Are students intolerant, overly sensitive snowflakes? Yes, according to broadcasters like Tucker Carlson in America and right-wing commentators James Delingpole, Brendan O’Neill, Toby Young and Julia Hartley-Brewer in the UK. Article after article is published, denouncing students for taking offence at everything from buildings named after dead politicians to poems and clapping. In this respect, they are no different from other articles of the millennial outrage type, which use a small number of tweets as evidence that young people are humourless and hysterical. But stories involving students require more scrutiny, since they undermine faith in our education system.
Typically, they present over-the-top statements made by a few overzealous campaigners as representative of an entire generation. This validates the claim of campaigners to speak on behalf of other students. So, while the journalist and campaigner loathe each other, they also feed each other. The former reinforces the self-importance of the latter. In return, the journalist gets an easy target, which will guarantee them page views.
Because activists are good at making noise and frequently hold positions of power—as chairs of societies or editors of student newspapers—they attract a lot of attention, even though widespread disengagement with student politics means they rarely have mandates. For example, the UK’s National Union of Students endorses no-platforming policies, but turnout for NUS elections at certain universities is under 10%; nationally, it hovers at only around 30%. Several student unions have cut ties with the NUS over its propensity for partisan, self-aggrandizing campaigns. So we should be cautious about drawing conclusions about students at large from the actions of a few campaigners.
That said, there have been some serious examples of student intolerance. Academics have found themselves under attack for expressing controversial views: the Oxford Student Union LGBTQ+ Group encouraged people to complain about Professor Carl Heneghan after he contributed to an article criticizing the use of hormone blockers; in the US, social critic Professor Camille Paglia faced calls to resign over comments she made about gender transition. Some activists resort to no-platforming and boycotts—and not just of a few far-right figures: an NUS officer boycotted a debate involving veteran LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell; feminist Linda Bellos was uninvited by a Cambridge feminist society after Bellos said she would question the trans movement. The common theme here is accusations of transphobia: whether they are merited is less relevant than the fact that activists cannot contemplate debating ideas of which they have yet to convince much of the general public.
Still, the student snowflake stereotype is counterproductive. Such melodramatic sneering allows critics to dismiss the issue of free speech on campus as a “manufactured crisis”‒undermining attempts by more liberal voices to highlight concerning trends. Aside from being unhelpful, it is also outright wrong. For, although a majority of British students do support the ability of groups to no-platform controversial speakers, this does not mean that they approve of every incident of no-platforming, however extreme. As a student, I’ve noticed a mismatch between the media’s presentation of students and what the students I talk to actually think. I may be in a bubble, of course, but other evidence also suggests that students are more divided and diverse than the headlines imply.
One point often skipped over in arguments about no-platforming is that it is often students who invite the controversial speakers in the first place. For example, the Oxford History Society invited feminist Jenni Murray to speak about powerful women in history, only for student LGBTQ+ groups to demand they condemn her as transphobic or cancel the event. Other incidents show student opinion to be more complex than is sometimes made out. Although Cambridge University rescinded the offer of a fellowship to Jordan Peterson after pressure from the Students’ Union, theologian Stephen Blackwood points out that he was not as widely toxic there as the controversy implied. A few months earlier, Peterson had received a warm reception and taken questions from a large audience at the Cambridge Union (the debating society, which is separate from the SU). The CU’s cousin, the Oxford Union, hit the headlines after students protested an invitation to Steve Bannon, but the opposition raised there was both exceptional and understandable, given Bannon’s unapologetic white supremacism. Plenty of others whose views are far outside mainstream liberal opinion have spoken there recently without causing so much controversy: invitees have included Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort; Nigel Farage, a right-wing figurehead, who is even more notorious than Bannon in the UK; and the anti-immigration essayists Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens.
Over in the US, Harvard’s launch of a climate review in response to concerns that Professor Ronald Sullivan would be unable to carry out his duties as dean of Winthrop House if he represented Harvey Weinstein was widely reported. Less widely reported was the fact that Harvard’s Black Law Students’ Association criticized the university’s decision. Meanwhile, at Middlebury College, one class voted in favour of sneaking in Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko to give a lecture, after administrators cancelled the official event because of planned protests—protests that didn’t even aim to shut it down. At Yale, a survey of over 800 undergraduates revealed a mixed picture: a majority said that speakers with a history of hate speech should be banned, but also claimed to prefer free speech over speech codes, intellectual diversity over no-platforming. In other words, Yale students are neither free speech absolutists nor against free speech, but support it within limits. Such views are muddled, perhaps, but not militant. Students, then, are not uncompromisingly hostile to controversial figures—let alone universally endorse seeking to deprive people of their positions and platforms. Rarely can activists claim to be acting for anyone but themselves.
