On Snowflakes & Empathy - Issue #2
Welcome Jason Clemence to "...in Progress" with his essay "Requiem for the Snowflakes," which pairs nicely with Fitz's "Empathy in Jeopardy."
Fitz here! I want to start by thanking all of you who have subscribed; last week, I was so overwhelmed by the number of people who joined up or otherwise read the inaugural issue. This week, I’m excited to welcome my friend and colleague Jason Clemence to “…in Progress.” When I first met Jason in the faculty lounge sometime in the blur of my first few weeks at Regis, I had that feeling you get when you meet someone and already know you’re kindred spirits. I’ve enjoyed getting to know Jason through conversations and jam sessions, as well as through his writing, which has appeared in Boston Magazine, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Solstice Literary Magazine, and more. I know you’ll enjoy his first piece here, too. Stay tuned for my essay, right after Jason’s. It is occasioned by the return of SNL this week but really is about the importance of empathy.
Finally, I’m sure many of you watched or otherwise heard about last evening’s first presidential debate. No matter what candidate you’re for, I’m sure we can agree it was an embarrassing display of meanness and lack of empathy. As it turns out, these are exactly what the following essays address…
Requiem for the Snowflakes
The Culture Wars’ Strange Appropriation of the Language of Mental Health
by Jason Clemence
Shortly after returning from the Women’s March on Boston Common, one day into what would turn out to be an appallingly incompetent and cruel presidency, and still smarting from Trump supporters’ online boasting, I made a dreary prediction on my Facebook page: That at least a couple of reputable dictionaries would name “snowflake” as their Word of the Year.
As far as I know, that didn’t happen. But this curious epithet was everywhere throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and has shown no sign of fading away. It is true that those with liberal sensibilities eventually found ways to “reappropriate” the label. For instance, a popular leftist social media page is called The Iron Snowflake; an audacious meme featuring a dead Nazi half-buried in snow, presumably during the infamously-frigid Battle of Moscow, is captioned “This Is Why Fascists Hate Snowflakes.” Nonetheless, it is an insult that is almost exclusively leveled by conservative social media users toward liberal social media users. Oh, and occasionally by sitting Senators toward a wide swath of American citizens.
Its usage always signals a deceptively complex accusation. The person who utters or types it implies that the person on the receiving end has based their sociopolitical position on irrational emotion rather than cold hard logic, and that they are incapable of handling the unvarnished realities that conservatism claims to embrace. In other words, this insult hinges upon a presumption of psychological precarity.
Children, of course, are taught that snowflakes are structurally unique. And indeed, the insult also refers to the notion that to hold liberal values is to believe firmly (but erroneously!) in one’s own specialness. Where conservatism promotes national exceptionalism, the argument seems to go, Snowflake Liberalism promotes personal exceptionalism—likely, of course, as a result of the scourge of participation trophies that degraded the Millennial generation. (We can leave aside the fact that the participation trophy phenomenon began in the 1960s and reached its peak in the 1980s, and is thus firmly rooted in Boomer ideology, regardless of how loudly that cohort might now disown it.)
All of this is to say, the term “snowflake” serves three primary functions:
to accuse someone of psychological weakness, informing them that Since I don’t empathize with your complaint, it must all be in your head
to suggest that the alleged snowflake believes the world ought to conform to their personal comfort level in order to accommodate their “specialness”
to further stoke the already-entrenched belief that conservatism is inherently rational and firmly empirical, whereas liberalism is irrational and subject to whim, caprice, and hysteria.
Anyone who has followed the latest rise of populist American conservatism, and observed the unfettered cultural grievances and arbitrary moral panic that are intrinsic to Trumpism, could tell you that that third item is pure nonsense. Consider the right’s caterwauling about mask-wearing being akin to tyranny, their abject contempt for social justice-oriented activism, their insistence that it’s perfectly reasonable to strap on an AR-15 to go to a fast-food joint or the grocery store, their rejection of the possibility that systemic racism and white privilege even exist, their childlike credulity for every baseless conspiracy theory that the president repeats. These are examples from this past summer alone, and they show quite clearly that the left has by no means cornered the market on reactionary emotion.
But anyway, this isn’t really my point. Anybody who still truly believes that the left is made up of squishy bleeding-hearts (who are somehow also highly-trained Antifa ninjas? Or something?) and that the right is made up of red-blooded patriots and badasses is surely beyond being convinced otherwise.
