Christopher M. Anderson
Author Advocate Trauma Theorist
On the virtues of being a #snowflake
March 9, 2017
In the current climate of rising political hostility and anger, a peculiar meteorological epithet is being hurled about. Those who dare put their vulnerability on display for others, or who have the gall to speak out in the face of the injustice and abuse are being labelled with the curious insult, "snowflake." As explained by Jamie Bartlett in a recent Guardian column, "Snowflake has become the shorthand rightwing – or libertarian – derogatory term for leftwing people who are easily offended."
It is becoming de rigeur for angry populists on the political right to demean those who are battling them. And yes, it's true angry ad hominem attacks come from all quarters, however I see a more disturbing lack of empathy in general from the neo-conservative movement that I find chilling. Many people rightly roll their eyes at these often puerile and immature attacks. Some engage and point out the lack of substance or basis in objectively verifiable facts. Although it's easy to dismiss the offensive intolerance of certain people as evidence of their lack of character, I think it's important to understand what is going on when someone is resorting to bullying and name-calling. Attacking "snowflakes" may be puerile, but there is a deeper battle being played out that is anything but immature.
"Snowflake has become the shorthand rightwing – or libertarian – derogatory term for leftwing people who are easily offended."
In a more homophobic past, liberal partisans were often called "fags" or other epithets associated with homosexuality. Now, people are resorting to the less obviously biased term "snowflake." While it may be seen as a kind of victory that "snowflake" represents a moral step forward from more overt hatred, it's important to recognize the deeper issue here. Bigotry and prejudice are no less dangerous when cloaked in less obviously offensive terminology. Many on the far right have embraced a shift in tone from outright racist terminology to speaking of things like "white nationalism." But this should not be mistaken for a step towards greater tolerance. It's just a rhetorical trick to try and make it more acceptable to be less compassionate. The same trick is being used with the term "snowflake." People who are using it are actively trying to silence and marginalize people who pose a threat to someone or something they hold dear.
If someone is invested in stripping an individual of the right to say "I do not wish to suffer harm," that person is working on behalf of bullies against victims. Worse, that person is actively (even if unwittingly) working to consolidate power into the hands of petty tyrants. The "snowflake" who finds the courage to speak out and/or take actions to protect other victims of bullying, abuse, and/or tyranny is anything but fragile or cowardly.
The question becomes how does one actually confront the toxic biases of bullies and tyrants effectively? Truth isn't an effective shield against mudslinging and name-caling. Facts are not a deterrent to bigotry because it is rooted in feeling and opinion. I can try to prove that I am not "humorless," or "obtuse," to the point of exasperation. But in the end engaging on that level can only lead to a pointless session of the "Yes you are, no I'm not" game played by toddlers. The mature strategy is to ignore and/or block the offensive bully. While I know that that is an effective means of dealing with trolls, it's always felt somewhat unsatisfying to me.
I remember as a small child being counselled by teachers and therapists to ignore bullies and mean people. They would say things like, "don't pay them any mind, they are just jealous of how _______ you are." The blank was filled with hollow compliments like I'm handsome or smart or some other BS. I always hated hearing that kind of thing as a kid because:
1. the adults who fed me those lines were never actually stepping in to address the bullying or abuse I was suffering; and
2. I didn't believe I was any of those positive things, in no small part because of the amount of bullying and name-calling I faced on a daily basis.
Therefore the message I received over and over again was - "We the adults can do nothing to stop the bullying you are receiving. You are not important enough to care for, therefore it's up to you to become less sensitive and stop misbehaving because we don't want to pay attention to your pain." Harsh? Yes. But I can't say that the adult me now would have handled the child me any better. I was a hard kid to be around back then. I should know, I was the one trapped inside of me.
Watching the toothless responses to the recent rise in abusive, bullying, and "fact-free" rhetoric in our political discourse triggers these same old frustrations from my childhood. Just as adults seemed not to grasp what I needed then, few seem aware of what we needs to be done now. For example, more and more people in the media are trying to find some slim reason to praise those who have come into power recently under the guise of being "fair and balanced" or "objective." Instead of trying to empower the abused, I'm seeing people look for ways to appease the bully. And that's dangerous. It shifts our attention away from the marginalized and oppressed and onto the bully/tyrant. And this is exactly what tyrants want. Bullies thrive on people paying attention to them and spreading the word that they are all powerful. It makes things easier for them. They have to expend less effort to get what they want when people are more willing to give into petty tyranny than they are willing to challenge it. Conversely, as victims see this happen they tend to seek the shelter and safety of being unheard and unseen, thus shedding their agency and becoming even more vulnerable. Often this shedding of the power happens in direct proportion to the degree that bullies who can hurt them are empowered. This whole cycle can reinforce itself in ways that are toxic to a healthy society.
Appeasing a bully only empowers bullies at the expense of harming victims. Counterintuitively, directly challenging a bully may not actually help. The more energy spent attacking or correcting the bully the more the bully is empowered because our attention and efforts are being focused on them. This means we are necessarily avoiding or being inattendant to the needs and voices of victims. I argue it is ultimately more impactful to empower victims by providing them with direct support intended to empower them by helping them feel safer than it is to continually confront the bully.