But conservative and dissident students do not speak for a silent majority either. Generally, 18–24 years olds are more liberal than older generations on questions of race, gender and sexuality: so they are less tolerant of apparently racist, sexist and homophobic views. But the consequences of this for free speech are not wholly pernicious. This generational change helps reduce self-censorship on the part of members of marginalized groups. It means that discussion of LGBT relationships will continue to be normalized. Christians may feel under attack on campus, but the secular attitudes of undergraduates and graduates should make it easier for American atheists running for political office to be open about their lack of belief. And you do not have to agree with everything trans campaigners say to recognize that they have asked previously unimaginable questions about gender and self-expression, even while some of them seek to close down others. The Overton window has shifted rather than shrunk. Indeed, a YouGov survey last year suggested that British students are hardly more inclined to ban offensive views than the wider public—with the notable exceptions of the views that transgender women are not real women, vaccines cause autism and climate change is not man-made.
Yet the examples given earlier make it hard to deny that there is a trend in student politics towards wanting to shut down alternative views—even if the extent of this trend has been exaggerated. So how are campaigners able to act with such impunity if they don’t have widespread support?
Though many students do not endorse the extreme positions espoused by their peers, they do not do enough to oppose them either. Students who criticize the intolerance of their peers are honourable exceptions. Too often, student societies withdraw invitations to speak after others raise a ruckus. The director of anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate says that he was blocked from attending a conference by members of NUS Black Students, even though the NUS leadership claim that they would have had no problem with his attendance. Too often, the hardliners end up in positions of power in student politics because no one mounts an effective challenge.
Why don’t they? Fear is part of the explanation. If you are a concerned student, you may worry that if you challenge the no-platform culture you will be ostracized and your ideas criticized as giving succour to the right. You cannot control how others will construe what you have said: by the time you clarify your views, it is too late—you are already on the wrong side of the culture war. The public silence reinforces itself: it makes it seem as if you were alone, even when private conversations tell a different story. If you stand up and say something, there’s no guarantee anyone will applaud you. However, this fear may be unjustified, and we should avoid placing too much emphasis on it. Criticizing student politics won’t ruin you. Several students—for example, Coleman Hughes in the US and Tom Harwood in the UK—have managed to start media careers by arguing against liberal orthodoxies. Moreover, most of us do not live in a state of paranoia, scared that our heretical views will get found out.
A more convincing explanation is indifference. Students feel they have better things to do than get involved in the latest controversy. Or, if they do care, lack of enthusiasm stops them from doing anything beyond sighing despondently or joking about it—while their classmates organize petitions and protests. Why risk glares only for another scandal to come along soon afterwards? For most students, it is just not worth it. But they should not be so complacent. Quite apart from allowing the media to paint a narrative of snowflake students, no-platforming undermines the culture of open and honest discussion. One does not have to approve of what someone says to learn from it.
To make matters worse, university departments often fail to stand by their staff—as in the Sullivan and Peterson affairs. Their acquiescence is self-interested. Universities are desperate to avoid dragging out controversies that can only result in negative headlines. Many of them think they cannot afford to give the impression that they do not listen to students, in an increasingly competitive university market. Government demands that students are given value for money have led universities to behave more and more like businesses. And, as businesses, they try to give the customers—the students—what they want. No wonder many academics feel aggrieved when politicians blame them for the current state of affairs—they are increasingly beholden to students politically not least because tuition fees have made them beholden to students financially. But universities do have a choice. Though it is less than ideal that they have to care about what students think in this way, they should take the time to listen to the whole student body—not panic in the face of a few angry tweets.
What will not help are government plans that punish universities for failing to stop no-platforming—such as those the British government announced last year. This antagonizes students and is based on the actions of only a few. And the potential penalty means that if there is a risk that a controversial speaker will end up no-platformed, universities and societies are less likely to invite them to begin with.
What might help is a more cautious and nuanced approach by journalists to student controversies. When taking offence on behalf of the student body, particular individuals act as if they had mandates it is impossible for them to have. Articles that treat them as emblematic of millenials at large make things worse. Their gross exaggerations allow critics to dismiss no-platforming as a non-issue. Rather than patronising students and portraying them as snowflakes, commentators should emphasize the range of student attitudes towards controversial figures. This might make the more zealous activists a little humbler. The wider problem with student attitudes to free speech is less that they are hostile towards it and more that they are bored with the subject. Therefore, journalists should not stop condemning no-platforming when appropriate, but should appeal to moderate voices within the student body. Abandon the snowflake narrative—not because the examples it uses are benign, but because they are unrepresentative of students at large. The opponents of snowflakery argue that it is important to engage with and accurately represent someone’s opinions, not indiscriminately treat groups of people as the enemy. They should extend the same courtesy to students.
The snowflake student is the ultimate straw man—but it casts a very long shadow indeed.