Author Note: This was originally written in 2012, in response to several then-current controversies (hence the references to 2012-era studies). Unfortunately, in the 3 years since, things have only gone from bad to worse. Columbia, Yale, and now Missouri. My intent is not to rehash those stories – there’s plenty of online coverage, but to reiterate the conclusions, which apply today even more so than at the time of the original writing.
If you’ve participated in, or even viewed, political discussions on the Internet, especially in “high-speed” forums such as Twitter, you may have noticed a curious way some people handle differences in opinion.
Instead of bringing facts and logical arguments to defend their points, they quickly descend into name-calling and personal insults, and eventually freak out and try to shut down the discussion. Insults, trolling, and ad hominem attacks are common in Internet discussions, but the specific response of silencing dissent is worth investigating as a separate issue.
I call this phenomenon, “the silence of the snowflakes“. When a person has been told all their life that they’re special and unique, “like a precious snowflake”, they tend to handle criticism in a very personal and painful way.
This is the result of a generation raised with a focus on self-esteem at the cost of personal development, shielded from anything that may puncture their over-inflated balloon of self-worth. Wrapped throughout childhood and adolescence in the soft cotton of excuses, they finally emerge into the real world… and that’s when reality smacks them in the face, usually pretty hard.
If you consider this phenomenon as the expression of a psychological syndrome (a group of related symptoms), several common traits emerge:
- Inability to handle criticism
- Inability to admit being wrong
- Taking abstract arguments personally
- Inability or unwillingness to maintain decorum (use of profanity, explicit sexual imagery, etc)
- Disrespect of common social boundaries (threats – both verbal and of physical violence)
Sidetracking into nerd territory for a moment, this Ars Technica article exposes another manifestation of the same mental disbalance, this time as it applies to “fanboys” considering criticism of their favorite brands as a personal insult, and the consequences thereof. Given the above-mentioned “precious snowflake” upbringing as well as the sorry state of our educational system, which results in a complete lack of ability to distinguish opinion from fact, it’s not a surprise that the transposition of abstract arguments onto personal beliefs is not confined only to the political arena but extends into technology [and popular culture] as well.
Of course, no discussion about silencing dissent would be complete without mentioning the Brett Kimberlin saga. In an extreme example of using strong-arm tactics to shut down opposition, Kimberlin & his band of thugs have taken to real-world harassment tactics, from bombarding bloggers with lawsuits to actually calling 9/11 pretending to be the mark – and having SWAT teams break down innocent people’s doors, guns drawn and 0.1 second away from shooting someone whose only “crime” was to expose the unpleasant truth about someone. Silencing dissent online is one thing. Silencing dissent by silencing the dissenters personally takes it to a whole new – and completely unforgivable – level.
The March 2012 survey conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals some interesting differences between the ways people of different political affiliations use and respond on Social Networking Sites (SNS’s). In particular, Question #3 asks “Have you ever blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone on a SNS because they: a.) Posted something you disagreed with, b.) Posted too frequently about politics, c.) Disagreed with something you posted, d.) Argued about political issues, or e.) Posted something that you worried would offend?
As you can see from the chart, liberals are far more likely to engage in dismissive behavior (blocking/hiding/unfriending) than moderates or conservatives. Rather than engage the argument head-on, they prefer to end it, one way or another.
One of the principles that this country, this “shining city on a hill”, was founded on, is the concept of free speech. Of all the nations, the United States should be the place with the least amount of silence, the land with the most boisterous debate and dissent and discord.
Instead, there grows a generation that feels not only entitled to their opinion, but also entitled to destroy the opinions of others.
Without free discourse, there can be no democracy.
The silence of the snowflakes is not only deafening, it’s chilling. It carries implications far larger and far more dangerous than a SWAT team breaking down a blogger’s door, or a student body clamoring for the resignation of a staff member.
The truly terrifying question is, what will happen when these overgrown toddlers get into positions of power in the media, legal system, and federal government?