What are snowflakes?
What’s your favourite insult? According to The Guardian, in 2016 it was the term “snowflake.” If you haven’t come across this particular pejorative before, it refers to the idea that an individual is fragile, hypersensitive, and labouring under the false belief that they are somehow special, and thus deserve special treatment. I suppose another way of framing it would be “fuck you and your feelings.” The insult became especially popular among Neo-Nazis in the so called “Alt Right”, supporters of Donald Trump, noted pedophile apologist Milo Yiannopoulos, and an alarming amount of the student edgelords I went to University with, with whom I still, for some reason, am linked to on social media. “Snowflake” isn’t a term that came out of nowhere; on the contrary, it seems to tie into the fashionable idea that is rather crudely expressed in the featured image for this piece; it’s a generational insult, first of, a term that conjures up images of fragile, self-censoring, immature student (or young person, I suppose, though students are often targeted), who demands safe spaces and no platform policies and are, it seems, such a big threat to the fundamental nature of democracy and society itself that conservative writers can never seem to shut up about a generation of censorious cry-babies, to the extent that you’d almost be forgiven for forgetting we’re all going to die in nuclear fire and fury by Christmas.
Yet I find the whole thing oddly fascinating. Though that might be because I’m procrastinating about building my fallout shelter.
By its own logic, “snowflake” implies that the concerns, hurt feelings, offence, or harm caused to an individual is not really legitimate. It’s the equivalent of something having a total mental breakdown because they can’t find their socks in the morning. Yet, more often than not, the term is thrown out by those responding to allegations of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and the like. All of these are of course real issues, things that (I hope the readers of this blog will agree) it is very legitimate, and indeed, extremely important, to be offended and outraged by. This belittling tactic among bigots is, obvious, a linguistic power play, but if you will allow me to play Devil’s Advocunt (the only role I can play, on account of being a cunt), let’s try to apply the terms logic to its users.
Notions of offendability.
Let’s take the above image, which I found within about 30 seconds of browsing in a Rick and Morty meme group on Facebook. I dislike it because it is a) wrong, b) trans-exclusionary, and c) is about one of my favourite TV shows. It reminds me that I like Rick and Morty, but generally dislike other Rick and Morty fans, in the same way I like metal while not really like metal heads, and tend to think people who eat Avocados are obsessed with status food while munching avocado on toast.
But I digress.
In certain corners of the internet you’ll find much being made of the idea that there are only two genders, and that everything else is some sort of mental illness. You know the type of content I mean. It’s usually made by the sort of person who claims that if you can choose your own gender, then he (it’s almost always a he) can choose to define as an attack helicopter, and then expects to be commended for his wit.
One time, I chose to engage with the maker of one of these memes. The argument went like this: I told him he was wrong. He told me that science “proved” there are only two genders. I linked him to the considerable evidence that this is not the case. He demanded to know why I claimed to know so much about gender. I directed him to the progress of my PhD in Gender Studies. He called me a cuck. I called him a cock. It continued this way for what seemed like hours, until he got all his mates to send me death threats on Twitter and Instagram. In short, I got violent abuse from a bigot. Story of my goddamn life.
Someone once said (I forget who) that violence is ultimately the expression of fear. We strike out against what we don’t know. A case can easily be made that erasure of transgender and genderqueer people (implicit in the “there are only two genders” statement) is an act of verbal, structural violence. And this got me to question why I had provoked such a violent response. And, more importantly…
How can someone be so violently offended by the idea that gender is spectrum?
How does it in any way affect you?
This kind of offence is fundamentally different from, say, a woman taking offence a joke which normalises rape. Rape and sexual violence affect women and girls across the world. A joke about rape makes light of that horrifying reality. This cannot be said for the (in all likelihood) white straight male meme lord, who struggles to accept the concept that gender is far greater than a “boy/girl” binary. How fragile does one have to be to react violently to this notion? How hypersensitive?
How much of a snowflake?
The point I’m trying to make is that reactionaries and bigots have tried to position themselves as being the only ones capable of determining the legitimacy of offendability. An insult to Donald Trump is an attack on American democracy; a homophobic slur is “just a joke.” There more to this than just a kind of misplaced moral one-upmanship. I think it says volumes about the way in which societies seek to regulate and discipline notions of vulnerability.
The Politics of Vulnerability and their inconsistencies.
If you cast your mind and eyes back to the featured image (hideous, isn’t it), you’ll see an underlying theme in the whole shebang of snowflakes, anti-social justice, anti-safe spaces and the like – a contempt for perceived vulnerability. It seems second nature to see being vulnerable as a bad thing, or a hardly an idea state. Vulnerability comes with connotations of a lack of agency, weakness, and an inability to withstand any sort of attack. Taken this way, it’s hardly surprising that dominant powers often try to eschew any allegations of vulnerability – Raewyn Connell, for example, notes that a key aspect of “hegemonic masculinity” is the rejection of vulnerability of the self (for example, in adhering to a stoicism and constant display of resilience) but also be perceived vulnerability in others (see in violence against gay men, women and men with alternative masculinities by men with hegemonic masculinities).
Yet vulnerability is not really just a thing it itself. In fact, the powerful can often use vulnerability strategically to try to shut down dissent from the subordinated. Take, for example, the tendency of reactionary groups to portray heterosexuals (and in particular, heterosexual children) as vulnerable to a militant LGBTQA “gay agenda.” The strategic deployment of vulnerability can also try to use the language of (for what of a better phrase) “real” vulnerabilities. The example which comes to mind is the tendency of Islamaphobes to claim that Islam, and Muslim men in particular, are a risk to white women. The man of colour is cast a predator, taking advantage of women’s vulnerability by either policing their dress in the name of religion, or by sexually assaulting them. More commonly, vulnerability is deployed as a means of delegitimising an opponents world view. The casting of another group as vulnerable comes with connotations of immaturity, or perhaps inability to speak or act for themselves. Thus, their voices are silenced, their concerns dismissed, and the status quo pervades.
However, vulnerability is not opposed to the resistance. In Vulnerability in Resistance, feminist theorist Judith Butler makes the valuable point that “resistance” can be applied to vulnerability in two ways – firstly, there is the resistance to vulnerability, the building of resilience; the sort of resistance which is perhaps most familiar to us in this context. Secondly, there is resistance that is informed by vulnerability, resistance which is a social and political form. To be vulnerable is not, necessarily, to be passive, but can in fact be the jumping off point for engaging in dissent. To be branded as vulnerable, or snowflake, of whatever term the alt-right chose to come up with next, does not render us as radicals incapable of response. In fact, in the vulnerability we possess, we have the tools to shake up the fabric of the world.