No offence: are we really the snowflake generation?

“You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”

This line from Chuck Palahniuk’s popular book and film Fight Club is supposedly where the contemporary phrase ‘Generation Snowflake’ originates from. The term refers to young adults from the 2010 era and beyond who are accused of being easily offended, less resilient than previous generations and too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own.

According to parts of the national press, this is characteristic of Sheffield University students. The institution has been criticised for allowing these ‘snowflakes’ to avoid certain topics and modules in examinations that they find upsetting or disturbing.

These include issues of race, gender identity, incest and abortion and across subjects such as English Literature, Sociology and Psychology, among others. For many people this was yet another example of how the youth of today are too weak and lacking the can-do attitude of previous generations. One Twitter user responded to the story claiming students should be handed their first class degree certificate upon registration, and others shared similar sentiments.

Many people appear to have jumped on the bandwagon of branding the university’s students as snowflakes following this story, without fully understanding the issue.

Clodagh Murphy graduated with a degree in English from the university last year and believes the truth of the story has been distorted.

She said: “The reality is that on our exams and for our coursework we had the freedom to choose whichever texts we liked.

“There were questions set on all texts and you just chose the question based on the text you chose to revise, or wanted to write an essay on so you can’t avoid something when it’s not an obstacle of any sort in the first place.”

Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye is part of the English department’s reading list and includes some of the ‘trigger’ topics of race and incest but Clodagh said it was the most popular text on the course.

She said: “You were never made to speak on any subject, sensitive or not. The tutors would often ask very open questions in seminars that offered different angles of interpretation so if anyone chose to discuss the rape or paedophilia that was in The Bluest Eye it was completely on their own terms.

“Reading a text and publicly discussing it if you are a trauma survivor are two very different things and I think it’s good that the university makes room for people with traumatic backgrounds to engage with a text in a less restricted way.”

The story raises the issue of the ‘generation snowflake’, and whether this is an accurate and appropriate description of young people.

Two popular Christmas songs have been in the news this week over the potential offence of some lyrics. A US radio station has banned the classic ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ after some listeners claimed the song references date rape drugs, while an RTE DJ called for the word ‘faggot’ in The Pogue’s ‘Fairytale of New York’ to be censored, despite it being crowned the best Christmas song of all time.

For many, these are prime examples of how this generation has become obsessed with political correctness and avoiding controversy. But by referring to young people as ‘snowflakes’, we run the risk of taking backward steps with regards to mental health.

For example, throughout this year’s Movember, there was a huge emphasis on encouraging men to open up about their mental struggles or issues. This campaign highlighted the need to make phrases such as ‘man up’ redundant in everyday speech but is precisely what advocates of generation snowflake are endorsing.

The whole concept of referring to young people as ‘weak’ seems potentially dangerous. Maybe young people do get offended more easily than past generations but this is likely because of changing standards in society. Many of these, such as gender, racial and sexuality tolerance, have arguably been for the better.