You have a right to speak, and I have a right to be a 'snowflake'Unsplash

Imagine living such an uninteresting, privileged life that you disregard empathy and become contrary for attention.

A media that responds to the demands of its readers is not necessarily a bad thing. Most people don’t have the time or energy to read relatively non-controversial, not very groundbreaking ‘think pieces’ by some hungover undergrad. Most people are too tired to trawl through The Economist. Most people aren’t interested in hearing a balanced view, because that’s boring. It would be naïve to berate people for this. Overwhelmed by a bombardment of clickbait and sensationalism, educating yourself is exhausting. So it makes sense that tabloids are the most-read papers. But because controversy pays, being offensive is a form of currency.

As we don’t live in a meritocracy, those who come up with clickbait aren’t likely to feel the direct effects of what they write. The people who get to hold a match up to petrol don’t usually get burned. From this detached position, political debate becomes a game that is about winning or losing. But like a game, you’re not supposed to care too much once it’s finished. Reduced to logical objectivism, you’re not meant to get offended, because that doesn’t fit in with the rules: being offended, in this context, breaks them. In failing to recognise the exclusion of emotionality as a byproduct of living a privileged life, professional devil’s advocates seem to feel attacked when people ‘break the rules’ by being hurt by what they say.

So it doesn’t shock me that students who try to account for feelings have been demonised as over-sensitive. It’s no surprise, especially in a media climate of sensationalism, that we’ve been dubbed the ‘snowflake generation’. In this context, the dominant narrative is that ‘people should be able to say whatever they want!’ … Unless it’s expressing their offence. Expressing offence is received as oppressive, and as a threat to ‘freedom of speech’. Why? It would seem that criticising narratives as hurtful makes people uncomfortable because it is challenging the rules of conventional political discourse.

In an article in The Telegraph, consent classes have been described as a “laboratory for social engineering” which impinge on the freedom of students to “work things out for themselves”. Speaking about consent isn’t an example of students being sensitive. What is sensitive is perceiving this discussion as an attempt to oppress the ‘freedom’ to think independently. What this tells us is that people’s perception of ‘freedom’ is formed through the lens of convention.

Discussions that are usually progressive, such as that of consent in Freshers’ Week, or discussing mental health in the Class Lists debate, are felt as a threat. It’s not a coincidence that in mainstream discourse being controversial for the sake of being controversial isn’t framed in this way, even if its implications are harmful. For example, when Donald Trump bragged about sexual assault, it didn’t seem to fall into a debate about freedom of speech, although the same argument – that it’s oppressive – could be applied to this case. This suggests that what we see as ‘freedom’ ironically falls within the narrow confines of convention, or the status quo.

What is consistently bypassed in this narrative is that part of this supposed ‘freedom of speech’ is the right to express yourself emotionally. With the freedom to offend should come the freedom to be offended and to acknowledge that this feeling is a legitimate basis for criticism.

Listening to people when they speak about why something offends them isn’t censorship. Being compassionate is not a threat to people’s freedom to express themselves: quite the opposite is true.

Compassion and empathy are not just important, but have the potential to ‘save the world’. For example, if we are to navigate the crisis of climate change, then the aggressive individualism that has catalysed it has to be countered. Being compassionate is absolutely necessary. Students are speaking about mental health more than ever before and we’re talking about consent. By holding referendums on Class Lists, or whether Julian Assange (who had been accused of rape) should speak at the Union, we’re at least beginning to acknowledge that people’s feelings and intersectional experiences do matter. If this is what being a ‘snowflake’ is, then count me in.

Putting content warnings on articles that contain details about assault, for example, is not a threat to freedom of speech. It doesn’t stop you or I from being able to express ourselves. It is a choice to be considerate and compassionate, a choice that we’re not forced into. Calling someone a ‘PC thug’ or prophesying an Orwellian-esque regime because they’ve voiced their offence or put a content warning on media is a little, um… sensitive, don’t you think?

The irony is painful. If you love freedom of speech so much, then this has to extend to people’s right to express their offence. If someone is telling you how they feel, listen, and let it inform your views. Don’t shut down the discussion by reacting defensively, with the unconstructive accusation that they’re a ‘PC loon’.

Sure, it’s your right to say this. But it’s also my right to say that you’re being an asshole