, the effects of capitalism on mental health, and the proliferation of bureaucracy under neoliberalism.

The “unvarnished” Hobbesian reality of hip-hop and gangster movies thus appears to occupy an interesting conceptual space. Its dog-eat-dog, and war-of-all-against-all mindset is precisely what neoliberalism constantly insists we ought to conform to. If we should fail to conform to it, for instance by refusing to constantly compete against our fellow human beings in the interests of maximizing personal financial gain, then we may well be considered psychologically defective. And yet, this imposed “reality” in many ways poses as a “Real”—a harsh truth that must be unveiled to us, one that we can (for instance) be Red-Pilled into—to borrow a favorite recruiting meme of the alt-right. This perhaps explains Hobbesian reality’s clear rhetorical force—a force that the followers of conservative snake-oil salesmen such as Jordan Peterson certainly seem to feel.

“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake,” recall. “You are the same decaying matter as everything else. We are all part of the same compost pile.”

This, we must now clearly see, is what the snowflake rejects—the very specific articulation of reality that they are routinely depicted as being too “weak” to accept. Snowflakes refuse to conform to reality as society in general would have it. They refuse to accept that reality’s Hobbesian character is its truth, its “real” Real. In its place, they assert the force of multiple alternative Reals.

Real Compared to What?

This can be seen in the context of almost any of the campus cause celebres I cited at the start of this article. The reality principle, as manifested through the email sent by the Yale administrators, demanded that students at the school engage anyone they saw wearing a racist Halloween in a measured, academic debate about the legitimacy of the expression. The snowflakes responded by asserting the Real of black and minority-ethnic experience at Yale, which they found constantly marginalized precisely by such disinterestedly “rational” academic norms.

The reality principle, as manifested through the negotiating position of Oxford’s administrators, as well as by the British press, demanded that students gratefully ignore the excesses of the generous academic benefactor Rhodes. The snowflakes responded by asserting the repressed Real of British colonial history.

The reality principle, all too frequently, sees fit to place the lives of trans people up for debate; the snowflakes respond by asserting the Real of trans lived experience.

Seen in this light, then, it is not the snowflakes who are cowed by “reality”: they are precisely willing to confront it. It is rather their critics who are trying, with increasing desperation, to repress the Real the snowflakes threaten to expose. This equally explains the frequently observed phenomenon that it is in fact the middle-aged critics of “young people today” who are ready to take kneejerk offense at any views they don’t like. This Reality will of course be obvious to anyone who has recent direct experience of college campuses, and doesn’t just get all their information about students from the news. Young people aren’t too weak for Hobbesian reality: the delusion that they might be stems almost exclusively from the fact that a number of them are willing to tear it apart.

From Snowflake to Blizzard

But perhaps I’m taking the snowflakes too seriously. Being honest—being “realistic” shall we say— what “really” are their chances of success?

It might seem strange to some readers that I have invoked Mark Fisher in support of the “snowflakes,” when he is often thought—in large part as a result of his notorious 2013 essay, “Exiting the Vampire Castle”—to be someone whose ideas were opposed to this tendency on the left.

The snowflakes’ rebellion, because it is beholden to no principle higher than themselves, must necessarily fail to be anything more than selfishly individualistic.

In this essay— which due to its sad, bitter history continues to be difficult to invoke in a UK context—Fisher accused figures we might now recognize as snowflakes of undermining solidarity on the left with their censorious social media moralizing and commitment to a “liberal,” individualistic mode of identity politics. The residents of Fisher’s Vampire Castle—largely from petit-bourgeois as opposed to working-class backgrounds— find their natural home in higher education, where they are insulated from the need to commit politically to anything beyond themselves. They are psychologically incapable of acting collectively, and the main function of what activism they do undertake is to propagate guilt in others—typically for failing to uphold the various “essential” categories of identity that they like to affirm in a way sufficiently in line with their own in-group discourse. For Fisher, this is particularly problematic considering that the nature of these essential categories, of for instance black or queer experience, is itself defined by capitalism. The general thrust of Fisher’s essay is, thus, that the left needs to transcend this sort of thinking, in particular by re-asserting the primacy of class.

Fisher’s concerns reflect at least two problems I’ve sought to highlight here. The first is the idea that the snowflakes’ rebellion, because it is beholden to no principle higher than themselves, must necessarily fail to be anything more than selfishly individualistic. The second is the idea that the middle-class snowflakes— in contrast to, say, Brexit voters, or the alt-right—are not sufficiently exposed to economic reality; if they were, their concerns would be very different.

But given what I have said above, it is easy to see how the snowflakes might be able to overcome the first of these two problems. Granted, it is of course possible for some version of “identity politics” to form the basis for moralizing—individuals trying to make each other feel small, or seizing on little slips of the tongue or cursor to catch each other out in a bad-faith utterance.

This behaviour can be harmful, but I think we need to be careful not to overestimate its significance. For one thing, it’s possible for a lot of things to form the basis for this sort of moralizing—from religious dogma, to major-party-sanctioned political rhetoric, to uniform policies at work. For another, once we understand that, for example, racial identity relates to the Real experience of a particular (minority) group, it becomes quite straightforward to see how something like this can take people beyond themselves as individuals—forming a basis for collective action. As indeed it has, you know, happened in history—including the very recent history of the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter.

Meanwhile, regarding the second charge that snowflake-style activism is symptomatic of privileged insulation from economic reality: even if it is true that most people labelled as snowflakes do not come from traditionally working-class backgrounds (a point that, in part due to the nature of the construction, is difficult to settle empirically one way or the other), this would not mean that they are not, or cannot be, economically marginalized. Given the way the economy has re-constituted itself post-financial crash, it is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to find stable, fulfilling work—especially if said young people fail (for whatever Real reason) to conform to the demands of Hobbesian “reality.” Of course this is less true for people with a lot of expensive education, but it by no means necessarily follows that such people have managed to secede from economic reality altogether.

Class is a dynamic relation, and even if certain aspects of being raised working class (or indeed middle class) do stay with you, your class status is informed more by your current material position than it is by the circumstances of your upbringing. Or, to put it another way: snowflakes have “real” problems, too. It’s just that—perhaps given their other views, perhaps just given the nature of these problems, which are less familiar to reporters, and thus less easily classifiable than those of the post-industrial and middle-aged—these problems are less likely to be foregrounded by those reporting on their activities, or I suppose on their “cultural” hang-ups.

What I’m about to claim is, as yet, just speculation. But sometimes I think about the young Marx’s assertion in “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right—Introduction,” that any truly revolutionary class would need to be able to say to its oppressors, “I am nothing, but I should be everything.”  Who else does this sound like, today, but the snowflakes? As precarity mounts, the snowflakes’ determined assertion of their Real experience in the face of “reality” could plausibly assume an increasingly revolutionary tone.

Perhaps in time, our slogan ought to be: Snowflakes of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your student loan debt!

Tom Whyman is an academic philosopher and freelance writer from the United Kingdom.

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