Definition of coddle
1: to cook (as eggs) in liquid slowly and gently just below the boiling point coddled the eggs for the Caesar salad
2: to treat with extreme or excessive care or kindness : pamper accused the court ofcoddling criminals colleges that coddle their athletes
These days it can be hard to see teenage rebellion for what it is. It’s not wearing your hair long, because your headmaster does that. It’s not staying out all night or taking drugs – I mean, Mick Jagger has five grandchildren. It’s not nudity or music because, Dad, just put it away, OK, and give me your Spotify password. No it’s this: are you a little snowflake?
Being a snowflake doesn’t sound quite as sexy as being a punk. Even less so when you hear some examples of ultra-censorious snowflakiness among millennials: the University of East Anglia outlawing sombreros, for example, or a conference at the National Union of Students introducing “jazz hands” instead of clapping due to clap-induced anxiety.
However, I may as well just ask it in a different way: are you old or are you young? Because the young, sensitive snowflakes – as easy to lampoon as they are – have finally found a way to enrage their parents. Sure, snowflakes melt, but if you get enough of them you can cause quite a social avalanche.
Andy Martin is a Cambridge University lecturer butting up against his students’ sense of propriety all the time. He says he “got in trouble” after a student complained that he had cracked a penis-innuendo joke during a lecture. Martin writes passionately in favour of “the permissive, rock’n’roll, anything-goes mentality” of his youth, back when to say or do what you wanted was the way to stick it to “the man”. What Martin is worried about, he has written, is the youthful zeal for the puritanical policing of language, their readiness to fear or take offence; “the rise of the hypersensitive ‘generation snowflake’”.
Then we have, on the other side of the yawning generation gap, Martin’s son, who is just graduating. Martin decided to ask him for his thoughts, and he texted right back: “By the way, generation snowflake is just a codeword for ‘generation that is far more aware of the widespread ramifications of racism and sexism’.” Not, in other words, the generation of Donald Trump.
The term “generation snowflake” started in America. Parents cherished their offspring as “precious little snowflakes”, each alike but unique, or “everyone is special” as they sing in the cartoon South Park. When those smothered infants grew into adults they were lampooned by the same parental generation for melting at any small amount of difficulty. “Snowflake” is just a fancy word for “drip”.
They have spawned a new lexicon. Generation snowflake was one of Collins Dictionary’s 2016 words of the year, but with it came the phrases “check your privilege”, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”. The term snowflake started to gather momentum in workplaces worried about their tribunal-ready young employees quaking at their first criticism and at universities such as Oxford, which was forced to put trigger warnings on sexually violent legal case reports.
Parents were appalled. They were desperate to be mates with their kids, but who was this priggish, alien species so brazenly ignoring the freedoms for which Mum and Dad had fought so hard? A bunch of bed-wetters, that’s who. Dangerous, anti-free speech, anti-democratic bed-wetters. The former enfant terrible novelist, Bret Easton Ellis, 52, wailed: “Oh, little snowflakes, when did you all become 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?”
Or could you take a step back and see this as the cry of every codger since codgers evolved? It’s no coincidence that the speakers most famously resisted by British student unions, such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, are triple their age. Is this truth v intolerance, or ego v nice? We don’t see Gordon Ramsay shouting so much now we have the gentle tent of The Great British Bake Off. I’ve even heard older people talk about being “a little bit snowflakey”, like they’re wearing a daughter’s Topshop jeans in a bid to adopt the mantle of cool.
Is this a case of what Isaiah Berlin wrote of in Two Concepts of Liberty? The first is to do whatever you like, just as the Baby Boomers did. The second is the snowflake idea that each individual freedom may affect the collective. “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows,” as Berlin wrote. Since the Baby Boomers have left their children’s generation economically stuffed, it’s no wonder that fresh snowflakes may subscribe to a less selfish ideology.
Claire Fox is the founder of the libertarian think tank the Institute of Ideas and the author of I Find That Offensive!, a book on the snowflake phenomenon. She says she finds the older generation hypocritical in their attack on the snowflakes, since they spawned them, literally. “It’s our generation that created it, and I call to young people to react against being coddled,” she says.
