Tell that to the string of self-aggrandising (usually white male) writers branding us a generation of censorious cry babies. Much of this moaning is directed at university campuses, mainly because they’re the only public spaces where we’ve had any influence. Their favourite targets are trigger warnings, which alert viewers of potentially distressing content in film or literature (not so excessive when you consider 1 in 5 women are survivors of sexual assault, for instance); and ‘safe spaces’, which explicitly prohibit discrimination normalised in wider society, for example against women, LGBTQ or people of colour. Next to climate change, war, historic inequality, domestic violence and racism, for example, pockets of social life trying to protect people from prejudice hardly seem like the most pressing of social ills. But the argument goes that this ‘snowflake culture’ insulates us from ideas we don’t like, promoting censorship and poorly preparing us for life in ‘the real world’.
My main issue with this thinking is that it’s based on a complete mis-remembering of some golden age of the university when all arguments were had and won on their own merit. What they’re actually remembering is a time before their social privilege was broadly challenged. Ask any student from the 60s who was poor, gay, black, or a woman, even, and you will find things remembered a little differently: as a long, collective struggle against violent discrimination. They’ll remember the ‘brown paper bag test’ to make sure you were pale enough to join civil society organisations, or students excluded for their sexuality. I mean, what the hell is there to be nostalgic about, unless none of those things affected you?
Don’t get me wrong, the 60s were awesome. But they were awesome precisely because they marked a battle for deep cultural change. They brought a youth revolution that protested, occupied and marched in the face of police brutality and social exclusion to spearhead a social revolution. In other words, it was the snowflakes of the baby boomer generation that made the 60s what they were. Ideas have never battled on a level playing field. The arguments made by, or empowering, marginalised groups have always come up against unique obstacles (police batons, powerful institutions, all the money invested in the status quo). And if a safe space does anything to protect against, or a trigger warning anything to validate, the trauma of that experience, what right does anyone with no lived experience of oppression have to deny us that?