You notice it in the comments on some online article. A casual conversation with a neighbor. Your friend’s argument with their uncle on social media. You see the same words pop up again and again, the same stories: “Safe spaces” and “participation trophies” and “snowflakes”. The problem these days is everyone’s become so “coddled” and “entitled”.
In our world of filtered feeds, it’s getting harder to figure out what the other side is talking about– interpret their latest vocabularies and mythologies– talking points bouncing around an echo chamber you’re not quite part of.
Here’s what’s going on:
The political right sees the dangerous tide of the Millenial generation, the future of American culture, shifting unstoppably to the left. But they’ve got a playbook for times like these: Facing the whirlwind of social change led by young Baby Boomers in the 1960’s, Nixon’s strategists developed a counter-message that helped win a conservative era of government for decades. They spoke for the “Silent Majority”, the god-fearing, hard-working, patriotic, real Americans, isolating progressive youth culture as out of touch and dangerous, wild with drugs and sex and communism, an existential threat to American values.
Today the right is pushing a new set of talking points through their media echo chamber of AM talk radio, Fox News, and conservative sites like Breitbart, to build popular resentment and scorn towards young people.
Their message is this:
Brainwashed by college professors and celebrities and coddled by participation trophies, kids these days have become fragile little snowflakes whose feelings need to be constantly protected. To keep themselves safe from any ideas that might trigger them, they’ve tightened the clamps of political correctness on any free speech they find offensive. Thugs create carnage in the streets because police are afraid of being called racist, immigrants bleed us dry because we can’t say “illegal” anymore, men prey on little girls in the bathroom claiming they’re “transgender”, terrorists massacre innocent Americans because we’re too damn PC to say “radical Islam”. And then these whiny crybabies are so entitled they think the rest of us should pay for their sociology classes and birth control, because they don’t know what it’s like to put in a hard day’s work.
The right excels at making their political messages deeper, more subconscious, almost more cultural than explicitly political. You’ll hear lifelong Democrats repeating their buzzwords without realizing it, as if they organically thought them up on their own, perhaps even as observations about their own children, rather than echoes of talking points written by conservative communications strategists.
The 1960’s attacks on progressive youth culture described them as “radical”, “subversive”, “dangerous”, etc. But young people take pride in being called dangerous rebels. Calling their counter-culture radical pours fuel on their fire. Conservatives realized they had to reframe young activists as a threat to America due to their weakness rather than their strength. They’ve deliberately shifted towards labels like “coddled”, “entitled”, and “whiny”. Snowflakes: the young, diverse, and sensitive who think they’re all so special and unique. Fragile, handle with care! Don’t offend these kids or they’ll melt!
This also helps build a counter-counter-culture among young conservatives, who don’t have to feel like the dorky church camp kids anymore. Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer rebrand themselves as the bold, edgy, “alt-right” rebels, unwilling to conform to a youth culture that mindlessly celebrates diversity.
The “Snowflake” label even challenges diversity itself as an American value. Young people assert that they represent the future of America, in its beautiful mix of identities and experiences. But the new right messaging says that in the end, all those unique special snowflakes melt into the same grimy puddles, unable to withstand the slightest heat. Newsflash, kiddos: You’re not special. No one is.
Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces
The appropriation of “Trigger Warnings” and “Safe Spaces” is fascinating. These terms originated in lefty student culture, but were limited in use prior to the right-wing media assault against them. Try to remember: how many times have you actually seen a trigger warning or safe space in real life prior to the barrage of blogs and thinkpieces and TV commentators decrying them? Not only is the widespread use of trigger warnings and safe spaces a myth perpetuated by the right, but the use of these terms has been distorted from their original meanings.
“Triggered” comes from the field of trauma recovery. Trigger warnings might be given before showing a college class a video depicting rape. Since 1 in 4 college women experience sexual assault, more than a few in a lecture hall of hundreds could publicly relive their trauma in front of their peers. A warning lets them step outside or at least mentally prepare themselves. Trigger warnings are still rarely used even on college campuses, but have become central to right-wing mythology of why young people are coddled and unable to handle debate with opposing viewpoints. The term “triggered” has now evolved into a derisive sneer at people who show signs of being emotionally hurt or angered during debates around race or gender, topics rooted in traumatic life experiences to some, while only abstract intellectual play to others.
Similarly, “safe spaces” originally described rare places where queer people could feel safe from the ever-present danger of being harassed, assaulted, or even murdered for holding the wrong person’s hand or dressing the wrong way. It’s now become a buzzword meaning college campus bubbles where students avoid hearing right-wing perspectives, particularly ones perceived as racist, sexist, or homophobic.
These terms are now used far more often by conservatives to explain what’s wrong with kids these days than they ever were on college campuses to protect marginalized students or survivors of trauma. But the intended audience for these talking points was never college students themselves, so an accurate depiction of university life isn’t necessary. These myths have taken on a life of their own within a larger story.
Participation trophies are a critical piece of the new right narrative: they connect the right’s social message with its economic message. It’s the idea that Millenials grew up in the era where all kids in group activities like AYSO soccer leagues were given trophies, even the losers. So they’ve grown up unable to handle the harshness of the real world and entitled to being given rewards for no effort. Thus, not only are young people incapable of dealing with diverse opinions like “black people are thugs” or “Muslims are terrorists”, but they are also ill-equipped to face the realities of a free market economy where you have to work or die.
