When is a snowflake not a snowflake? The answer, as author Hannah Jewell explains in her new book, is when they get a publishing deal to tell you they aren’t — or better yet, when they manage to convince you that “you should actually want to be a snowflake”. Better still, “at the very least, you should admire them wherever you spot them”. But, best of all, “or at the very, very, very least, I hope you’ll be less of a dickhead to young people”.
It is from such lofty aspirations that Jewell’s 275-page blog-post-turned-self-help-book sets out to castigate those who use the term “snowflake” as a means of ridicule. In We Need Snowflakes: In Defence of the Sensitive, the Angry and the Offended, Jewell’s thesis — that so-called snowflakes are maligned because they voice their pain when things or people hurt their feelings — is largely unsurprising. If we were just more open with our emotions, we’d put an end to hunger and achieve world peace, etc. Neither is it original — from the feminist slogan “the personal is political” to the growth of therapy culture at the turn of the 21st century, the idea that political change is best enacted by those in touch with their emotions and feelings is not a new invention cooked up by Gen Z.
What perhaps makes We Need Snowflakes more readable than the thousands of disgruntled articles penned about snowflakery by youngsters and their older sycophantic supporters, is the entertainment of Jewell’s blissful ignorance about how she comes across.
Forget asking your stroppy teenager to watch boring videos of Jordan Peterson telling them to clean their room — give them a copy of this. The mortification of seeing themselves in Jewell’s snowflake generation will be as good a cure as any. From claims that university students are just trying to “protect themselves from an ever-more empowered far right that seeks to remove them from universities” — no, really — to questions of whether it would be “such a bad thing” for university to be “a time when you could really enjoy a good coddling”, if I were one of these snowflakes Jewell was lauding, even I’d be starting to cringe a little.
Those who argue for unfettered speech are either old, racist or bitter
If you are genuinely interested in the sociological change between the ways different generations interact with politics, there is an important question to be answered about so-called “snowflake” behaviour — one that many shock-jock commentators who call themselves the “anti-woke brigade” label aren’t much interested in. How does a new cohort of political agents who have been raised to be much more unashamed about publicising their feelings — from the good (less social repression about identity) to the indulgent (a therapist for every naughty school child) — interact with a world that was designed by people with a very different outlook? Why are Jewell’s snowflakes, who wholeheartedly believe that statues can pose threats and that words can inflict bodily harm, asking to control and censor the public square to protect their feelings? As tedious as it is to hear elderly relatives play the Four Yorkshireman sketch, why have so many young people decided that they are uniquely put upon and that the challenges they face are only solvable through emotional reactions?
Alas, We Need Snowflakes is not interested in figuring out the reasons why “snowflake” culture came into existence, or why people of a certain generation (or embarrassed millennials like me) might be weary of their whining. Instead, Jewell comes across as the mirror image of her opponents, like the “swollen veiny feet” owning Steve Bannon or the “squealing gammon” Piers Morgan. Instead of engaging with arguments for free speech, and all the potential for political change a free public square might elicit, Jewell falls back on caricatures. Those who argue for unfettered speech are either tired, old, racist, blinded by white privilege or bitter — maybe they’re all five. She says that she knows “that British people would not hate the younger generation so much if they were not directed to do so by those who turn a profit peddling hatred for indifference”, which is just a fancy way of saying “I wish those plebs would read my Buzzfeed column instead of the tabloids”.
We Need Snowflakes starts with campus culture, arguing that students making headlines for complaining about cultural appropriation in their canteens are the real victims, not the underpaid dinner ladies who were probably chastised by a university for their bad-press-attracting sushi attempts. We then move on to cancel culture — which is the preoccupation of the white and privileged because “if being cancelled is your biggest fear, and your biggest source of stress, consider yourself lucky”. We take a whirlwind tour through the science of PTSD by means of explaining the importance of “snowflakes” airing their trauma. Here, Jewell gives in to cliché by quoting every teenager’s favourite Philip Larkin poem in full: “They fuck you up your mum and dad.”
Biological determinism is good when it fits the snowflake’s analysis
We end, unsurprisingly, with a tirade against gender-critical feminists as espousing an ideology that “seems not only hateful, but betrays a total lack of curiosity about different kinds of people, and different ways of being in the world”. It’s rather amusing that having spent 200 odd pages defending people’s right to be offended, and their right to do something about it, Jewell seems unwilling to gift the same support to feminists voicing their opinions on sex and gender. It is here that the best contradictions in the book reveal themselves. Where previously Jewell celebrated the bodily reality of PTSD and people’s sense of themselves, that “a single traumatic event two generations previously can leave its mark on the genes of those who may not have even met their grandparents”, she tells gender-critical feminists who raise concerns about the importance of bodily reality that they are “transphobic” because they believe in “the importance of genitals and chromosomes and hormones and sex characteristics to being”. Biological determinism is good when it fits the snowflake’s analysis, and bad when it challenges their world view.
The most heinous of Jewell’s crimes against non fiction comes in her suggestion that what the snowflake critics really get wrong is their inability to shut up and listen to other people’s problems. In a section reading like a rip off of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Jewell insists that “your perspective is not universal: you cannot hope to fully understand, ever, what a person of colour has experienced if you are not one. If that is an agonising threat to your sense of centrality, universality, and connectedness to all of humankind, run a bath and light a scented candle”. This is white guilt at its most self indulgent.
Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Jewell’s book and go a little softer on poor snowflakes like her. After all, she’s put the work in — she tells us she’s been to “femsex” classes at Berkley where she and a bunch of enlightened women learned to use gender-neutral pronouns like “phe” which led to “deeper and more critical thinking about the world”. She is a good white middle-class liberal, one who knows that self-flagellation is the key to column inches. But from her outdated references to Milo Yiannopoulos to her assertion that everyone should care about what nasty thing a former Waitrose food editor said about vegans, Jewell reveals how far her book is from a serious debate about what the silly term “snowflake” really encapsulates — the implications for free speech, censorship and its consequences for political change.
This book has the audacity to suggest that snowflakes are the true disrupters of capitalism
Coming to the end of this book, which has the audacity to suggest that snowflakes are the true disrupters of capitalism, I was reminded of a story my father told me about working for London Transport (now TFL). When they were updating the Piccadilly line, my father was working as one of the men changing the electronic requirements to the carriages. There was a deadline on the finish date as Her Majesty was scheduled to take a spin on one of the new trains as a celebratory stunt.
The trains had to be lifted onto stilts so that my father and his colleagues working in the depots wouldn’t be crippled stooping to screw in nuts and bolts for hours on end — but as the only people who agreed to do overtime in the run up to the queen’s visit were two black guys, management decided it wouldn’t bother lifting the trains up. My father and the two men organised to refuse to work in bad conditions. When bosses threatened to send the trains to other depots to scab, he travelled down to Northfields and took over a trade-union meeting, convincing the men to stand in solidarity with their fellow workers. Management was forced to pay a crane driver to lift the trains onto stilts to allow the workers to safely continue their work.
Jewell asserts that snowflakes are people who feel injustice and want to do something about it. Does that make my father a “special snowflake”? To believe so would be to buy into the bullshit at the heart of We Need Snowflakes — that today’s trigger-happy censors have any interest in changing the world. Instead, from learning new pronouns to attending awareness-raising conferences on micro aggressions, the real problem with Jewell’s snowflakes is that they’re being taught to look up their own backside for meaning in their lives. Perhaps I have fallen for the snowflake trap, as it is this denial of a universal outlook that truly offends me. Perhaps, like Jewell’s snowflakes, I just need to grow up.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe