Sunday, February 12, 2017

Special Snowflakes, the Good and the Bad

We're living at a time of massive backlash against political correctness, and I think it's a wonderful, wonderful thing. I think it's long overdue, I think it should be supported by us all, and I have no hesitation cheering it on.

One of the phrases that has become current, as a part of this backlash against political correctness, is "special snowflake". Special snowflakes (or just "snowflakes", for short) are people whose delicate sensibilities are injured by the expression of any opinion which they consider to be racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, etc. etc.

I'm all for the use of that expression, too. Political correctness needs to be not only opposed but derided, laughed out of existence.

At the same time...

I'd never really heard the term "snowflake" before, but I've learned that it comes from something mothers supposedly tell their children: "You're a special snowflake!". That is, you're unique, special, one of a kind.

Well, insofar as it means that, I agree with it. We are all special snowflakes. Didn't Jesus tell us every hair on our heads was counted?

This topic came into my mind because I've just been staring into the flame of a candle, and thinking how beautiful it is. How gentle, soft, comforting, dreamy.

What is it about candles? We seem to associate them with every ceremony which is a little bit sappy. Rock audiences famously hold up lighters when a rock band is playing a sentimental power ballad. There seems to be something about naked flames which brings out the warm fuzzies, or which is appropriate to the warm fuzzies.

Recently I've been reading a lot of back issues of An Sagart, the journal of Cumann na Sagairt, an association of Irish-speaking priests (and religious brothers and sisters). 

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was that I was only going to read the Bible and An Sagart, unless I was reading something for a very particular purpose. (That is, I wasn't going to get distracted by some book I happened to come across, or get sidetracked into literary infatuations such as studying the philosophy of Heidegger or immersing myself in film reviews. I would be disciplined and continuous.) I've kept it so far. 

I've been photocopying back issues of An Sagart so I can read it at home, as well. It's pure gold. I find it difficult to get my hands on suitable Irish language reading, because it's mostly novels that are available, and the novels try oh-so-hard to be 'edgy' and zeitgeisty and contemporary. I want something that reflects my own view of the world, where I feel at home.

The holdings of An Sagart that we have in the library are from the nineteen seventies until today. That is, they cover what I like to call the era of "the hippie priest". I grew up in the era of the hippie priest, and I think it persevered until the nineties.

I'm rather nostalgic for the era of the Irish hippie priest. The thing to be borne in mind is that Irish hippie priests weren't necessarily liberal. For the most part, I think, they were orthodox. Some were even notably conservative. But there was a tremendous emphasis on God's love, on prayer as an encounter with the divine, on spiritual and psychological well-being, on nature, on kindness and gentleness and compassion, on feelings, on art and poetry and creativity, on the person, and so forth. There was something very soft and warm about it, like the light of a candle.

I don't think there's anything wrong with that, as long as it's held within the bounds of orthodoxy. Which (in the case of Ireland) it was, more or less, until about twenty years ago.

I don't mind admitting that I'm a bit of a hippie myself, in this sense of the word.

But, once you step over the bounds of orthodoxy, compassion becomes indulgence, emotion becomes self-pity, poetry replaces theology, nature becomes an idol,  and pride and rebelliousness get the upper hand. (In the secular realm, it is tradition rather than orthodoxy which is rejected. but much the same effects ensue.)

That's what we have today. Gentleness, past a certain point, is replaced by rage. The v-sign becomes the clenched fist.

In both secular culture and in the Church, those who are reacting against political correctness have assumed an attitude of bullishness and abrasiveness which is, I think, inevitable, but which I rather regret. I regret its necessity.

I want to be able to assure everybody that they are special snowflakes, without encouraging victimology and resentment and radical egalitarianism.

Enemies of political correctness often say: "I don't care about your feelings". I think this, too, is unfortunate, but probably necessary. Emotional blackmail has become so widespread today-- "that offends me as an X, Y or Z!"-- that the line has to be drawn.

But I hope this is a passing phase. I would like to see political correctness completely and utterly wiped out, so that we can return to a social and religious discourse that allows a proper place to the softer emotions, and to gentleness.


  1. You might have hit on the crux of the whole thing. 'Delicate sensitivities' aren't always necessarily a problem in themselves, but I think the selectiveness of their delicacy is. To give offence to certain adult minorities seems to be considered a far greater transgression than giving offence to, say, children. I wonder whether the adult 'snowflakes' you mention are in some way trying to reclaim childhood, being likely to have had unhappy childhoods of their own, during which, perhaps, they were seldom called 'snowflakes'. But in demanding for adults the respect and gentle treatment that should be reserved for children they only perpetuate the problem. And in any case, many of the ideas they advocate and certainly the tone in which they advocate them are offensive to children's fierce instinct for innocence and justice. (This might be the reason for the findings of that extraordinary recent study that suggested that 'Generation Z', aged 16 and under, is the most conservative since before the war).

    Just as you say, I dislike the abrasiveness of the backlash and yearn for a more greater and authentic gentleness in society (in the street and in print alike). But the forelash is abrasive too. And as long as we tolerate, say, public swearing within earshot of children, trying to curb anything else is running before we can walk.

    I fear history will judge this age, and not too kindly, by the way we treat our children - even after they come into the world, let alone the unborn.

    1. Thanks Dominic. I was going to mention that Generation Z finding to you, I'm glad you discovered it yourself. It's quite heartening.

      I realise Milo Yiannoupoulous, who I've so often praised, uses foul language constantly. I don't like that about him.

      I don't myself believe that advocates of PC are distinguished by any particular mentality or personality type because there's just such a cross-section of them. I think PC is such a powerful 'virus' that the opposite is true-- it takes particular personalities to resist it. In fact, I think anti-PC speakers who attribute a particular personality type to PC's proponents are being silly. To suggest militant feminists (for example) are generally fat and ugly is, in my view, ridiculous, and cheap as well. So is the suggestion that "snowflakes" who graduate from university won't be able to survive in the world of work outside their university "safe spaces". On the contrary, I think they will usually do very well. That's part of the problem-- it's not that they will wilt and die in the world of work, btu that they will be a powerful influence upon their workplaces.

      Childhood innocence is a subject we have discussed before, and I think we both wished that art, both high and low, would be more "childish" in the sense of being enjoyable by both children and adults. In a certain sense, I DO want to be treated as a child. I wish entertainment treated me more like a child in terms of restraining its vulgarity, explicity sexuality, and cynicism.

    2. In a way, PC scares me so much because I realise from personal experience that its proponents are NOT especially intolerant, fanatical, humourless, neurotic, etc.

    3. Thinking about this, it does make sense. I suppose it is because PC is so good at masquerading at politeness. An enormous cross-section of people think, for various reasona, that it is a good idea to be polite, which it is. But PC presents itself as the only route to politeness. And in the absence of other equally-confident values or examples it is uncontested. PC has, I suppose, replaced the principle of common decency.

      Another point for what it is worth: as well as the fear of saying the wrong thing, there is also the relief in having said the right thing.

      Apologies for my egregious earlier typo - I meant "greater and more authentic"!

    4. The contrast between courtesy/politeness and political correctness is a big subject. It works both ways, I think-- people reacting against PC embracing pure rudeness.