I put it to her that the snowflakes are doing their own version of rebellion. “I want young people to rebel, but they are simply ventriloquising their parents’ and their teachers’ own fears,” she says. “They have been reared in a climate where safety must trump all else. They are not rebelling against that, they are taking it to its illogical conclusion.”
The writer Natasha Devon was the government’s mental health champion for schools and continues to give talks secondaries. She disagrees with Fox. “People like Claire Fox don’t like their attitudes being challenged by people who are younger than them,” she says.
Are today’s generation less resilient? “No, I don’t think that they are at all. This is a pivotal generation where the generation gap is huge because of technology.” They were navigating that plus a harsher economic climate and agitating for change, she says, and for this they get the “snowflake” insult.
Esther Rantzen, the founder of Childline, strikes some kind of intergenerational truce. She likes the anti-Trumpness of the young and concedes that “protest comes naturally to young people”. However, she says it is up to the “older, more cynical generation to say that there is a difference between liberty and licence”. As the chill winds of a political winter blow, that should cast a few sprinkles of glittering, melting snowflakes upon us all.
Are you a snowflake?
Take Ben Machell’s test
You tweet an opinion about a political issue. A few moments later somebody tweets back, politely drawing your attention to some research and analysis that runs counter to your position. How do you choose to respond?
a) By telling them to sod off and mind their own business.
b) By grudgingly thanking them before making sure to “mute” their Twitter account.
c) By breathing into a paper bag to prevent yourself from hyperventilating through a combination of shock, anger, fear and disgust that your sincerely held beliefs are being publicly challenged.
You’re standing in a busy Tube carriage when you spy a large, middle-aged man in a suit sitting down and reading a paper with his legs planted slightly apart. What is your response to this sight?
a) Total and utter indifference.
b) Mild annoyance that he has a seat and you don’t.
c) Righteous inner fury because he is blatantly engaged in “manspreading”, which is a common form of cynical, selfish, patriarchal phallo-imperialism. You bravely take a discreet photograph so that you can later shame him on social media.
Finish the saying: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can …”
a) Never hurt me.
b) Sometimes annoy me.
c) Send me into psychotherapy.
Beliefs, concepts and patterns of behaviour that are popular with millions of fellow citizens, but that you aren’t so keen on yourself should be … what?
c) Banned. Banned banned banned.
As a child, your parents regularly told you … what?
a) That you need to shut up and stop crying.
b) That it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts.
c) That you are special and that your every feeling and whim is valid and that they will do everything they possibly can to ensure that you never have to experience disappointment or contradiction because the world is a terrible place full of bad opinions from which you must be shielded at all costs.
University should be?
a) A boozy laugh with some books chucked in.
b) Somewhere a hungry young mind can go to challenge its preconceptions and learn as much as it can about other cultures, beliefs and viewpoints.
c) A soft, fuzzy land of shimmering rainbows and kindly unicorns where you and your peers can bask in your own right-thinking splendour, pausing only to ensure that anyone who threatens to go off-script and say something that might make you feel uncomfortable or perhaps a bit unsure of your position is quickly and shrilly suppressed. Duh.
You secure a place at a prestigious university to study for an archeology degree. Thanks to new guidelines you are warned in advance that sometimes archeology involves digging up skeletons, and skeletons are dead people, which some students may find disturbing. How does this make you feel?
a) Angry and confused.
b) Excited to see some skeletons.
c) Gratified that the feelings of your peers are finally being taken into account, because some undergraduates may have experienced negative emotions linked to ancient battle sites and to risk triggering these by asking them to slowly and painstakingly excavate fragments of millennia-old human bones would frankly, in 2016, be unforgivable. Come on. It’s just common sense.
If you answered mostly …
a) You are not a snowflake. Definitely not. In fact, you probably eat snowflakes on toast.
b) Um, you’re basically just a normal person.
c) Congratulations! You are a tiny, intricate, delicate snowflake! A fragile little thing floating softly through a cruel and callous world. Good luck with that.