The Student Snowflake Stereotype is Counterproductive to the Cause of Free Speech

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.

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35 comments

  1. Nice article. However, while I would agree that most Millennial students are not pathetically drippy “snowflakes” – quite a few of the more frenetic and fanatical who lead these de-platforming crusades are. This unhappy whining few full deserve the mockery and derision that is associated with the term “snowflake.” University administrations these days seem to be incredibly gutless – willing to throw their academics under the bus anytime a bunch of self-appointed, non-peer reviewed dipsticks form a Tweeting mob to protest some research they don’t like. If you don’t like research, write a critical notice or an article that points out its flaws, go through peer review and get it published. This mobbing of peer-reviewed published research by uncredentialled activist ignoramuses is disgusting.

  2. I think the article fights a strawman. The term ‘snowflake’ largely originated from the emergence of trigger warnings, micro aggressions, and safe spaces in university settings. I find the term in this context quite apt. I guess the fact that from the outside the same groups dominate the deplatforming journalists have conflated them. I do have some sympathy for this because there is not a good term for this group. I do not like derogatory terms like SJWs, cultural Marxists, post-modernists, regressive left, radical feminists, etc. However, although the boundaries of this group are fuzzy (and I’m not sure even you are outside their spell looking at your examples) there seems to be getting something distinctly rotten out of gender- and other x-studies. It would be nice to have a neutral term to describe this group.

    I do think it is important to call out this group for bad things have happened because of small festering groups gaining too much influence because they were not called out.

  3. “the anti-immigration essayists Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens …”

    Not so much anti-immigration as they are anti-Muslim immigration.

    I think we, many of us, at any rate, are a little too careless in describing people as anti-immigrant, when it’s really certain classes of immigrants who have become controversial; Muslims from third world countries, and, in the specific case of the US, poor, uneducated Hispanics illegally entering and staying.

  4. please stop spamming this comments section with off topic discussion. it’s making it hard to follow. can you please at least figure out the reply button so it all stays in one place?

  5. You really have no proven scientific evidence, Anonymous, for any of these claims. In their day, bloodletting and lobotomies were also seen as completely provable as safe and effective by those who viewed science as a thing we do in committees, by consensus. Rather than hard evidence. Vaccines have never been proven safe and effective. What has led to the decline in these diseases has been sanitation and hygiene, according to Dr. Miguel Faria.
    Instead of spouting the boilerplate, why don’t you look at the dissidents’ and their papers, such as Dr. Faria, Gary Null and Richard Gale, etc.?

  6. «More than 50 students attended a protest demanding that Sullivan resign his position as dean over alleged #MeToo failings. The Association of Black Harvard Women also wants him gone. “What has been made especially clear is that you have failed us,” they wrote in a letter. “You have failed the Black women in this community, not only as one of the few Black Faculty Deans on campus but also as a community leader—someone who we respected and looked to for guidance.”» – This is a quote.

    No more «innocent till proven guilty», lets rule by revolutionary expediency! I’m sorry, if these students study law, they should be expelled from Harvard.

    Frankly speaking, Harvey Weinstein was made by Hollywood actresses. Prostitutes are more honest, they take money and don’t play victims

  7. A couple of comments have asked me 1) whether I dispute that a small minority of students manage to hurt free speech on campus and 2) whether I agree that those students are snowflakes.

    1) No – there clearly are some students who wield a disproportionate amount of influence and use it to try to restrict freedom of expression (though sometimes reports on no-platforming exaggerate).

    2) No – I would avoid calling those few students snowflakes. It implies the issue is that they are too sensitive, rather than their extreme beliefs. Which I don’t think is quite right. After all, if they couldn’t bear to avoid what ‘controversial’ figures say, all they would have to do is not go and hear them speak. Instead, they see it as their ideological imperative to shut them down. It’s not necessarily a coherent ideology that they have thought out, but making it about the mental health and well-being of the activist, and not their ethics, seems like a red herring. To be fair, protesters often claim to be acting to protect marginalized communities, but this belies their certainty they have in their dogmas on racism, trans-phobia and the limits of freedom of expression. (Perhaps I should have put that in the article, but nevermind).

    1. So, the students that are trying to shut down free speech are not snowflakes, they are zealots. However, they present other students as being snowflakes as a way of justifying their zealotry. Hence by using the snowflake narrative we play into their hands.

      Again, is that a fair summary of your position?

      1. The zealots don’t call themselves or other students snowflakes, but they often invoke mental well-being. This disguises the very idealogical motives behind their actions. The snowflake narrative – if used generally – validates their claim to speak for other students. Even, at an individual level, the snowflake label makes this issue about sensitivity more than ethics and belief, playing into the zealot’s narrative in that regard. Aside from this, the snowflake label is unhelpful because it is obviously dramatic and OTT, which makes it easier for people to defend students to the point of denying there are problems with free speech on campus.

        I hope that clears things up; I appreciate the chance to clarify my views.

