With the Alt-Right vernacular increasingly in vogue, column inches have become the new battleground in a media discourse that doesn't grasp reality
Once upon a time there was a well-meaning school teacher named Ms Clifford. Based in England, her specialist subject is religious education, and she routinely takes classes of older children and young teenagers to introduce them to weighty moral issues like the concept of justice, terrorism, and introductory philosophy. She also, in an effort to broach the subjects of sexism and racism, even potential patterns of domestic abuse, turned to the films of Disney as a way to get the message through. Naming her lesson plan a rather perfunctory Racism/sexism in Disney, Ms Clifford uploaded it to a popular resource-sharing website, along with the 122 other ones posted to her account. Ms Clifford had no idea of the media storm that awaited. It only took four years to arrive.
“Bonkers school lesson plan claims Beauty & the Beast promotes domestic violence,” ran The Sun last week, warning scandalised readers that the “loony lesson plan” was now available in “thousands of classrooms,” a potential harbinger of doom. The Manchurian Cogsworth is lying in wait, ready to expose his dangling pendulum of political correctness to innocent 11-year-olds. Phil Davies, a Tory MP from West Yorkshire, attacked the lesson plan. “Parents will be horrified to think that their children are being brainwashed with this politically correct claptrap,” the Conservative politician said, adding that it was high time the government, of which he is a member, “stop this idiocy and ensure schools teach things that parents expect.”
It doesn’t take much of a leap to get from Ms Clifford’s lesson plan to the Generation Snowflake phenomenon – particularly when you read in the comment section how another teacher recommends applying the plot of Frozen to the class. Ms Clifford, a teacher whose multiple resources and plans have been downloaded more than 300,000 times has helped thousands of people in the UK’s school system. But now a lesson plan she first wrote in 2012 has been obliterated in the national media, torn to shreds by people who neither asked for her response nor who have any kind of pedagogical training to determine its usefulness. Her biggest mistake? Being a Millennial, the punching bag of the establishment media.
The second slide from Ms Clifford's much-maligned lesson plan [TES]
Try, as they have tried to make it, the term Millennial just hasn’t stuck. Say Baby Boomer, Gen X or Y, and in the bubble of pop culture, and the characteristics of that demographic immediately spring to mind. From age to affluence, musical tastes and thoughts on climate change, with a stereotypical assumption of where they stand when it comes to social justice. With the Millennial, it’s a vague notion of someone from a generation who probably knows how to Snapchat, but doesn’t pay for their own health insurance. A person who uses they as a singular pronoun, because laziness and non-binary gender roles. But mostly laziness, from all the texting. Columnists in national newspapers love bashing Millennials, rounding in click-baiting packs on the public’s perception of the generation of the idle layabouts who came into adulthood around the turn of the 21st century, who spend their days and even their money idolising reality TV stars with the kind of fervour not seen since Beatlemania. In lengthy passages splashed across the pages of Sunday papers, journalists – their byline reeking of boot-cut jeans – bemoan the arrogance of youth, chastising their work ethic as comatose, wagging their fingers at a generation of cry babies not tough enough for the real world, while pointing in horror at a Disney cartoon lesson plan that’s trying to soften the blow.
But Millennial hasn’t stuck in the tarred feathers way a journalistic witch hunt likes. Which is why they have morphed into Generation Snowflake, the latest media buzz term bouncing repeatedly around an echo chamber near you somewhere right now. No one is clear when the phrase was coined, but it’s come our way from across the Atlantic Ocean. US parents are, we are reliably informed, partially to blame for raising a generation of children to believe they are as special and unique as a snowflake, floating in willful ignorance through the air, pulled downward by gravity into a pile of melting slush. Just don’t ask why it’s melting so quickly. These kids, emotional brats incapable of countenancing an opinion different from the ones espoused by their friends and followers on social media, take offence at everything, with political views wrapped so thickly in layers of cotton wool that couldn’t even see the orange pallor of Donald Trump riding an elephant all the way to the White House.
“Every generation gives out about the one that follows it,” says Ian O’Doherty, a journalist for the Irish Independent, who’s well known for crossing his Ts and gouging the eyes of readers with his contentious and controvertible columns. “So there’s always that kind of friction. But no generation has ever been coddled quite like Generation Snowflake has.
“The emphasis on self-esteem and being rewarded for simply trying or turning up, the medals-for-all approach, has resulted in some people never actually experiencing real disappointment and they are psychologically incapable of handling defeat or setbacks. You could see it in the response from some of the Hillary supporters - although their parents behaved just as stupidly,” O’Doherty adds.
