Beyond the Snowflake Activist

Regulatory Fiction Versus Reality

By Jay Daniel Thompson


I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Nonetheless, when I read the Good Weekend’s expose on campus activism from February this year, the aftertaste of disappointment was palpable. Here we go again, I sighed, as reporter Tim Elliott rehashed the familiar stereotype of hyper-sensitive students giving zero-tolerance to views with which they disagree.

Elliott’s piece is part of a wider trend of representing 21st century student activists as snowflakes who are unable to tolerate dissenting opinions, much less the challenges of everyday life. This strategy has its genesis in the US, and has also been evidenced in the UK. The representation of student activists as snowflakes has been advanced by commentators from around the political spectrum.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s essay ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ (2014; later, a 2018 book of the same name) is perhaps the best-known example of this trend. Lukianoff and Haidt are particularly critical of trigger warnings, that is, verbal or written warnings that material taught in class could trigger heightened emotional reactions. The trouble with these warnings, according to Lukianoff and Haidt, is that they’re being applied not to potentially traumatising material, but to any material a student might happen to dislike.

As the authors put it: ‘Once you find something hateful, it is easy to argue that exposure to the hateful thing could traumatize some other people.’

As well as being trigger-warning-happy, today’s student activists have been accused of being censorious. British feminist columnist Julie Bindel, for example, has declared that ‘censorship is the new normal’ in contemporary universities. Bindel specifically decries the act of no-platforming, ­that is having speakers uninvited and/or banned from presenting their views on campuses (e.g. in seminars and public lectures). Bindel herself has been no-platformed by the UK’s National Union of Students on account of her publicly stated views about sex work and transpeople.

This Snowflake Activist narrative has been critiqued at length. For example, in a Guardian op ed, Josh Salisbury argues that this narrative conflates ‘many separate university trends, as if they were all evidence of a mass censorious mood in the student body.’ There is an ‘authoritarian streak’ in contemporary campus politics, concedes Salisbury, but this is hardly representative of all students who agitate around particular issues.

I broadly agree with Salisbury, though I’d suggest that the ‘authoritarian streak’ he mentions has always been evident in student activism. There have always been groups and individuals who wish to enforce what causes to support, and what stance one should take on a particular issue.

Nonetheless, at this point, the problems inherent within the Snowflake Activist narrative are not what interest me. My interest lies in what the Snowflake Activist narrative actually does. How can this narrative potentially disempower the subjects under discussion?

It’s most useful to consider the Snowflake Activist narrative as an example of a regulatory fiction. The term ‘regulatory fiction’ refers to a narrative or set of ideas that attempts to define and determine the behaviour and movements of a particular individual or group. This fiction also regulates the way others view that particular individual/group.

On that last point: Historically, freedom of speech has been understood as ‘intrinsic to the definition of democracy.’ So, the Snowflake Activist is anti-democracy, too, it seems. This suggestion has been advanced by the British gay activist Peter Tatchell. In response to a survey showing that ‘nearly two-thirds of UK university students’ support the NUS’ no-platform policy, Tatchell has been quoted as saying: ‘Democracy does not include the right to vote away the free speech and human rights of others.’

At this point, it’s worth acknowledging that the Snowflake Activist narrative isn’t new. This one was doing the rounds when ‘snowflakes’ were only icy manifestations and triggers only appeared on guns.

A notorious example is Helen Garner’s controversial 1995 book The First Stone. This is ostensibly an investigation of the events surrounding a case of sexual harassment at a university residential college. A college master was accused of sexually harassing female students at a party. Garner, though, seems more interested in demonising the ‘young’ complainants and their supporters as ‘punitive’ (her words) activists who were obsessed with being subjugated by men. These women weren’t railing against genuine injustices; they were simply ‘afraid of life’.

In Garner’s text, the author presents herself as the voice of rationality, the one who can spot the excesses of the younger feminists, and who could model of the kind of restraint and acceptance these women should be exhibiting. At one point, Garner describes an episode from her youth, in which she allowed a drunken male train passenger to kiss her. Garner acknowledges that she permitted this kiss ‘out of embarrassment, or politeness, or passivity, or lack of a clear sense of what I wanted’, but it is implied that the discomfort she experienced was somehow less problematic than reporting her mistreatment to the police (which is what two of the college complainants did). While the college master held considerable power over his accusers, Garner uses her significant public profile as an author to present him as their victim.

The subtext of The First Stone is that ‘young’ feminists should ‘man up’ (as it were), become less sensitive, and not go running to the authorities to complain about some bloke’s more or less harmless advances. A similar subtext lies at the heart of the Snowflake Activist narrative: ‘young’ activists should get tough, and avoid speaking out against anything that might hurt their feelings. In other words, they shouldn’t respond to what they may perceive as abuse or provocation.

“By equating trigger warnings with censorship, promulgators of the Snowflake Activist narrative can once again dismiss ‘young’ activists as being over-sensitive, more concerned with shutting down debate than dealing with a legitimate grievance.”

Now, as in 1995, the Snowflake Activist narrative has little interest in acknowledging, much less exploring, the very real inequalities that provoke protest and political action in today’s universities. In Australia alone, over the last decade, there have been studies undertaken on sexual violence and racism on campus. And then there are the plethora of injustices that extend beyond the university’s walls (asylum seekers in detention centres, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, corruption in the banking sector, transphobia). Inequalities and injustices such as those listed above are surely reasons enough for activism, whether this activism takes place in institutions of higher learning, on the streets, or on social media. In characterising ‘young’ activists as being easily offended, or as having hurt feelings, the Snowflake Activist narrative aims to trivialise not only their responses, but encourages acquiescence to an unjust and inequitable status-quo.