Somehow, this generation whose entire life has been in the rubble of a collapsed economy, left with only low-wage service jobs and saddled with exploding college tuition and crushing housing costs, are magically transformed into a generation of lazy entitled brats who had everything handed to them.
The right knows that young people who grew up in an era of horrific economic inequality simply don’t believe in the American Dream myth anymore. They fear a whole generation turning towards Bernie Sanders-style democratic socialism. The “participation trophy” story is a bullet aimed at the heart of the economic populism of American youth.
There is of course no real evidence that links accepting a participation trophy for being bad at sports when you’re 8 years old to future inability to succeed in a capitalist economy. Yet this narrative has become deeply embedded in the public’s conventional wisdom. That’s how effective messaging works.
Each of these buzzwords are attached to stories, narratives, mythologies that are evoked in the subconscious mind whenever they are uttered. Each repetition reinforces these myths as general truths about the way the world is, parroted over and over at dinner tables and break rooms, met with knowing grunts and sage nods.
Central to this new right message is the idea of progressive thought as “political correctness”, and political correctness as a violation of free speech. This allows the right to reframe maintaining white supremacy and misogyny as an issue of freedom.
The reactionary right can no longer say “all _____’s are lazy, stupid, violent, etc.” like in generations past. However, they can imply that maybe not all, but most or many are. Controversial, but not completely taboo. When those assertions are challenged, they respond that they are being oppressed by the denial of their free speech rights. Even worse, they say, not only is left-wing political correctness violating our freedoms and threatening American values, but it’s crippling us from tackling important problems like crime and terrorism because we are so wrapped up in not offending anybody! Thus the new right-wing talking points turn a defensive position, of being out of touch with an increasingly tolerant America, into an offensive one, where they are the champions of freedom and our very way of life.
This act of verbal jujitsu not only maintains overtly racist beliefs, but shuts down debate about them, by claiming disagreement is a violation of free speech.
Conservative: “Sure, of course not AALLLL Muslims are terrorists, but let’s be honest, whenever there’s a terrorist attack on TV it’s a Muslim. How come we can’t talk about that? We can’t even say who wants to kill us? What happened to free speech?”
Progressive: “But more Americans are killed every year in terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists than Muslim extremists. Groups like ISIS are to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. You can’t just slap that label on all Muslims. That’s racist!”
Conservative: “Now I’m a RACIST?? Oh I’m sorry did my opinion trigger you, snowflake? Do you need a safe space from all these offensive words? This PC crap is why ISIS is killing us.”
But the real intent of this message is to build popular resentment against the “woke” youth culture of the 21st century, with a few different audiences:
1) Provide talking points for older core conservatives. Shifting attention to the crazy kids these days allows men who grew up in the Jim Crow era to avoid the uncomfortable contradiction of their intolerant beliefs losing touch with an evolving society. They absorb these talking points and become their biggest promoters.
2) Make inroads with middle-aged and working-class moderates. They see themselves as tolerant people but sometimes clash with a youth culture that can be harsh towards those who don’t keep up with national conversations about race and gender playing out on social media and college campuses. Their frustration at feeling attacked for not knowing the right things to say can be manipulated to drive a wedge between them and progressive young people.
3) Tap into a new group of young people to replace their aging base. The alt-right targets disaffected young white males in online spaces like Reddit and 4chan to find new recruits who wouldn’t connect with older conservative messages like “family values”, but feel alienated by their peers, where progressive “wokeness” is social capital. Their resentment is ripe for recruitment and radicalization.
This message isn’t just spread through their old top-down channels like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, or even newer voices like Tomi Lahren aimed at young people. It’s also disseminated through viral marketing tactics– intentionally provoking controversy and protest to circulate a message faster and wider.
This is Milo Yiannopolous’ whole thing. He goes to a progressive college campus to say horrible shit knowing protests will inevitably erupt, maybe preventing him from speaking in-person to a small handful of conservative students, but meanwhile exposing his ideas to millions of non-students as news of the controversy spreads first to the local area on TV and then virally on social media to a far wider audience.
But it’s one thing to see your opponents’ strategy, it’s another to know what to do about it. So what now?
We can’t just ignore these rapidly spreading messages and hope they go away. Refusing to feed the troll lurking under the bridge isn’t a winning strategy once the troll has climbed up to stand directly in your path, dragging its club along the cobblestones.
We also can’t reinforce our opposition’s frame by trapping ourselves in defensive arguments against it. Our message has to be more than “Hey, we’re not snowflakes!”
We have to lead with our own message. We need to tell our own story about the problems in our society and our own vision for how to solve them. We need to define who we are, what we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for.
Above all, to contradict their message, we need to make our most visible battles about substance rather than language. We have to make undeniably visible the impacts of systemic inequality on the daily conditions of people’s lives.
This was never about being offended by words we disagree with. This is about the families torn apart by prison cells and deportations. This is about the poisoned air and water making children sick. This is about the grandmothers evicted from their homes. This is about the people toiling for poverty wages at dangerous jobs. It has always been about a system that puts corporate profits over the lives of human beings who are considered disposable because of who they are or where they’re from.
How could such savage inequality not offend us, not offend our very humanity? The real act of coddled entitlement is turning a blind eye to injustices that cause us discomfort. Instead, it is an act of radical bravery to dream of a better world and fight for it. It is nothing less than the most fundamental responsibility of every generation: to look with wide open eyes at the rights and wrongs of the world we inherited, and commit ourselves to building a better one for those who come after us.