Understanding Snowflakery: The Difference Between the Free Expression of Ideas and Harassment and Intimidation

by Helen Pluckrose

Essay originally from Counterweight.

Unfortunately, this essay needs to be written because so many people seem to be fatally confused about the concept of academic freedom, freedom of belief and speech more broadly and the value of viewpoint diversity and robust debate. That is, they fail to see the difference between someone making an argument that other people might find personally upsetting but which they do not have to read or listen to and targeted harassment, intimidation and dishonest character assassination intended to terrify people into silence. This is a very alarming development and it has never been more evident than in the current situation surrounding Professor Kathleen Stock.

Kathleen Stock is a feminist academic who has been critical of some forms of trans activism and queer theory that prioritise a personal perception of gender identity over the existence of biological sex in ways that impact on women’s rights, spaces and sports. While defending the rights of trans people to be free from harassment and discrimination and honouring their pronouns, Stock believes that recognizing the material reality of biological sex is important. In Material Girls she rejects the idea that only trans people have a right to an opinion on the subject of gender and argues that everyone does and that she as a lesbian sex-nonconforming woman has skin in the game too. She believes that women’s rights and trans people’s rights can both be recognized as important and rejects the idea that there is no debate to be had about this.

In the past week, Stock has been on the receiving end of what can only reasonably be described as a campaign of intimidation and an attempt at cancellation in the form of having her fired from her position at the University of Sussex. This included an Instagram account set up to demand her firing, posters stuck around her office calling for her firing and referring to her as transphobic and banners targeting her personally accompanied by the use of flares. In addition to this student activists issued explicit threats to continue the aggressive targeted harassment until Stock is fired and incited to others to behave intimidatingly until she is gone. The Instagram account said

‘If you care for our community like we do, spread the word, get people angry, angry enough to do something about it,’

And ‘Our demand is simple: Fire Kathleen Stock. Until then, you’ll see us around.’

Given all of this and the fact that police have needed to be consulted regarding Prof. Stocks’ physical safety is it any wonder that she has experienced panic attacks and been described as hyperventilating and crying? This was a targeted, personal attack on an individual of a physically threatening nature simply because she wrote a book, made some arguments and organized with feminist and gay and lesbian groups to argue for the need to consider biological sex a relevant factor.

Incredibly, there are people who see Prof. Stock making arguments which target no individual and which people can choose to read or not and which repeatedly stress the importance of trans people’s rights not to be intimidated or discriminated against as equivalent or even worse than the campaign of intimidation against her as an individual. Nowhere is this more evident than on Twitter. Twitter should not be mistaken for a representation of broader society but neither should its power and influence be underestimated.

This is blatantly untrue as well as being ridiculously hyperbolic. Would it be reasonable to accuse Judith Butler of making gender-conforming (or as Stock would prefer “sex-conforming”) people unsafe and wanting them dead because she has written and spoken about the importance of understanding gender as a performance? Would it be reasonable for students who disagreed with Butler’s theories of gender to worry that she wanted them dead or ethical for them to aggressively hound her, demand her firing and incite students to behave aggressively towards to her? Of course it would not. Butler is to be understood as having written arguments which people, including Kathleen Stock, have responded to appropriately with arguments. If activists targetted Butler in this way or any other queer theorist or trans activist in this way (which of course happens) it would almost certainly be clear to the activists hounding Stock that this was harassing and threatening behaviour. It would also be clear to Kathleen Stock who condemns any such behaviour very explicitly.

Many activists do not see this in this case because of their belief that arguments about sex and gender which do not comport with their gender ideology are literally dangerous to trans people. It is argued that any differing views on how sex and gender work can lead trans people to commit suicide. “Pretend to believe what I do or I’ll kill myself” is an emotionally manipulative demand and cannot be used ethically to prevent people expressing a range of views on an issue that really needs to be discussed. People who are suicidal require psychological support not the censorship of all other viewpoints. Similarly, it is argued that the existence of gender critical feminist arguments encourages violence against trans people although there is no evidence of anyone having committed violence influenced by gender critical feminism. Nevertheless, the belief that disagreement with a certain gender ideology held by (what is almost certainly) a minority of trans people is literally dangerous to trans people persists. If you believe this, it seems perfectly reasonable to respond to such arguments not with counterarguments but with aggressive retaliation. People with this mindset do not see Stock as a philosopher having an opinion which could be upsetting to some people but as a hatemonger causing real, genuine harm. The exchange below demonstrates this well.

Bizarrely, this has led some people to accuse those defending Stock or opposing the bullying and harassment of being “snowflakes.” They even regard the intimidating behaviour as “criticism” seeming not to comprehend that criticism is the production of a verbal or written critique, not an attempt to get someone fired or make them too afraid to enter their place of work.

This use of the term “snowflake” is an attempt to turn a term coined to describe people who feel harmed by viewpoints they find upsetting back onto those who object to physical harassment and intimidation of an individual. This does not work. It therefore seems necessary to discuss what phenomenon the word “snowflake” is meant to describe and why it does not apply to people preferring not to become the victims of campaigns of targeted harassment.

I am not a fan of the term “snowflake.” It tends to be used in a derogatory fashion to indicate contempt for an individual’s lack of psychological resilience. This usually occurs in the response to some dramatic statement about the harmfulness of speech. It is often said in response to things like “Your beliefs about sex and gender deny trans people’s right to exist,” “Your words erase women of color,” ‘advocating for hearing aids is advocating Deaf genocide.” While such statements are hyperbolic, it is not particularly useful to just dismiss the individual expressing them as a snowflake. This fails to recognize that the distress felt is probably completely genuine. If it is, some compassion and also a practical solution is required if we wish to be able to keep discussing different ideas. We need to look at the cause of people feeling deeply and personally harmed by somebody else expressing a viewpoint. This could be caused by an individual having suffered trauma that has left them feeling genuinely endangered by certain trigger words and who needs to be treated with therapy. It could also be caused by a cultural shift in our attitudes towards language and concepts of emotional safety which is teaching young people to genuinely feel such intense distress at words. This is more likely the explanation in the case of activist groups and it needs to be addressed on a cultural level. This is particularly important as these groups are so often found in universities which will turn out the next generation of leaders of various industries and institutions and we need them to be able to cope with a full range of words and ideas.

