We’re all familiar with the term ‘snowflake’ – along with ‘gammon’, ‘deplorable’ and ‘Remoaner’ it is one of the most-used political insults of our time. Beloved by many of those on the Right, we have become used to hearing it sneered by Piers Morgan and bellowed by Alex Jones alike, at liberal-minded people who it is claimed are suppressing points of view with which they disagree. The idea is that these liberals, usually young and university-educated, are emotionally as delicate as their icy namesakes, being unable to hear any opinion they do not agree with before becoming upset and trying and censor the offending opinions rather than hear any more of them.
A little uninspired though the snowflake metaphor is, it arguably serves to put forward a somewhat valid point. On the whole, societies do not appear to benefit from banning commonly-held opinions, particularly those which do not overtly encourage violent or hateful acts. In most cases, if such controversial viewpoints are so wrong, it should not be difficult to tackle them head on and expose their flaws in plain sight. The freedoms of speech and expression which ‘snowflakes’ are apparently impeding help us to develop the critical faculties required to understand the views and beliefs of others, and better define and defend our own. This is true as much on a university campus or a social media platform as it is in society as a whole.
The problem with the outrage directed at liberal ‘snowflakes’ and their attacks on free speech is that some on the Right seem to have a fairly shifty idea of what free speech actually means. When it is their own beliefs and ideals being brought into question, freedom of expression curiously melts into the background.
A lot of alt-reich bellyaching today.
They complain about "snowflakes". They demand free speech and want the "consensus" challenged.
But when they are challenged, they go on the attack, whinge, threaten and name call. They are the school bullies writ large.
— Andrew Raeburn (@andrew_raeburn) July 15, 2018
Take, for example, the recent debate in the USA over whether NFL players should face sanctions for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. A true free speech advocate would argue that whether they believe players are right or wrong to make such a gesture is irrelevant, but that those players should be within their rights to make a stand – a peaceful one at that – against aspects of their country with which they take issue. Yet none other than President Donald Trump waded into the debate by suggesting season-long bans for protesting players. The message such a statement sends is that free speech is fine as long as it does not clash with an unquestioning obedience of the nation and everything it stands for – hardly the kind of American freedom the world is used to hearing about.
The NFL National Anthem Debate is alive and well again – can’t believe it! Isn’t it in contract that players must stand at attention, hand on heart? The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand. First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 20, 2018
The same kind of right-wing ‘snowflakery’ is evident in the UK too. Trump’s recent visit to the UK was met with a number of high-profile protests, which included the flying of a large balloon depicting the president as a baby. In response, TV presenter Piers Morgan, who is regularly outspoken about liberal ‘snowflakes’ and their intolerance of other opinions, appeared to suggest in an interview with London mayor Sadiq Khan that the balloon should be banned on the basis that it would be bad for diplomacy. Such view was repeated by others sympathetic to the president, including Nigel Farage.
Snowflake means someone who is overly-offended by everything & utterly intolerant of any contrary opinion to their own. https://t.co/r2DuT5nJzN
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) November 5, 2017
Whether or not the balloon was the best way of protesting Trump (or indeed whether protests were merited at all), the simple fact the balloon may be viewed negatively by others would be no reason to ban it, and infringe on its creator’s freedom of expression in the process. To make such an argument is no less contradictory to the idea of free speech than ‘no-platforming’ a speaker at a university campus for having controversial views.
Looking at these examples, among many others, it appears as though right-wingers’ nationalism is not necessarily more favourable to the idea of free speech than liberals’ identity politics. Its proponents are just as likely to defend free speech only until it comes into conflict with their own beliefs, at which point the outrage and offence begins. By all means, concepts of free speech and expression can be appealed to in any context, from a sports field to an online debate, provided they are applied consistently. Yet it is often difficult to take those of any political persuasion seriously when they try to evoke rights such as these to let their allies speak, but forget about them as soon as their opponents begin to open their mouths.