  8. James Burns, Brendan O’Neill isn’t “right-wing”; rather, he’s a modern left-winger at intellectual war with today’s postmodern left-wingers. James Burns, Steve Bannon isn’t a “white supremacist”; rather, he’s a Christocentric, Western Civ. chauvinist. (I don’t like Bannon, but my disliking him should correspond to the actual—as opposed to the boogie man—him.) James Burns, please employ tighter nomenclature: when we (on the Left) redefine otherwise left-leaning individuals as “right-wing,” we’re only providing more evidence to back Steven Pinker’s “Left Pole” thesis — and when we redefine right-wing individuals as “far-“, “racist-right,” we only show that we either don’t understand them or, worse, we do, but choose to act in bad faith by employing ad hominem.

    1. If Brendan O’Neill once was left-wing, you can’t tell that from most of what he has written in recent years. They exhibit a strong strain of social conservatism: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/03/06/those-birmingham-parents-are-right/. Though perhaps it would be better to describe him as a reactionary rather than as right or left.

      On Bannon – white supremacism – or at least, racism – seems to be the implication of some of what he says (and of Breitbart articles under his tenure).

      But I’ll try and be more careful precise in the future.

      1. I admire O’Neill a great deal although I do not agree with everything he says but on freedom of speech, Brexit and democracy he is stout hearted.

    2. And neither is Douglas Murray anti immigration although he is deeply concerned at large scale immigration from Muslim countries into Europe and the Islamification of that continent which he chronicles in his usual beautiful prose in his terrifying book The Strange Death Of Europe. The writer of this piece needs to get his facts straight.

      1. Sorry, being against “large scale immigration from Muslim countries” sounds pretty anti-immigrant to me in practice, even if he claims not to be anti-immigration in principle.

        ——-

        In 2006 while giving a speech at the Pim Fortuyn memorial conference in the Dutch parliament, Murray, describing Muslims as a “demographic time-bomb” argued that “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board…all immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop” before “a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities”.

        1. Maybe you should read his book if you haven’t already and he says nothing that is not true about Islam but hey. let’s tar one of Britain’s best writers and commentators with the usual anti immigration brush because it’s easier to do that than to try to understand what is really happening with mass immigration of (mainly young male) Muslims into Europe.. The success of Murray’s book speaks for itself.

  9. You argue against the “snowflake” narrative, but then most of what you write is exactly what somebody who agreed with the snowflake narrative would have written.

    As far as I can see, you agree with “a vocal minority of students are snowflakes and are causing problems” but disagree with “all students are snowflakes”. Is that a fair summary?

    For what its worth, when I was a student in the 1980s student politicians were all idiots and “no platforming” was a standard tactic. I’m not convinced that student politicians are any sillier now, just more visible.

    1. “As far as I can see, you agree with “a vocal minority of students are snowflakes and are causing problems” but disagree with “all students are snowflakes”. Is that a fair summary?”

      Yes, though I would avoid calling those few students snowflakes as well. Mainly because it implies the issue is their sensitivity, rather than their extreme beliefs. After all, if they couldn’t bear to avoid what ‘controversial’ figures say, all they would have to do is not go and hear them speak. Instead, they see it as their ideological imperative to shut them down. It’s not necessary a coherent ideology that they have thought out, but making it about the activist’s mental health and wellbeing rather than their (arrogant) dogmas and ethics seems to me a distraction.

      I would also say I differ from snowflake proponents in that I assign a smaller role to fear in explaining the absence of resistance, and because I don’t see the outcome of general millennial beliefs for free speech as entirely in the direction of restricting free speech.

  10. Have you noticed that these radicals are backed almost completely by the colleges? That they only “no platform” right of centre speakers? Students should be ashamed of themselves for allowing such extremists to take over their unions. However the public should be ashamed of allowing our universities become so skewed in a Leftward direction that it is damaging education overall. And indeed society.

  11. Anonymous, your response are more intelligent and civil than those of AJ. I invite you to look at the work of Dr. Miguel Faria, as well as the documents and videos by Gary Null and Richard Gale, on this subject. Faria’s paper on Sanitation and Hygiene (good key words to look for his paper) reveal that it was these, and not vaccines, that are responsible for the decline in the levels of these diseases.

  12. I’m all for gong back to ignoring the few loudly vocal campus activists if they were likewise being routinely ignored by administrators, and their actions were not having real consequences, or setting the tone for debate and activism outside of campus life. I would love to ignore them then! can we make this happen?

    1. Abandoning the snowflake narrative can help prevent those activists setting the tone and intimidating colleges, since doing so will highlight that they don’t speak for other students. Departments and the rest of the student body also need to be braver, as I say in the article.

      1. I’m afraid I don’t have much faith in the bravery of people in general in the face of mob mentalities. I would love to, but history seems to show the brave only start to come out once the mob has already gone well past too far.

  13. It is noble of you to defend the silent students who are not so radical. However you seem to be missing the point that the radical no-platformers have the power, are backed by most administrations, and are causing a big problem. You blame those who invite controversial speakers, but is it not true that most students don’t even go to these lectures? I never did. If so, why do the radicals get so upset? All they have to do is not attend. But they are offended that such speakers even exist. They are now getting bolder and trying to get profs fired for the slightest of offenses (or even for something they misunderstand). They are not just de-platforming: antifa riots in the US (Berkeley for example) are become quite violent. When Charles Murray tried to speak at one school, his host (a woman) was put in the hospital by rioters. At Evergreen college last year the nuts took over the campus and walked around with baseball bats (not looking for a game to join, I bet). Many profs are terrified of their students. At a law school in England I believe the prof was trying to teach a class about law surrounding rape and students did not want to hear about rape–good luck to their future clients.

    1. That’s been the case in the US as well where some law students study criminal law no less, have said discussing rape would traumatise them. The most bizarre thing is I presume many of these same people would take serious issue with the law around rape, and how the criminal justice system deals with it.
      I can only conclude graduation comes with a magic wand whereby they can achieve reform and justice for the victims without ever talking about it.

    2. “However you seem to be missing the point that the radical no-platformers have the power, are backed by most administrations, and are causing a big problem.”

      I actually say something pretty similar to this in the article
      – “Because activists are good at making noise and frequently hold positions of power”
      – “So how are campaigners able to act with such impunity if they don’t have widespread support?”
      – “To make matters worse, university departments often fail to stand by their staff—as in the Sullivan and Peterson affairs.”

      “You blame those who invite controversial speakers…”

      Where do I do that!? If you can point me to the bit where you think I imply this, I would actually appreciate the chance to clarify this.

      I appreciate the response, but please read what I actually said! Apologies if my writing is not good enough to invite closer reading.

  14. Whilst you make a number of valid points, I think it’s unreasonable to except their not to be a focus on the very vocal and influential minority of activist voices given the impact they have.
    It also absolves the majority of any responsibility for taking ownership of what’s done in their name. I don’t doubt the radical no platform if brigade are a minority, but I see little evidence of counter protests or attempts to reclaim the bodies that have been taken over by radical intolerant bullies.
    It’s all very well blaming journalists for focusing on the very visible problem, but if a majority of students are secretly thinking ‘not in my name’ that needs to be no longer secret.
    Also, the other point you’ve missed is that the rot clearly goes deeper that just the handful of high profile cases that make headlines. Within the social sciences and the humanities there’s an overwhelming bias in favour of the the ideologies that sit behind the activists view point intolerance.
    It’s hardly a surprise if a large minority think shutting down any view point that deviates from their dogma is valid, if everything they’re taught in class points towards any kind of humanist universalist world view (let alone a conservative one) being nothing more that a tool of power to maintain white male oppressive hegemony.
    As much as I detest many of the voices on the right you cite, none of that is their fault.

    1. Thank you for your considered response, though I would like to point out that I do advocate for students taking a stand.

      “It’s all very well blaming journalists for focusing on the very visible problem, but if a majority of students are secretly thinking ‘not in my name’ that needs to be no longer secret.”

      I agree! This is the very reason why I want the student snowflake stereotype to be abandoned – a more nuanced approach to these issues will help bring out that the extremists are in a minority, stopping it being a ‘secret’.

      Regarding ‘the wider rot’ – it is not my experience of Hums that we are taught that ‘any kind of humanist universalist world view’ is a tool of white male hegemony’, but this may be because I am a student of History, in particular Medieval History. I appreciate it may be more of an issue in English or sociology.

      Still, I think freer and open debate on ‘difficult’ issues does happen in the classroom – partly because in the classroom students are on a relatively equal playing field and can participate in the knowledge that a certain standard of debate can be maintained. Ultimately, this debate on class ‘snowflakery’ consists of both sides highlighting anecdotes, reflecting the diversity of experiences and the attitudes held by different academics.

      1. @Even History is changing. One textbook I’m using now refers to the Middle Ages as the Antifeminist Era.

  15. Why is it axiomatic to Areo writers that vaccines do not cause autism. There is plenty of evidence to conclude that they do. Look at the work of Andrew Wakefield–who actually has been exonerated, and the campaign against him revealed to be a hatchet job. Look at Gary Null’s website for plenty of evidence as to this connection. Could it be that you are sticking your heads in the sand out of fear of the cognitive dissonance it might produce, having yourselves, or your loved ones, subjected to vaccines?

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    1. Wakefield’s been exonerated? Righto, that’s likely to be news to British medical establishment that struck him off. I look forward to him regaining his credentials then. Unless of course the entire medical profession is one giant conspiracy, but that would have to apply to far more that just vaccines.
      As it stands, the only things vaccines cause is Adults.

    2. @Thomas Smith
      It is not axiomatic that vaccines do not cause autism but based on the evidence. It is very hard to prove that no cases of autism have d er been caused by a vaccine but it has been proved that vaccines are not a statisically significant cause and that the overwhelming majority of cases are not related to vaccines. The evidence suggests that no cases of autism have ever been caused by a vaccine but as noted above this a hard thing to prove.

      It is beyond dispute that failure to vaccinates has se ere consequences up to and including death so failure to vaccinate is an peculiarly modern form of abusive child neglet and should be grounds for prosecution.

    3. even if they did, why is it axiomatic among antivaxxers that the slightest risk of autism is worse than much greater risks of serious life-threatening and debilitating diseases? why is there no room for a simple cost/benefit analysis in your camp?

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