Rather, my point is that the ubiquity of the term “snowflake” as a loaded cultural insult that targets perceived psychological fragility is merely part of a larger, troubling trend in the sociopolitical conversation, one that began in the Obama era and mushroomed in the Trump era: The impulse not just to approach socio-political dissensus with personal attacks, but to frontload those attacks with a corrupted version of the discourse of mental health.
I concede that this habit is not exclusive to the right. I’ve been guilty myself, in fact, of using words like “narcissist” and “sociopath” to describe the president. And while I am not particularly worried about whether this is fair or unfair to the man himself, I can still acknowledge that it is an irresponsible deployment of serious psychiatric diagnoses that I am in no position to be making.
In fact, in my own writing and speech, I’ve made a concerted effort recently to break the habit of characterizing perspectives that I find distasteful, illogical, or flat-out wrong as “insane” or “crazy.” There is a segment of the cable news and social media commentariat that would surely characterize this self-censorship as excessive political correctness. These are, after all, incredibly common adjectives to use in such situations, and I don’t think many of us use them with ill intent toward people with neurological differences (though the terms’ normalization certainly speaks to the fact that such people have been cultural punching bags for centuries) any more than the kids I grew up with in the 1980s used “retarded,” when describing something uncool or irritating, with the express intention of harming or demeaning people with developmental disabilities. It was just one of those ubiquitous insults that, fortunately, through a lot of concerted social messaging, many of us broke the habit of using.
However, along with the relatively generic labels “crazy” and “insane,” I can think of three other extremely common phrases that, like “snowflake,” deploy the language of psychological vulnerability as a socio-political rebuke:
A person who expresses an opinion in a less-than-perfectly-coherent fashion, or whose opinion is simply outside of the ideological orthodoxy, is likely to be told “Go take your meds.”
A person who expresses offense at something, even if it is legitimately and objectively offensive, will almost surely be mocked for how easily they are “triggered.”
And that same person, especially if they indicate a willingness to fight back against and ameliorate the grievance, might also be sarcastically told that they just need “a safe space.”
I don’t mean to keep coming back to the admittedly oversimplified left vs. right binary, but it seems to me inarguable that the vast majority of these rejoinders are spoken or typed by the right, and are aimed squarely at an ideology perceived not only as illogical but as intellectually chaotic (e.g. the belief that liberalism is constantly “inventing genders”), atrociously unprincipled, constitutionally effete (e.g. stories about colleges that provide students with designated spaces to cry in), and, most egregious of all, hopelessly emotional.
It is important to note, however, that these slurs are appropriated from entirely legitimate clinical terms and interventions.
Medication, of course, really can have wonderfully restorative effects on those who struggle with mental health, from mild anxiety to severe psychosis. Implying that a person who makes untoward or inarticulate political comments should not only be ashamed, but that this shame should extend to the treatment of a psychological condition (which may or may not actually exist) is unabashedly grotesque.
The term “triggered” is casually used as a belittling synonym for being upset or offended, but it is also a very real – and often unpredictable – reaction to a set of stimuli associated with a past trauma. I experienced this myself on July 4, 2013, a few months after witnessing an act of terrorism firsthand, when I jumped and gasped after almost every amateur firework set off by my neighbors. And while my reaction was relatively mild – I have also witnessed other people have far more severe PTSD-related reactions in different circumstances – I can report that the cumulative effect, the palpably-intensifying dread, is no joke.
And a safe space does not mean a padded room filled with puppies and rainbows and piped-in Brahms medleys. It can refer to the safety of the clinician or therapist’s office, or, more broadly, to a social contract in which all participants agree to express themselves openly, withhold judgment upon others, and respect everyone’s differences and dignity. It represents a mindset that we all should aspire to.
Turning these phrases into a slur against people who advocate for social justice reveals a ghastly misanthropic streak.
But their weaponization is damaging beyond political polarization or profound callousness toward mental illness. Even before COVID and the other horrors of 2020, reported cases of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other diagnoses have been on the rise, especially among college students and other young adults: the very people whose participation in the political process is most vital.
Allowing criticism of political perspectives to collapse into a casual demeaning of personal struggle is not just unduly cruel and intellectually lazy; it is also just one more way to undermine civic engagement, activism, and democratic participation. But then, perhaps that is the point.
Empathy in Jeopardy
by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Saturday Night Live returns for its 46th season this Saturday, which may explain, in part, why I’ve been compulsively re-watching SNL sketches recently. While I’ve hit many of the highlights—“more cowbell,” “a van down by the river,” “Lazy Sunday”—one sketch in particular has stayed on my mind. It’s the recurring “Black Jeopardy” sketch; if you haven’t seen it, the title gives away the premise. The episode I keep going back to features “Doug,” a white Southerner sporting a red MAGA cap, played by Tom Hanks. His fellow contestants are two Black women named Keeley (Sasheer Zamata) and Shanice (Leslie Jones). The setup seems clear: Doug’s appearance on Black Jeopardy should be a disaster, but over the course of the sketch, instead of exposing the deep divisions that the 2016 election further widened, the contestants and the host Darnell Hayes (Keenan Thompson) realize that maybe they’re not that different after all.
