Tuesday, December 27, 2016
'If you're a young, white straight man today you're in trouble
In one English school, a group of Caucasian teenage girls gasped, cried and hugged each other. In another, young Muslims of both genders looked shocked, outraged and on the brink of tears. Who or what could have upset these teenagers, who on the face of it seemed to have little in common apart from their age?
In both cases, the youngsters were listening to a speech by Claire Fox, the director of the Institute of Ideas in London. Although using different words and topics in each school, the result was the same: offence, hurt, dismay.
Fox (56), who was born to Irish Catholic parents in Wales, has just published a book, I Find that Offensive, in which she tackles the controversial subject of the youth of today, who have been labelled Generation Snowflake for their inability to accept anything they don’t agree with.
“When I spoke in those two different schools, I was shocked by the genuine hurt these teenagers seemed to be feeling from my words,” she says. “With the young Muslims, I suggested that mocking the prophet Muhammad was no reason for the atrocities which happened at the Charlie Hebdo office.
“But I hadn’t got very far in my speech when I realised that I had offended the group by neglecting to say the word ‘Prophet’ before Muhammad’s name, and this was causing them genuine distress.”
At the second school, Fox talked about whether Ched Evans, a professional footballer who was convicted of rape (the conviction was subsequently quashed, and he faces a retrial in October). On release, she asked, should he be allowed to play professional football again?
“The very notion of debating the topic caused consternation,” she says. “Although I was aware of this already, these two incidents really highlighted how thin-skinned the young generation is today, and how they seem to have a belligerent sense of outrage about anything they don’t like to hear.”
According to Fox, who worked as a mental-health social worker for six years, this refusal to accept differing opinions has been created by an upbringing in which safety is always the biggest concern for parents.
“This generation has been reared to believe that safety trumps all,” she says. “When they were growing up they were stopped from going out on their bikes because there were ‘probably paedos on every street corner’. In short, they were brought up to believe that everything was scary. This is coupled with the trend of catastrophising every social problem.
“Yes, we know that obesity is an issue, but it isn’t the end of the world as is reported everywhere. Headlines such as ‘Obesity time bomb waiting to explode’ lead people to believe that eating any amount of sugar or salt will kill them. Climate change is another issue, as is child protection. Everything is turned into a Hollywood-style disaster, and this has created a perception for the younger generation that the world is a frightening place.
“If you contrast this to years ago, when children were afraid of a bogeyman and their parents would assure them that he didn’t exist; now the child would be told that there are in fact 10 bogeymen waiting to pounce if he strays away from his parents.”
By giving importance to every perceived slight felt by the younger generation, Fox says, they grow up unable to deal with the hardships of the world. And when every jibe or insult is treated as a serious offence, it trivialises more important issues.
“The concept of bullying has become such a wide issue that it’s in danger of causing problems for people facing serious bullying,” she warns. “I’m not out to suggest there is anything pleasant about childhood cruelty, but children and young adults today simply do not know how to handle anything unpleasant, and this will be a big problem for them when they grow up.
“We have all had to deal with cruel remarks from other children, and it has made us stronger as a result. But today every minor slight is analysed to determine whether or not it is racist, sexist, homophobic and so on.”
Children, she says, “have been reared with the notion that words are every bit as harmful as physical cruelty, and this is just wrong. They have been raised to believe that if someone is mean to them it could have a lasting effect, leaving them with mental-health issues in later life. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the more they are told this the more likely it is to happen.”
Fox warns that girls, in particular, have developed an “unhealthy sense of entitlement” and a total lack of ability to cope with the many trials and tribulations of life.
“I think the influence of contemporary feminism has been very unhelpful to the current generation of girls,” she says. “They are constantly being encouraged to speak out about how they feel victimised. I think the sexist issue has gone full circle and is beginning to have serious consequences, with many young men being accused of heinous crimes through naff or inexperienced attempts at chatting up a girl.
“It is making for a very unpleasant atmosphere among the younger generation because, firstly, if a young man is accused of harassment, he doesn’t stand a chance. And secondly, by encouraging women to see themselves as victims in often trivial situations, it takes away from those who have had truly bad experiences. If you are a young, white, straight man in today’s society, you are in trouble.”
No victim status
The reason that young, heterosexual white males have a hard time, according to Fox, is because in the current politicised climate they are the only group without a victim status to fall back on.
Now, with universities clamping down on free speech and arranging safe spaces for students (places where they will not be challenged verbally or made to feel uncomfortable), she believes something has to change – and fast.
“We were brought up with the notion that ‘sticks and stones won’t break our bones’,” Fox says. “But this seems to be an outdated message for young people today, who believe they will be genuinely hurt if someone says something they don’t like or agree with.”
She says that encouraging people, particularly young women, to feel victimised is “very unhelpful, and it has almost brought equality backwards in a ‘pass the smelling salts’ sort of fashion when someone says something they don’t like.”
Fox describes how universities in the US are looking for areas to be segregated according to gender, colour or sexual persuasion so that potential victims of perceived verbal abuse to feel more comfortable. She thinks this a dangerous move.
“I would appeal to young people to stop trying to out-victim each other and instead to transcend it and put their energies elsewhere. There is a lot of real injustice in the world and a lot of other things to be thinking about. I would encourage them to stop and ask themselves if they really do feel victimised. They have grown up in a narcissistic culture of self-obsession and need to realise that if they don’t like what someone is saying, it’s only words. They have been overprotected and overflattered all their lives, constantly hearing how important and wonderful they are, and I feel strongly that they have been fed a lie. Because all this has done is disempowered them as their capacity to cope with life has been drained.
“One of the reasons I wrote this book was to appeal to Generation Snowflake directly and encourage them to take control of their lives, because if this fear of hearing anything offensive continues, it doesn’t bode well for future generations.”
‘SWEEPING GENERALISATION’: A PSYCHOLOGIST TAKES ISSUE
David Carey, director of psychology at City Colleges and dean of the College of Progressive Education, does not agree with author Claire Fox’s opinion of young people today in her book I Find That Offensive.
“This is yet another sweeping generalisation that casts all adolescents in the same camp,” he says. “Although we live in an age of paranoid parenting, not all our teens are incompetent, inept misfits. The vast majority of teens are able to deal with the huge complexity of their lives. They cope with school exams, part-time jobs, deal with managers in shops and on the pitch and contend with the complicated social environment in which they live effectively.
“I do not know what group of teens [Fox] has interviewed to reach her conclusion, but I doubt they represent the mainstream adolescents who are successful, living well, coping well and making a contribution to society in small and large ways.
“Maybe it’s time we started to look at all the well-adjusted adolescents out there,” he adds, “including those who are being raised in communities with high crime rates and social disadvantage. There are far more examples of them then we read of in the media.”
However, the Dublin-based psychologist says any move towards restricting free speech (such as the creation of “safe spaces” in universities) is not a positive development.
“On this point I tend to agree with Claire Fox,” he says. “In a democracy which values free speech, there needs to be room for dissenting views, so long as they are not meant to create pain or suffering in others by increasing hatred.”