SJWs and special snowflakes: the myth of millennial politics

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Image credit: Adrian Mathew Lam

When it comes to millennial political involvement, the consensus is pretty clear. We’re uninterested, apathetic, overly sensitive radicals. We’re commercially-obsessed brand-snobs and air-headed idealists. We’re social justice warriors and we’re alt-right. We’re the next generation’s hope and civilisation’s downfall. 

Given how many people fall into the millennial generation globally, that being around 75 million, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of these generalisations don’t make much sense. Attempting to define any group of people’s voting behaviour or political beliefs based purely on identity factors is always going to be somewhat reductive, and has led to some grossly unfair generalisations of young people. 

The first charge, that millennials are particularly politically apathetic, is debunked easily enough. This was a generalisation which became particularly prevalent in the UK following the Brexit referendum, when the statistic that only 36% of 18 to 24 year olds cast their vote was published by Sky Data and did the rounds on social media. This figure later turned out to be a gross underestimation, with later estimates putting it at nearly twice that.

It might also be noted that it is hardly unusual in any generation for the youngest segment of voters to have the lowest voting turnout, or that political engagement doesn’t solely rest on voting behaviour. Our generation’s interest in politics and social justice is actually rated particularly high by most surveys, with lots of us following news sites on social media, organising protests and petitions over the internet and sharing our views over online platforms. This might lead to accusations of keyboard bashing and slacktivism, but ultimately we’re reaching more people than a march or discussion group ever could. 

The second charge, that millennials are overly sensitive, tend towards radicalism in our views, and are deeply polarised between left and right is perhaps even more prevalent. Labels like ‘social justice warrior’ and ‘special snowflake’ on one side and ‘alt-right’ or ‘MRA’ on the other paint a picture of us in two opposing camps with no hope of compromise or reconciliation. They make handy insults and attention-grabbing headlines, exclude even the possibility of moderate or centrist teenagers, and have become rapidly swaddled in connotations of ignorance, stubbornness and intolerance. 

These terms are, to borrow from the vernacular, same shit different day. Yes, many millennials are idealists (again, something hardly new for any young generation) and yes, we do face polarisation between left and right. The real difference between ourselves and previous generations is, once again, however, the internet’s tendency to blow differences out of proportion and for individuals online to engage in mob-like behaviour, trolling and arguments that quickly spiral out of control into insults and threats.

I have faith (and hope) that few would really behave towards each other as they seem to on the internet. It is also hardly a new phenomena that those on the left and right misrepresent each others’ views and push them to limits of their logical conclusions, meaning that is only the most radical individuals who are ever given air-time. Milo Yiannopoulis, for instance, has made a career for himself through internet trolling, but he wouldn’t be half as successful if no-one rose to it. And on the flip-side of the coin, I have definitely heard more right-leaning people mock the use of the word ‘triggered’ than I have ever actually heard someone use it seriously. 

This confirmation bias was something we all fell foul of recently through the £20 note burning incident. Such a furore wouldn’t have erupted over that one student’s actions if people didn’t already believe Cambridge students, and particularly Conservative Cambridge students, are all secretly like this. Mr Coyne was targeted with a deep well of resentment and hatred for which he was only figurehead, rather than cause. 

I have also witnessed disproportionate levels of anger and mockery over certain terms, as ‘no-platforming’, ‘safe spaces’, ‘cultural appropriation’, ‘privilege’ and, as mentioned, ‘trigger warnings’. Even the mention of any of these terms, each one ripe for Daily Mail headlines and Facebook pages with the word ‘Banter’ or ‘Cringe’ in the title, will release a barrage of roughly homogenous jibes about triggering and special snowflakes, despite the fact that each one of these is an idea which deserves careful consideration and engagement. 

The people shutting down productive discussion and debate between young people with opposing political and social views are not, however, simply ourselves: the ‘special snowflake generation’ is also something looked down on and sneered at by older commentators. Why the generation who have left us with hiked up university fees and a housing crisis would want us to feel politically divided and disenfranchised, I can’t possibly imagine, especially when their voting behaviour is frequently so different to ours. 

From afar, political engagement amongst millennials might appear depressing: if headlines and social media squabbles were taken at face value, we certainly would seem like quite a dysfunctional bunch. I for one have much hope, however, that a generation who have largely witnessed our views ignored in mainstream politics (Brexit being one example) will take our passions and strong political involvement into future public life, and set out a politics far less extreme and polarised than what we are seeing today. 

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