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Meltdown of the Phantom Snowflakes

Demanding stoic “strength” from an oppressed person is just another way of silencing calls for reform

“Are you a strong woman?”

The camera crew wanted a snappy answer. We were filming a short news segment on the beach in Brighton, with a frigid wind gusting around the boom mic and seagulls circling overhead, screaming for chips. I didn’t know how to reply.

The issue of strength comes up a lot these days—for me it’s one of the standard questions I’ve come to expect when people ask me about feminism. That day, however, it stung. The fact was that I’d barely made it out of the house to meet the very nice people from Swiss TV, because I’d spent the previous three hours trying and failing to get out of bed, in a pit of seasonal depression darkened by political despair, somewhere in between where the showering stage ends and the stage in which old Placebo records start to really speak to you. I didn’t have the structural integrity to be my usual snowflake self.

“I think that’s the wrong question to ask,” I said, trying to speak clearly, and letting my eyes drift towards the horizon in an effort to pass off bewilderment as profundity. I’ve never thought of myself as a strong person, in any sense—I’m small, sensitive, prone to anxious overthinking; moved to anger, I’m far more likely to cry than throw a punch. It used to mystify me when people told me how strong I must be, until I realized that it’s always after I am harassed in public, which is something that happens to me on the regular, as it does to most women who dare to express political opinions online. When the abuse leaves me broken and wondering how to go on, I am told how strong I am, usually by people who care and want to reassure themselves that there’s sense and meaning to what’s happening to me.

When I fight back, though, when I continue to write about injustice in the face of the bullying campaigns that are daily life for every female activist I have met, precisely when I feel strongest—that’s when I’m told I’m weak. A crybaby. Special snowflake. Whiner. Virtue-signaling, I am told, by people who seem to believe that virtue never exists as a standard to strive towards, only as a set of empty signs.

As politics turn darker, these slurs have become weaponized. Something bigger is going on.

“My mother was a strong woman.”

I hear versions of this, usually as a non-sequitur, whenever I talk about women’s liberation, and the men who deliver it appear to believe it’s an answer to something. Occasionally the “strong woman” in question is their grandmother, their wife, their daughter, any woman whose humanity they reckon with on an intimate level—but usually it’s their mother. Their mother was strong. Strong enough, it is implied, not to need liberating. Strong enough to bear unfairness. Strong enough that her children could come to terms with it, too.

Much of modern life is traumatic, unbearable, and profoundly frightening.

We live in a culture that venerates wellness and self-improvement, both as industry and personal discipline. Yet the strategies of modern cultural production are bent constantly towards the repression of emotion, the obsessive management of general feelings that, unchecked, might expose two great unspoken truths. The first is that much of modern life is traumatic, unbearable, and profoundly frightening. Acknowledging this openly allows for a second truth, more dangerous in the scope of its possibility: that it might not have to be this way.

I rarely ask whether people’s mothers were strong. The question to me seems at best an irrelevance and at worst actively rude. But the fact that this retort comes up so often speaks to a different understanding of strength, a different positioning of strength against struggle. A strong woman is a woman who bears oppression with minimal complaint. She suffers the injustices of her sex and race and class without collapsing, at least not where others can see.

For black women in particular, “strength” is a stereotype that contains a demand for compliance. As Jarune Uwujaren writes at Everyday Feminism:

The myth of the strong black woman, who is distinct from the strong black women that really walk this earth, reminds me of the myth that black wet nurses enjoyed breast feeding their masters’ children.

This was a myth designed to make slave owners feel less guilty about the socioeconomic circumstances that forced black women to be mammies and nannies and housekeepers and maids back in “those” days.

To be black and strong should involve fighting these injustices, not shrugging, concluding “life isn’t fair,” and shouldering on. Of course we have to deal with the world as it is in the meantime, but black strength is not an invitation for discrimination from others.

Historically speaking, black women have done what they needed to survive, but this myth is sometimes used as an excuse to overlook problems of violence and discrimination against black women. “Oh, black women are strong, they can handle inequality.”

The corollary to “strong woman” is not “weak woman”; it’s just “woman.” In the same way, the corollary to “weak man” is simply “man”—this sort of strength, the strength that comes from emotional castration, the strength to suffer in silence until you snap, to always punch down, never out—that strength is assumed to be intrinsic to masculinity. Man up. Stop sniveling.