Those not in power need to know these truths. There is nothing weak about speaking out in the face of abusive power. There is nothing cowardly in standing up for your and the rights of others. And there is nothing unreasonable about setting a boundaries to ensure you are not harmed by something someone else says or does. No one should ever have to apologize pre-emptively for being a human being with vulnerability or sensitivity to exposure to certain things - be it a peanut, a Nazi, or a toxic and abusive person.
There is nothing weak about speaking out in the face of abusive power. There is nothing cowardly in standing up for your and the rights of others...
The people who are enraged about the "hypersensitivity" of "social justice warriors" (that's what SJW means, btw) opposing the bully/tyrant are deeply hypocritical. They can't see that their whole strategy of calling out the sensitivity of "precious little snowflakes" is itself nothing more than a poorly made attempt to set a boundary of their own. They can't handle the discomfort arising from being shown how insensitive and hurtful they are, possibly because no one in their lives has empowered them to set the boundaries they need for their own well-being.
But I think it goes even deeper than hypocrisy. At the heart of all these arguments is a balance of power issue. If trauma is the experience of powerlessness, and if we want to reduce the overall amount of trauma in our society, it only stands to reason that we should give more deference and attention to those who are hurting than we do to those who hurt them. A good first step would be to empower survivors to tell us what has caused them harm more - not less - often. Until we hear from survivors who and what has hurt them, we as a society are unable to provide any remedy. Until we actually incorporate what the disempowered and afflicted tell us they need to feel safe enough to thrive, all the "reforms" and "efforts" made to alleviate suffering come across as shallow moralizing that does more to relieve the discomfort of the oppressor than the pain of the oppressed. That incorporation of the survivors' perspective requires we not only allow people to speak without fear of recrimination and punishment, it demands we listen with compassion and attention. If you want to punish wrongdoing and take power away from bullies you have to empower survivors to speak, not watch idly as bullies drive more of them away with punitive measures meant to silence, shun, or deport. But paying more attention to victims isn't easy, because the first thing you need to do is help them feel safer and wait for them to be willing to trust you.
Basic human decency and respect requires us to listen to others with with open minds and open hearts. On the surface this sounds simple, but in practice it's quite difficult. We carry ingrained biases that stem from unconscious programming. As such it often requires effort on our part to restrain impatience or discomfort with people whom we don't like or who make us uneasy. Trauma survivors often trigger that discomfort, as they are often in the grips of some type of emotional upheaval. Oftentimes people who are hurting are really difficult to be around. It's unrealistic to expect them to speak from a place of calm, logical, reasoned discourse.
It's only natural for us to seek to avoid getting too deeply entangled in other people's pain. Even if we believe ourselves to be compassionate by nature, simply being in the presence of someone else's trauma can give rise to the same avoidance reactions as though we are being victimized ourselves. The adults who so poorly counselled me as a child weren't necessarily bad people, but it's fair to assume they sometimes didn't want to deal with a hyperactive child who was a volcano of emotion and pain whose trauma they had no part in causing.
Instead of making the effort to listen openly to difficult and sometimes triggering stories, it's often easier for people to resort to petty name calling and dismissive insults.
No one should ever have to apologize pre-emptively for being a human being with vulnerability or sensitivity to exposure to certain things - be it a peanut, a Nazi, or a toxic and abusive person.
Again, anyone who wants to silence someone from saying, "I do not wish to suffer harm," is an agent of bullies. Again, that person is actively (even if unwittingly) working to consolidate power into the hands of petty tyrants. The "snowflake" who finds the courage to speak out and/or take actions to protect other victims of bullying, abuse, and/or tyranny is anything but fragile or cowardly. "Snowflakes" are often heroes who put their safety on the line to better ensure the safety and well-being of others.
Tyrants, be they on the playground or in political office, need to collect and power as close to themselves as possible. They need the protection afforded by a human shield of sycophants, enablers, and passive sheeple. This shield can only be controlled when the power and authority to define what is normal and good for the group (be it a schoolyard clique or a nation-state) is consolidated as far away from the masses and into the hands of the tyrant as possible. As such a tyrant will always attack efforts that to shift power and authority away from the them and into the hands of the many. The tyrant and his or her minions will inevitably resort to attempts to silence, humiliate, and marginalize anyone who poses a threat to the authority of the ruler, or the benefit enjoyed by his or her hangers on.
For those who oppose tyranny, the good news is this dynamic can be cyclical. Even if a tyrant seizes power, it is rarely possible to keep power consolidated for long (without outside infusions of support). Whether or not they realize it consciously, a person who calls out anyone for being a "snowflake" is one source of that kind of support; he or she has determined there is more benefit to throwing their energy and efforts to propping up the tyrant as opposed to helping those who are lacking power at the moment. It is their right to make that decision, just as it is my right to speak out against them and their harmful hypocrisy.
There is one final point about snowflakes that bears mentioning. Just like people, each individual snowflake can be appreciated for its individual and unique beauty. That beauty is, when isolated, fragile and temporary. No individual snowflake has the power to significantly cause disruption or harm. Therefore becoming too focussed on a single snowflake can distract us from the larger picture. And that's not good. When enough snowflakes are assembled something truly spectacular and monumental, or unpredictably harmful, can occur.
So let it snow. Our world is made better and more beautiful for the presence of all these snowflakes. Even if they make us uncomfortable for a time, we cannot hope to escape the dominion of tyranny when we remain deaf to the voice of the oppressed.