Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, envisioned how the desire of “snowflakes” to avoid confrontational ideas would lead to book burning – which bears some resemblance to the modern echo chamber. While Bradbury may not have predicted the future, he might have correctly diagnosed the origins of this current cultural trend.
Before we delve into Bradbury, we need to understand what a snowflake is. Historically, the term ‘snowflake’ was first coined by slavery abolitionists in Missouri who used it to call out their opposition for an inability to see the other side. More recently, in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club, the character Tyler says the following: “You are not special, you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone, and we are all part of the same compost pile”.
More recently, in 2016, the Collins English Dictionary made “snowflake generation” one of their words of the year. The term has been used politically by the Far-Right to call out the left as overly sensitive and unable to deal with opposing opinions. The word has also taken on a further metaphorical meaning; in the article “Snowflakes will melt in the world of work”, writer Giles Coren reminds us how vulnerable physical snowflakes are to environmental conditions, an analogy for the alleged lack of resilience in the snowflake generation.
At first glance, the plot of Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t appear to relate to snowflakes. The novel is set in a dystopian America in the year 1990: as all books have been banned in this parallel world, the duty of firemen is (ironically) to burn books – the title refers to the temperature at which paper starts burning. Censorship through book-burning is reminiscent of authoritarian regimes like Nazi Germany, and Bradbury has acknowledged their role in influencing his work. Interestingly in Fahrenheit 451, censorship wasn’t imposed by an authoritarian regime, but was the wish of the people.
Some may recognise a similarity between Bradbury’s characterisation of minority / special-interest groups and the “snowflakes” in our own world. Current debates about political correctness see those on the Left deemed snowflakes by the Right for being easily offended, whilst the Right is criticised for hate speech.
These days, people don’t have to burn any books because the 21st century offers a far more convenient alternative. People can simply jump into their nearest, most comfortable social media echo chamber, avoiding any confrontation with opposing views. Bradbury may not have predicted social media, but he surely has identified part of the cause of the echo chamber: the demise of books in the Fahrenheit 451 world is partly due to the public’s increasing demand for uncontroversial and sensationalist media. Echo chambers allow exactly that: instant gratification by avoidance of uncomfortable confrontations.
Fahrenheit 451’s protagonist Guy Montag learns that original ideas aren’t bound within books. He realises that it’s not the book itself that is valuable, but that exposing yourself to opposite ideas and opinions invites critical thought. It isn’t comfortable in the short term, but it gives you access to more diverse knowledge in the long run. Without diversity in thought, originality becomes very improbable.
Teaching people that they are special and that their opinions are unique is supposed to incentivise them to express such ‘unique opinions’. But in reality, giving them an inflated sense of uniqueness just legitimises their innate tendency to avoid confronting opposing views, which in turn stifles original thought. They will just reiterate the same opinions they have been exposed to in their echo-chambers. On social media, you are frequently bombarded with people re-posting, re-tweeting or slightly re-editing content with the same stock phrases found in particular echo-chambers.
Even so, “don’t be a snowflake” is hardly a hot take. The term snowflake is pejorative, so nobody voluntarily identifies as one. But snowflakes are only an extreme manifestation of a larger trend: we are becoming obsessed with facilitating a safe space for expression, to the extent where it is socially inadmissible to disagree with what is being expressed.
We can see the emergence of this snowflake culture within our universities. Lecturers respond to any student participation with something like “That’s a good point.” Indeed, many lecturers only praise their students to encourage more participation, but doesn’t this attitude just validate the preconceived beliefs students entered the university with? Isn’t it paradoxical that when we envision critical thought, we picture a young person speaking out against the status quo set by older generations, while simultaneously asking that the older generation refrain from teaching younger people how to be critical of their own views?
We are quick to dismiss the Fight Club rule “You don’t ask questions”. However, in the same breath, we don’t condemn any questions that are designed to support what we already know or believe (snowflake culture). I came across an example of this during the question session following Maggie Oliver’s talk about the Rochdale Grooming Scandal. When asked whether austerity made people more vulnerable to sexual exploitation (to which the answer was likely to be yes), Oliver was then able to expand on the specific risks of austerity. But overall, this brought nothing new to the table. Everyone knew the answer already, as the audience consisted mainly of Social & Policy Science students who are well aware of the negative impacts of austerity. This lack of originality was therefore not only unremarked upon, but actively encouraged.
So, what can we do about all of this? In an interview, Greg Lukianoff mentioned how, with the commercialisation of higher education and increases in tuition fees, university administrators developed the urge to offer students a ‘comfortable experience’. Linking being comfortable to being right, we can see how the slogan “The customer is always right” has translated into university practice of “We can’t offend any student”. Personally, I think universities should also recognise that they aren’t just offering a service but also a product. If students leave university without critical thinking or the ability to come up with original ideas, universities may have sacrificed the quality of their product in favour of a more comfortable service.