The strength lauded in men of power and the strength demanded from survivors of oppression and violence are part of the same authoritarian logic, and it’s a logic that has the heart of the world in its small, angry fists. Men—if they are white or otherwise privileged—are allowed to express emotion through the vector of rage. Men may lash out. It is understood that all that strength needs an outlet. They cannot acknowledge their own intense emotions—hate, shame, pride—for what they are. This makes them dangerously easy to manipulate.

Nascent fascism is all about the management and strategic redirection of emotion, the culturing and reshaping of pain into violence, fear into hate, shame into resentment, guilt into complicity. We think of fascism as a phenomenon of pure ego, but it has just as much to do with the id: raw emotion comes first and is justified later.

The placing of strength above compassion, might above morals, not just in private but proudly and in public, is perhaps the most frightening shift in popular discourse over the past six months. It is an extension of the brutal logic of late capitalism into pitiless post-liberal prejudice: winners are by nature better men, and if what it takes to win is blithe disregard for your fellow human beings, then that is the example to follow. 

As Moira Weigel noted at The Guardian, Trump does not speak about diplomacy—instead, he speaks about making deals. Dealmaking is different. When you make a deal, all that matters is who has the stronger position, and who the weaker. If the art of the deal and the art of politics are to be one and the same, the new agenda is clear: the mighty are now free to vanquish the meek and congratulate themselves over dinner.

There may be no compassion in this sort of strength, no decency and goodness at the core of the “fuck your feelings” brigade, but there is dignity—and it’s a kind of dignity that has been stripped, in particular, from those with social privilege but relatively little power. It is the violent valor of patriarchy and white supremacy, the logic of conquest.

We like to believe, at least in the West, that we have left the age of conquest and slavemaking far behind. This is nothing more than a convenient fiction; it is a fiction, nonetheless, that placed limits on the political imagination. Not so long ago, you could not simply invade a country because you had bigger guns and felt like kicking their arse and taking their stuff: you had to come up with excuses, talk about bringing democracy, liberating women, ending whatever dreadful dictatorships happened to be sitting on top of massive oil fields. At home, if you wanted to confiscate the means of survival from elderly and disabled people, you had to spend years persuading the public that this was being done for their own good. That sort of handwaving will no longer be necessary. All that matters now is who is strong and who is weak.

To demand “strength” from an oppressed person is to excuse their oppression, to label them weak for voicing anything that looks like dissent. That’s what we see when young people organizing for change are labelled “generation snowflake.”  Dissent is called outrage, whining, crying victim, virtue signaling—unless it’s angry white neoreactionaries bravely fighting back against basic decency, in which case it’s called “legitimate concerns.” The concerns of women and minorities can never be legitimate—still less their pain.

Most of the more poisonous stereotypes about women, people of color and other underprivileged groups play on the fear of unregulated emotion: the hysterical wife, the violent, hypersexual black man, the screaming homosexual, none of them possessing that “strength” that is the solemn inheritance of the white man, who has learned to control his feelings by suppressing them. In fact, of course, it is white men whose human feelings have been treated as legitimate and worthy of analysis over centuries of art, literature, and policymaking.

Of course, a society that has spent centuries denying the humanity of women and people of color would struggle to come to terms with the idea that those people might have real feelings. This is a great way of acquitting itself from the reality of harm.

If we are to live in a sexist, racist, structurally violent world and still believe in our own basic decency, the suffering of women and minorities must be reconfigured as both contrived and trivial. If they cry out for justice, they are crybabies. If they insist that things must not go on like this, they are frail, pathetic. The pain of oppressed people has always been terrifying to people from more privileged groups. Their reaction is as panic-stricken and exaggerated as they accuse “generation snowflake” of being. In a spectacular podcast meltdown, ageing literary shock-jock Bret Easton Ellis flailed at the “little snowflakes, when did you all become grandmothers and society matrons, clutching your pearls in horror at someone who has an opinion about something, a way of expressing themselves, that’s not the mirror image of yours?”

The number of articles and speeches condemning trigger warnings vastly outstrips the actual use of trigger warnings in art and academia.

The new right can’t interpret intense emotion as anything other than a fatal flaw. This explains why they are uniquely obsessed with “triggering” their perceived enemies. “Trigger warnings,” a largely benign phenomenon that developed in student and online groups who wanted to share potentially traumatic ideas without upsetting one another too much, has provoked a hysterical and massively overblown backlash from those who like to think of young, liberal black and queer people as somehow weak, oversensitive, censorious. The number of articles and speeches condemning trigger warnings vastly outstrips the actual use of trigger warnings in art and academia. Still, the febrile community of neo-fascists loves to talk about “triggering” liberals, journalists, feminists, and activists into silence or submission, whilst at the same time congratulating themselves for their commitment to free speech.