Furthermore, the Snowflake Activist narrative certainly isn’t concerned with the financial challenges associated with being a student in the second decade of the 21st century. Indeed, it often aims to present the supposed nativity of politically active students as the result of a coddled and pampered existence. In reality, university fees are rising, as is the cost of living. The $AUD90 per week, inner-city sharehouse room that I enjoyed during my undergrad days circa the early noughties would be a pipe dream to my own students. In an environment riddled with financial challenges, where students are required to work ever longer hours, it is admirable that they find the time and energy to undertake any kind of activism at all.

There’s also the question of whether media outlets are willing to promote the voices of young people. ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ generated some lively responses on social media and the blogosphere when it was published by The Atlantic back in 2014. Nonetheless, I don’t recall The Atlantic publishing a rejoinder to Lukianoff and Haidt’s piece that was penned by a young student. In an environment where media is still often dominated by older and more conservative voices, it is difficult for students to make their voices heard in the public sphere in the way that Jordan Peterson or even Helen Garner do.

So, let’s now turn to the accusations of censorship – namely, that students are censoring speakers via no-platforming and trigger warnings. These are serious accusations, and require scrutiny.

No-platforming can be problematic. Not all controversial viewpoints are hateful or discriminatory. Nonetheless, it’s unclear why students should remain silent when a speaker who spouts unambiguously hateful views is given a platform on their campus. Milo Yiannopoulos is an obvious example of such a speaker (and yes, I know he’s deliberately provocative, and yes, I know that his de-platforming gives him the air of outsider-ness and edginess that he craves, and yes, I know he loves the attention. Nonetheless, my point stands).

“In Garner’s text, the author presents herself as the voice of rationality, the one who can spot the excesses of the younger feminists, and who could model of the kind of restraint and acceptance these women should be exhibiting.”

The rhetoric of Yiannopoulos and his ilk can have a chilling ­(read: silencing, read: censorious) ­impact on those who are the subjects of such views (women, Muslims, transpeople). Students themselves could feel silenced by this rhetoric. With this in mind, student protests against such speakers ­whether these take the form of a rally, or no-platforming the speaker ­can be read as a message that hate speech is not acceptable, and indeed may harm others.

Equally, trigger warnings can be thrown about recklessly. The term ‘triggering’ can be used inappropriately, e.g. to describe feeling shocked, or simply to dismiss a viewpoint that an individual doesn’t concur with. Yet applying trigger warnings to potentially confronting material can help some students to navigate that material. If the student knows that the material contains content that might distress them, they can mentally prepare (and this can mean engaging with the material in its entirety, or skipping the distressing parts).

Applying trigger warnings doesn’t mean banning a particular text or author. By equating trigger warnings with censorship, promulgators of the Snowflake Activist narrative can once again dismiss ‘young’ activists as being over-sensitive, more concerned with shutting down debate than dealing with a legitimate grievance. Again, there’s the suggestion that these ‘young’ people need to harden up and not speak out about their concerns (be these concerns political, personal, or both).

At this point, you’ll note that this article has said little about the individuals who espouse the Snowflake Activist narrative. Why exactly are they trying to regulate campus activists? There’s the opportunity to act as the voice of reason and rationality, yes, but the reasons go deeper than that. Much deeper.

Ultimately, by dismissing student activists as being intolerant snowflakes, commentators can avoid engaging with the arguments that these activists make. These are arguments that the commentator might disagree with, that they might find unsettling, that they might … well, be triggered by. The commentator can also avoid acknowledging (much less trying to rectify) social inequalities.

And these commentators (and their editors) know that they have a ready-made audience for their schtick. A quick Google search reveals a multitude of horror stories about delicate darlings trying to rid their campuses of dissenting voices. The Snowflake Activist narrative gets the all-important clicks.

So why, then, is the Snowflake Activist narrative an apparent crowd-pleaser? The reason for this might lie (partly, at least) in its familiarity. The stereotype of ‘young’ people as unknowing, perhaps dangerously so, and in need of adult’s wise words is an old one. Garner’s The First Stone is one local example of this narrative, and there are others.

Indeed, the familiarity of these stereotypes of young people speaks volumes about the dominance of voices from certain age groups in mainstream media outlets, and the concurrent paucity of ‘young’ voices. This age-related imbalance (which was raised earlier in the article) has been intact for a while now. Back in 1997, Mark Davis asked:

Is there a backlash against young people and the way they think? Has an older generation of cultural apparatchiks, used to being at the centre and having a strong media presence, more or less systematically set out to discredit young people and their ideas, even progressive opinion generally?

Davis went on to write that in 1990s Australian media, the voices and lives of young people were ‘filtered through the eyes and ears of people whose formative experiences occurred at least twenty years ago.’ Two decades on, and in a media landscape that is very different to the one Davis was writing in, a similar situation can be found. Many promulgators of the Snowflake Activist narrative (e.g. Lukianoff and Haidt) are not ‘young’ ‘students’, but they speak for and about these students on very high-profile platforms.

So, what can be done? How can the narrative of unknowing students who require regulation be rewritten, or better still, discarded altogether?

A useful starting point would entail media outlets foregrounding the voices of students themselves. Lefty and Righty-y and Centre-y. Young but also not-so-young. What are the students themselves saying? What are their concerns (political and otherwise), and what are the sources of those concerns? What do the students think is the best way to address these concerns, and why?

With this foregrounding of voices, maybe ­just maybe ­a nuanced mainstream media discussion of campus political activity and activists can emerge. Maybe ­just maybe ­an insight into the diversity of student lives (especially ‘young’ student lives) circa 2019 can appear in newspaper columns.

Maybe just maybe ­we can see an end to the regulatory fiction of the Snowflake Activist.