On that cultural level what is disparagingly known as “snowflakery” is more seriously and empathetically expressed by concern about an increasing lack of psychological resilience. It indicates alarm that an increasing number of young people and particularly those deeply steeped in theories of Critical Social Justice behave as though words that convey ideas they find upsetting could psychologically melt them. The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt looks at precisely this phenomenon in a compassionate way that accepts the phenomenon as real and dangerous. It points out that we should not just dismiss people feeling this way as snowflakes as though it is their choice and preference to feel this way. The evidence that this phenomenon is accompanied by an increase in mental illness and suicide suggests it is not something young people are taking on because they enjoy it.

This phenomenon is very real and it needs addressing robustly by re-establishing a cultural norm that exposes young people to a wide range of ideas and teaches them to respond to speech they find abhorrent and unethical with counterspeech rather than with mass hysteria, violence, intimidation and attempts to get people fired. Of course, not all young people feel or behave this way and many of the people opposing this kind of mentality are themselves members of Generation Z. They are our best hope for a more resilient, tolerant and genuinely progressive future.

The phenomenon of snowflakery or what could be more compassionately referred to as “a pathological oversensitivity to words that causes people to be less able to function in the ideologically diverse world in which we live” is very different to an ethical objection to bullying, harassment, intimidation and cancellation. It is absolutely essential that we do not lose sight of some very key distinctions.

  • The difference between distress and physical harm.

If somebody makes an argument that women are mentally inferior and should stay at home doing only domestic chores, this idea could make me feel emotionally hurt or angry or that my full humanity was not being recognized. It does not physically harm me as I remain free to do precisely what I want and I can choose not to read the argument or criticize the argument. I can make my own argument for why women should be able to access all the opportunities men have. In fact, this happened and equal rights for women won. I won’t say the subject is not up for debate but I am confident that the arguments for equal rights for women are strong enough to keep winning.

The issue of whether or not women’s rights are affected by self-identified gender identity being accepted as the definition of womanhood in all circumstances has not been settled and it really needs to be. This requires allowing people like Kathleen Stock and theorists and activists who have opposing views to make those arguments and have those discussions. They will not be easy for everyone and could cause significant distress to individuals but it will not cause them physical harm. Physical harm is much more likely to be caused by continuing not to allow this to “be up for debate.” Gender critical feminists and trans people already face much hostility and occasionally violence. Discussion is the only thing that will prevent this and enable a resolution to be found where natal women’s rights and trans people’s rights do not conflict and disadvantage either party.

  • The difference between making arguments and targeting individuals for harassment.

If somebody writes a book arguing that sex and gender both exist on a spectrum and that there are infinite numbers of gender identities and that these should be prioritized over understanding biological sex as binary with very little variation, they are making an argument. If somebody else writes a book arguing that biological sex is almost entirely binary and that it is important to recognize that and that gender identity cannot take priority over biological sex in every situation without affecting women’s safety and ability to compete fairly in sports, they are also making an argument. People are likely to have strong feelings about both books but they can express these with arguments.

If political activists become enraged with the author of either of these books and plaster their workplace with posters calling them hateful names, set off flares, set up Instagram pages to incite acts of intimidation and frighten them out of speaking or writing or going to work, this is not an argument. These are targeted acts of harassment, bullying and intimidation against an individual. They are intended to circumvent the need for argument or dialogue and instead impose one viewpoint on others by intimidation. At the moment, it is the people making arguments for recognition of biological sex that activists feel most justified in trying to bully into silence but this could change. If you recognize that this would be bullying and harassment if done to somebody writing a book supporting a position you hold, recognize that it still so when done to someone writing one supporting a position you don’t.

  • The difference between criticism of ideas and punishment for them.

If somebody strongly dislikes an idea set forth by someone else, they must be able to criticize it. A criticism is when someone makes a critical analysis of an argument and attempts to show, possibly in strong terms, why that idea is factually wrong or morally abhorrent. This is done in words just as the original idea was set out in words. If the criticism is strong enough, the other person’s reputation could be damaged and they could lose esteem in the eyes of the public. This is a natural consequence of having one’s ideas critiqued and is acceptable in a liberal society. It does not constitute a punishment although it could be considered a consequence. Nevertheless, it is an acceptable consequence that we all sign up for when putting our ideas out into the public sphere.

If someone strongly dislikes an idea set forth by someone else and they then try to get that person deplatformed, fired or intimidated into silence, this is not a criticism. There has been no critical analysis. It has not been shown why the idea is factually wrong or morally abhorrent. The person taking these steps is not seeking to criticize ideas and convince others in a legitimate way that the individual expressing the idea is not putting forth anything of worth and should not be held in high esteem. They are going straight to punishment. This is not a natural consequence but one enabled by being in a position of power that enables one to essentially ban ideas and intimidate anyone else who might be thinking of expressing them. This is not an acceptable consequence for expressing ideas in a liberal society and it is not something anyone should have to accept they are signing up for when expressing their ideas in the public sphere. If we have a society where that is the case, we have a society in which totalitarianism is being allowed to win out over liberalism and that must be fought by everybody who wishes to be able to speak freely whether they agree with the current ideas or not.

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