On questions regarding iPhone fingerprint detection (“That goes straight to the government”), voting (“They already decided who wins even before it happened”), and Tyler Perry movies (“If I can laugh and pray in 90 minutes, that is money well spent”), Doug, who is presented as the quintessential blue collar white guy, unexpectedly expresses values, desires, and even cultural paranoia that align with the experiences of the Black contestants.
Four years later, the sketch’s message seems charming, quaint even. But mostly it seems like a distant dream from a different age entirely. From our current vantage point, it seems more impossible than ever, but the spirit that animates the sketch remains true: so often, when you get to know a person, you realize there was never any reason for fear. And fear really is the root of our current paralysis—at one point in the Black Jeopardy sketch, as Darnell approaches Doug to shake his hand, Doug shrinks away in terror. Fear of the other may be an evolutionary trait baked into us during primitive times, but it can be overcome through empathy, by making the unknown, known—by un-othering the other.
As a college professor marking my fifteenth year teaching Humanities courses, including writing, to diverse student populations, this un-othering has been my longest-running professional project. A lot has changed over the years (and a lot more just in the last six months), but one constant is the presence of a personal narrative assignment on my writing syllabus, usually as the first paper. It’s a good a way to start because it requires very little, if any, research for students who are generally still getting the hang of college life. We read examples of memoir essays and talk about what makes them work, and then the students try their hand at telling their own stories. They write drafts, I encourage them to “show, don’t tell,” they revise, and they’re done—their first college paper is in the books.
Of course, there are good reasons to teach personal narrative beyond its practicality: it allows me to stress the centrality of narrative in the way we see the world, it opens up discussions of the challenges and opportunities of empathy, and it’s a way to begin to broaden students’ perspectives. It’s the start of a project that, if all goes according to plan, will continue throughout their college experience. All of this remains true this year, but there’s something else. This year, reading and writing personal narratives feels more urgent.
We have to document this strange time. We will need to remember what it feels like to live, largely, apart from other people. We need to read others’ stories to know we’re not alone. We need, more than ever, to hear from a diverse range of voices to help us understand the people, and their competing ideologies, who are literally fighting it out in the streets. But most urgently, we need to remember that what matters most is the people, not their ideologies. Behind the signs, slogans, and chants on the one side, and the escalated rhetoric that stokes fear and appeals to base instincts on the other, are people with stories. People like Doug, who wear the red cap but also enjoy a Madea movie. I’m not saying, as President Trump said after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, that there are “very fine people, on both sides.” I’m just saying there are people—people with stories, and if we take the time to listen to them, it might serve to bring the national temperature down by a few degrees.
This is not an especially popular opinion to hold right now. I know that. I know that it is more socially acceptable to demonize the other side in an effort to prove one’s own ideological bona fides. Call me naïve, but I really believe what I teach. Stories matter. Especially now. I know I have colleagues that would agree with this notion in principle, but they might argue that this moment calls for something different. Nearly four years in Trump’s America has had a radicalizing effect on all sides. There’s likely no room for Doug on Black Jeopardy anymore. Suddenly, listening to stories from the other side of the political spectrum seems like complicity.
But here’s the thing: when you get to know a person—really listen to their story—it becomes a lot more difficult to cancel them.
This is not easy work, but it’s the only kind of work that’s going to have any chance of breaking us out of our current ideological stalemate. Come November 3rd (or, maybe days or weeks after) we will learn whether our fellow Americans decide to stay the course with Trump or begin a new day with Biden. Either way, the divisions that have grown deeper over the past four years will remain, or become worse. We’ll have a decision to make then: might we stop shouting long enough to listen? And in listening, might we hear? And in hearing, might we find the empathy required to know and understand where others are coming from? Or will we remain in the dark, hiding behind tall ideological walls and afraid?
I’ll take empathy for 200, Darnell.
The opinions expressed in the above essays are solely those of their respective authors.
We hope you’ll engage in conversation with us in the comments section on the website. In addition to any thoughts you have on the above essays, we’re also curious as to whether you’d prefer to receive one email per week with two or more essays (like this one), or two emails per week with just one essay each. Also, what days work best? Thanks in advance!