This tendency to frame resistance as “oversensitivity” and right-wing reaction as an anti-censorship effort is disturbing, but it is also a little pathetic: the magnitude of misunderstanding of what a “trigger warning” is and what it’s for comes down to projection. If you have always and only understood emotion as weakness, if every time you complained of unfairness or cried out in pain you were told to shut up and stop whining, then you will interpret those behaviors in others through the grimy lens of your own learned responses.

One of the most childish tendencies of the new right—including, but not limited to alt-right and neo-nazi groups—is that they persistently accuse their perceived foes of the faults they most fear in themselves. No, you’re spoilt and entitled. You’re throwing in your lot with a frightening parade of murder-eyed fanatics. When today’s digitally enabled white supremacists accuse Black Lives Matter activists of “white genocide,” what else is it but dim and dreadful self-awareness projected onto the dirty screen of the public sphere?

Donald Trump in particular is a Gordian knot for modern psychiatry: at once an emblem of violent, impenetrable masculinity—the nasally-rigid, iron-hearted business Svengali determined to slap America until it stops sniveling—and a byword for hysterical sensitivity, a wailing man-baby with a hair-trigger temper who almost nobody feels comfortable having within five miles of the nuclear codes. Donald Trump is the personification of hurt male feelings masquerading as strength.

The “special snowflake” jeer comes, originally, from the 1996 novel Fight Club, the film of which is every yammering internet man-baby’s favorite piece of ultra-violent Randian misogynist eye candy, where the right and proper answer to boredom and alienation is to take your shirt off and pummel a stranger. “You are not special,” says Brad Pitt, shortly before he turns his gun on one of the few characters of color in the film in a bizarre attempt to make him realize his dreams of being a veterinarian, as if the only thing stopping a waiter from further study were the lack of a sociopathic heavily armed white guy screaming Tumblr motivational slogans in his face. “You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

Thanks for the structural analysis there, Brad.

Thanks for the structural analysis there, Brad. The snowflake smear melts into a mess of signifiers as soon as you start to think about it. Snowflakes are supposed to be unique, sensitive, and fragile: they melt on your fingers, they are lovely and ephemeral. Atmospheric physicists, however, contend that it is impossible to know whether or not every snowflake is unique: the precise way the ice crystal structures form in clouds makes it unlikely you’d ever find two exactly the same, but how could you know for sure? Nor is every snowflake beautiful. Depending on how fast they form, some are quite sloppy-looking, like street-stall knockoff versions of the perfect stars replicated in pendants and Pixar films.

Most aptly, snowflakes are not fragile. Yes, many of them melt, but most of them fall together into something stronger. They pack down into glaciers that outlive civilizations and carve out mountains; they form snowbanks that sweep away whole towns. Millions of snowflakes together can make an avalanche, a hurricane, a killing frost.

It was freezing on Brighton beach, and the nice people from Swiss television wanted an answer. I should have told them that author and activist bell hooks speaks of the power of “strategic mourning” —the difficulty and necessity of acknowledging feelings, letting them move through you so you can move on—but I remembered this quotation too late. After the TV people packed up, I spent the rest of the next two days sitting in front of the Giant UV Lamp For People Who Get Sad In The Winter. The very presence of the Sad Lamp, the interior decorating equivalent of the Cone of Shame, makes the whole thing feel more manageable. The blackest existential dread can’t be taken quite so seriously if a lamp helps.

The contemporary language of oppression is not about sensitivity and victimhood, whatever the old and new wish to believe. It is an expression of strength and knowledge through shared suffering, a cry of rage and outrage that contains its own demand for change. If refusing to accept injustice is weakness, then I can only aspire one day to the weakness of writers and activists with ten times my courage. If being strong means denying the humanity of others, following tyrants, dealing out violence, then make me weak. Make me soft. Give me the fortitude of vulnerability, the might of a flake in a snowbank ready to carve out mountains.

The new right might feel strong, and be in power this season, but theirs is a fragile, ugly strength. They have exoskeletons, but no backbone. They allow their hearts to rot inside a carapace of denial. Their strength is the strength of invertebrates, of impermeable things that can bite and sting but cannot stand upright when it counts.

I’ve got no time for that sort of strength. Not now, not ever. Give me courage instead, the courage to remain permeable, to remain open, the potential for empathy and learning. Make me brave—I don’t care about strong.