Friday, July 1, 2016

The cult of oppression chic

In I Find That Offensive, Claire Fox’s pithy, punchy contribution to Biteback’s ‘Provocations’ series, she appeals to the members of ‘generation snowflake’ to cast off their bubble wrap and embrace the liberating responsibilities of adult life.

Fox is not simply having a go at the younger generation, although there is good reason to, from students No Platforming anyone they disagree with, to their obsession with microaggressions. Rather, she wants to know ‘why?’ Why are they taking offence on such an epic scale? Why are they banning people from campus? Why are they are claiming to be ‘triggered’ by words? And to answer these questions, she digs at the roots of youngsters’ fragility, and explores the wider culture of victimhood.

Fox observes, for example, how many young people today acquire a perverse authority through the adoption of an ‘oppressed’ status. The result is that even mild criticism of their beliefs is deemed tantamount to hate speech, which effectively gives the beliefs of the self-proclaimed victims special immunity. Meanwhile, those without sufficient victim status try to compensate by overzealously empathising with acknowledged victim groups in the hope that some of the moral lustre of others’ victimhood will rub off on them. ....

So who is to blame for generation snowflake, in all its victimhood-seeking, offence-taking inglory? Fox fingers us, its elders. We have socialised these youngsters in a culture of health and safety, in which we catastrophise life’s challenges and obsess about health scares and child protection. And it’s this overprotection of children, their immersion in our risk-averse culture, in which we now see threats and suspect abuse everywhere, argues Fox, that has blurred the line between physical and psychological harm. ....

So, instead of helping young people to put unpleasant experiences into perspective, we have been encouraging children to over-react, to become traumatised by minor slights. It is no wonder that young people now head off to college, obsessed with their psychological wellbeing, and conscious of themselves as vulnerable and victimised. As Fox writes, we have pathologised what were once considered basic experiences of student life, from being broke, to staying up all night to get an essay finished. Disappointment, stress and frustration are no longer integral parts of life, of growing up; they’re sources of mental distress and illness.

An insidious paternalism has also eaten into youngsters’ everyday life. Childrens’ informal activities are organised and supervised; ‘free time’ is structured and monitored; ‘helicopter parents’ encourage children to be reliant on outside intermediaries. The space in which young people can develop their independence has shrunk. Instead, young people are encouraged to believe that they are empowered by dependency on external agencies and institutions. Their diminished sense of responsibility and autonomy ties them, as if with an umbilical cord, to external authorities. It’s not just their liberty that is undermined; their capacity to become autonomous is stunted, too.

Fox also criticises the transformed relationship between teachers and pupils. Protecting pupils’ self-esteem is now paramount – their ‘student voice’ must be heard. Teachers are told that in order to engage their pupils, all subject matter must relate to pupils. This demand to treat young people’s views with unconditional respect, writes Fox, to pander to their experiences and prejudices, ‘effectively destroys the intergenerational duty of passing on knowledge, setting boundaries for behaviour and the broader task of socialisation’. The necessarily unequal relationship between the teacher and student, based as it is on a relationship between one with knowledge, and one without, is eclipsed. As a result, students never learn to cope with disappointment or accept criticism. .... [more]