Arguably nothing has stoked the flames of disdain for Generation Snowflake more than the ways universities appear to have kowtowed to the unwavering capacity for Millennials to take offence. Read any piece about the coterie of PC-proclaiming pearl grabbers and sure as organically-sourced free range eggs is eggs, it’s only a matter of time before trigger warnings are mentioned. Critics take particular umbrage at the concept that classic works of literature might need to come with red flags raised on the front cover to prepare precious Snowflakes from dangerous ideas lurking within.
“Of all the crimes against logic that have been committed against Millennials, trigger warnings and safe spaces are among the worst,” O’Doherty says. “We have well-documented cases in America of law students complaining that they have been triggered while studying sexual assault laws. How is that person going to become a lawyer if they can’t even study the topic?”
Just six months after the US military policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which prohibited openly gay men and women from serving, the oldest military academy in the country had established a safe space for open and frank discussion [AP Photo/Alison Redlich]
But for Mia Döring, a half German/half Irish psychotherapist and writer, the problem with the attack on trigger warnings is a failure to understand and empathise with their value to the survivor of any number of traumas.
“The issue here is how something that is an accepted coping mechanism for people who live with PTSD, addiction, anxiety, or any number of trauma triggers has become muddied by people with ill-advised intentions,” says Döring. “It’s important to remember that a trigger warning is a warning. It’s not about avoiding or pussyfooting around a sensitive topic, rather the careful management of potential distress.
“If you know somebody living with trauma, learning the skills of psychoeducation helps you to respect how that person is coping. When they encounter one of their triggers - and bear in mind it might not be something like a gratuitous rape scene in a movie, it could be something that appears trivial to someone else - that piece of media could provoke flashbacks and/or disassociation. When used correctly, a trigger warning is about respecting the spirit of the individual who is seated among a group of people, about respecting their ability to repair, reflect, rethink and resource themselves on their road to recovery.”
While articles designed to gently roast Generation Snowflake inevitably refer to the bottom-up approach to trigger warnings – and there have been many documented cases around the world of student groups demanding university authorities introduce them – closer to home, one Irish professor doesn’t really see them as any sort of great imposition. Jane Gray, a sociologist in NUIM whose research examines questions relating to families, households, and social change, has never felt under pressure to bend to PC norms, but strives to be mindful of the people in her lecture theatres.
“I deal with demography and interpersonal relationships, and some of the topics can be sensitive. Something like intimate partner violence. I want my students to feel comfortable so I alert them to something coming in the course material, and let it be known that I am always available if they want to discuss it.”
From an academic sense, Prof Gray sees the media war on Generation Snowflake as something somewhat fabricated, the tension between subgroups of a certain age driven by the opinions of a few columnists and writers. “The topic of intergenerational conflict comes and goes, but it largely exists in a media domain. Certainly, there are societal issues that create imbalances, and the recession has created a discourse around that. Baby boomers weathered the storm quite well, coming out on the other side with much of their wealth and status intact. For Millennials, they see social welfare being attacked, their pensions being cut, wages whittled away, and house prices going up.
“But what the research shows is that despite these tensions existing, in truth people don’t experience the generational conflict in the way the media portrays it. We all live in families, and those families are not going to war. If anything, all this does is stir up a greater sense of anxiety. Look at Gen X, for example; stories about Generation Snowflake might see their parents worrying about the future of their children, while also raising questions about caring for ageing parents, as well as stress about what resources to pass on.”
As a university lecturer, Prof Gray has seen her fair share of young people passing through the halls of the Maynooth campus. Asked whether they have changed during her tenure, her answer was rather hopeful.
“I don’t really see any difference between young people today versus the ones that have come before. Optimism, if anything, is the main characteristic of young people, still today. Even in the face of greater challenges, the thirst for change is there.”
As such, Generation Snowflake and the critical phenomenon surrounding it might well just be a passing fad. Despite his own distaste for Generation Snowflake, Ian O’Doherty would tend to agree.
“A lot of it is good-natured slagging,” he says. “My brother and sister are both 30, and there is always roughly the same proportion of smart and dumb people, of idiots in every generation. But to be the first generation to grow up in a world where the Internet and social media has always existed is a strange one for older people to grasp.”
And for O’Doherty, there is no getting around his own perception of Millennials as precocious and precious, and who foolishly put their faith into the infallibility of figures like Ms Clifford – or worse.
“For people who say Generation Snowflake aren’t coddled and self-obsessed, I have two words: Lena Dunham. If she was the voice of my generation I’d kill her myself.”