Considering the term’s origin stems from slang for anti-abolitionists in the 1860s, it’s ironic that the term “snowflake” has come to mean someone who is too sensitive, wrapped up in social justice issues or advocating a culture of meritocratic equality. Over a century later, in the 1970s, “snowflake” became a term used to note a white person or black person who was seen as acting with white mannerisms.
Writer Chuck Palahniuk believes he coined the term in the 1996 novel “Fight Club,” where he wrote, “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.” His verbiage isn’t the beautiful and unique neologism that he believes. Contemporary usage is closer to Palahniuk’s terminology than that of the 1860s, though – a condescending reminder that no individual is special.
For those in agreement with the “Fight Club” quote, I should point out that the character who uses the term “snowflake” is a member of an anti-consumerist terrorist organization. I’m no member of the campus debate team, but perhaps a terrorist, fictional or otherwise, is not the best model for ideological debate.
Contemporary use of the term is often espoused by those who believe both the millennial generation and the generation following have lost the qualities of leadership. These views are a holdover from the ‘80s culture war, where a new conservative ideology based in Christian moralizing, such as pro-life beliefs and a no-tolerance stance on gay marriage, found a platform in former president Ronald Reagan.
Under Donald Trump’s presidency, debates on abortion are still prevalent. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges to legalize gay marriage nationwide, discussions about sexuality and identity continue as attention shifts to the LGBTQ community and transgender rights. “Snowflake” has become a favorite discursive tool in conservative rhetoric, having been used by now-disgraced Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly in his book “Old School: Life in the Sane Lane” and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who stated at the 2018 Turning Point USA conference that universities are creating a generation of “supercilious snowflakes.”
While jocular, childish and not-all-that threatening name-calling is detrimental to rational political debate and “snowflake” is just another ad hominem attack, it’s the argumentative equivalent of the white flag. Anytime someone resorts to this attack, two things become clear. The first, that person lacks the ability or information to continue in a reasonable discussion. The second, said person never grew past the “I know you are but what am I” phase.
Of course, the political left has its fair share of name-calling as well, but “snowflake” is significantly more widespread and ingrained in contemporary conservative rhetoric than anything the left has come up with in recent years. It borders on the nature of a glib catchphrase. But, the real problem with the term “snowflake” isn’t even its rhetorical and rational bankruptcy. Rather, “snowflake” is so much worse than other ad hominem statements because of its utter hypocrisy.
If a person in the midst of an argument feels so victimized by another’s beliefs he or she resorts to name-calling, then that person is a "snowflake." In all honesty, I couldn’t care less what someone calls me, but the current state of political discourse is broken. We’re congratulating ourselves for saving it while we stomp it into the ground. But then again, maybe those relying on “snowflake” as a tool for discussion agree with Palahniuk’s character Tyler Durden — none of these societal constraints matter anyway, so throw it on the compost pile.
Michael Frank is a 23-year-old political science and English senior from New Orleans, Louisiana.