Another week, another spate of barmy campus bans and ‘safe space’ shenanigans by a new breed of hyper–sensitive censorious youth. At Oxford University, law students are now officially notified when the content of a lecture might upset them. In Cambridge, there were calls for an Africa-themed end-of-term dinner to be cancelled just in case it caused offence to someone somewhere. It all seems beyond parody. ‘What is wrong with these thin-skinned little emperors?’ we cry. But while we can harrumph and sneer at Generation Snowflake’s antics, we miss a crucial point: we created them.
First, it is important to note that young people who cry offence are not feigning hurt — generational fragility is a real phenomenon. Speaking at numerous school and university events in recent years, I’ve noticed an increasingly aggrieved response from my young audience to any argument I put forward that they don’t like. They are genuinely distressed by ideas that run contrary to their worldview. Even making a general case for free speech can lead to gasps of disbelief. But why do they take everything so personally? The short answer is: because we socialised them that way.
Why are we surprised that teenagers demand safe spaces? Historically, adolescents might have been risk-takers and adventure-seekers, but today we rear children to perceive the world as an endlessly scary place. NGOs and charities, in particular, promote panic, arguing that what used to be called puppy fat is childhood obesity and will lead to premature death, while those sugary drinks the young love to swig are ‘kids’ crack cocaine’. Reared on a diet of disaster hyperbole, it’s no wonder children grow up scared of their own shadows.
Today, parents go to ludicrous lengths to eliminate all risk from their children’s lives. Inevitably this narrows their horizons and teaches them to be less daring. Health-and-safety mania means the young are denied resilience-building freedoms that past generations enjoyed, such as playing outdoors, climbing trees and walking to school unaided. Modern mollycoddling means that pupils have been prevented from engaging in activities such as leapfrog, marbles and conkers. Three in ten schools have banned the playground game British bulldog. Last week, a headmistress in Dundee suggested changing the colour of her school’s red uniform because ‘some research indicates that it can increase heart and breathing rates’. In March, there were moves to ban tackling in school rugby matches due to the perils of this ‘high-impact collision sport’.
Even more damaging is a child–protection industry that actively encourages children to see potential abuse everywhere. Safeguarding has become the top priority in every organisation that works with children, to the extent that parents are banned from taking photographs of their own children at swimming galas and are let into many parks only ‘if accompanied by a child’. In 2010, Home Secretary Theresa May seemed to recognise that things had gone too far and promised to ‘scale back’ egregious criminal–record checks. But little has been done. Why do we wonder that today’s students see abuse in so many of their interactions, when they have been brought up to view every stranger they meet as a threat?
The anti-bullying industry, too, has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. If the word ‘bullying’ makes you think of children having their heads kicked in and their dinner money nicked, or being subjected to systematic cruelty, then think again. Self-styled anti-bullying experts have expanded definitions of bullying to include ‘teasing and name–calling’, ‘having your stuff messed about with’, ‘spreading rumours’, ‘verbal sexual commentary’, ‘homophobic taunting’, ‘graffiti’, ‘insensitive jokes’, ‘bullying gestures’ and ‘exclusion from friendship groups’ (i.e. falling out with your mates or being ignored by other kids).
Anti-bullying policies are a statutory obligation in schools and children are subjected to an endless stream of anti-bullying assemblies, activities, books, dramas and stories of celebrity victims. This propaganda encourages children to examine all their interactions through the prism of bullying and pathologises normal childish transgressions and tensions.
Anti-bullying campaigns assure the young that speech is interchangeable with physical violence and can cause long-term psychological damage. We should be teaching children how to surmount and survive everyday obstacles. Yet Sarah Brennan, chief executive of a charity called YoungMinds, declares that if such ‘devastating and life-changing’ bullying isn’t dealt with, it ‘can lead to years of pain and suffering that go on long into adulthood’.
Such sensationalist messages about the traumatic consequences of bullying can, counter-productively, encourage young people to overreact to events and develop acute anxiety about what are merely words, however horrible. ‘Kids are taking their lives not because they are being attacked by violent gangs, but because they can’t tolerate being insulted,’ the American psychologist Israel Kalman says. And schools, under the guidance of bullying experts, are unwittingly encouraging children to be upset: they have replaced the ending of the original ‘sticks and stones’ slogan with ‘but words can scar me for ever’ or, worse still, ‘but words can kill me’.
So when today’s undergraduates get insulted, are they going to think, ‘No big deal; it’s only words’? No. They are going to think, ‘Oh, no, I’m being insulted! Words can kill me!’
We should hardly be shocked that students reared on such doctrine claim that seeing a statue of Cecil Rhodes affects them as keenly as would an act of violence. Nor when they wail that the words of everyone from Germaine Greer to Peter Tatchell cause them actual harm. By the time they get to university, our overprotected children are so loaded up with emotional angst that they are ill-equipped to deal with the basic challenges of adult life.
We may greet news stories about students no-platforming speakers or banning Mexican hats with the cry ‘the youth’s gone mad’. But the sad fact is that we are encouraging a whole generation to perceive itself as mentally ill. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has estimated that the number of students declaring that they suffer from a mental health problem has increased 132 per cent over four years. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those students reporting severe symptoms of depression. That is what is most worrying: they really are overstressed and unable to cope. Even exams — which you might think essential to student life — are often cited as heaping far too much pressure on the young. Natasha Devon, until recently the Department for Education’s mental health champion, criticised increased testing in schools, saying it was ‘not a coincidence’ that anxiety is the ‘fastest-growing illness in under-21s’.
One conundrum presents itself when it comes to Generation Snowflake: how its apparent hypersensitivity is often combined with an almost belligerent sense of entitlement. ‘Validate our subjective, wounded feelings, or else,’ they seem to cry. But again, this attitude can be traced to how we have brought them up. Throughout their schooling, children are placed centre stage, as the self-esteem movement stalks educational theory and practice.
The government may have axed Ms Devon for going too far in her arguments against competitive testing, but they should have known what they were getting when they hired the co-founder of a mental-health charity called ‘Self-Esteem Team’. Self-esteem’s schmaltzy tropes encourage a narcissistic, self-orientated ‘me, me, me’ generation (‘Love the skin you’re in’, ‘Ego-boosting tips on reaffirming your self-worth’, ‘Write down ten amazing things about yourself every morning’, ‘Become your own best friend’). And self-esteem culture encourages adults to tiptoe around children’s sensitivities and accede to their opinions, lest we damage their wellbeing.
The US-based National Association of School Psychologists published a much-cited paper on how parents and schools can boost self-esteem in children: ‘Adults must listen carefully to the child without interrupting, and should not tell the child how to feel.’ Meanwhile, the charity Family Lives tells parents ‘not to label, criticise or blame your child, as this would give them negative messages which… can have a detrimental impact on their emotional wellbeing later on in life’.
So there we have it. There is no mystery to the absurdities of the Stepford Student. Nor should we wonder at their sudden appearance. We — adult society — protect children from criticism and suspend our critical judgment in order to massage their self-esteem. We scare them rigid by ‘catastrophising’ an endless list of fears. We make them hypervigilant about potential abuse from adults and their peers. We encourage them to equate abusive words with physical violence. And we have, in short, shaped our own overanxious, easily offended, censoriously thin-skinned Frankenstein monster. We created Generation Snowflake.
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Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas, and author of I Find That Offensive!