College Students: How Not to Be a Fragile Snowflake

snowflakeThere’s a lot of talk today about how this generation of college students is filled with “special snowflakes” cowering in “safe spaces” demanding protection from “unwanted speech,” but virtually no one is helping students avoid that embarrassing, simpering fate.

Here’s my attempt.

First off, you don’t want to be a flake. That’s not a good thing.

Snowflakes are lovely, but they’re delicate. They don’t last. They melt in the spring and turn to yucky brownish-gray slush. Don’t be like that.

So what do you do when life gets tough?

That’s easy. You toughen up, too.

For example, if someone says something you don’t like, you don’t have to get upset or fall apart. You have plenty of other options available to you. You can: walk away, laugh, shrug, wish them a nice day, ignore them, nod vacuously, stare at them silently, say “uh huh,” smile, frown, or simply pretend you don’t speak English.

You definitely don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.

Like it or not, the First Amendment allows people the right to say anything they want (with the exception of direct physical threats) and that’s a good thing. And fair is fair: the First Amendment also guarantees you the right to say whatever you want. Calmly, rationally and respectfully, preferably.

So you are always entitled to share an opposing point of view, if you choose. As the great Justice Louis Brandeis wisely intoned, “The remedy for bad speech is more speech, not enforced silence.”

But the First Amendment guarantees no one the right to be listened to. You also don’t get to deny anyone else’s First Amendment rights. And there is no constitutional right not to be offended by something someone else says.

People are even allowed to call you names. (Like it or not.) You are allowed to call people names. (Not recommended and not sophisticated or nice, but you can. Just be prepared to lose friends if you do. There is no constitutional amendment saying people have to like you.)

But no one is allowed to hit you and you are not allowed to hit others no matter what words anyone uses or how loudly s/he speaks (with the exception of direct threats involving real physical harm. Consult an attorney or a police officer if you are confused on this matter.)

Instead of cowering under words that you dislike, you can either calmly ignore them, calmly refute them, or you could raise the level of discourse by cultivating the long-lost art of the cleverly worded insult/aka verbal barb. Whole genres of literature have been devoted to the biting riposte (see especially Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde.)

You can stock up on some great verbal putdowns at insults.net. Here are a few all-purpose ones to keep handy:

“I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed.” —Mark Twain

“I make it a point never to argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” —Mark Twain

“He has the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.” —Winston Churchill

“It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue.” —Oscar Wilde

Another point to consider before reacting to something someone else says: not all speech you hate is hate speech. That’s well worth pondering.

If you’d like more ideas on how to shut down unwanted confrontations effectively, check out my previous post on Surviving Campus Politics. It’s admittedly not easy, but it can be done.

If you’d like to read Dean John Boyer’s recent letter to incoming University of Chicago students on the importance of respecting opposing points of view and tolerating disagreement, click here.

Plus, just for fun, here’s a bracing scene from The Social Network depicting how colleges used to deal with students in huffs.