How many people have heard of Thomas Bowdler or “to bowdlerise”, the verb coined from his name? Bowdler was an author and an eminent prison reformer. But he was best known for his work on Shakespeare’s plays. He edited them and took out blasphemous, sexually provocative and, to parents of that era, suggestive words and passages. Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare became required reading in Victorian households from its first edition in 1807 to its fifth in 1827. Bowdler also edited Gibbon’s ‘’Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and published his version before he died in 1825. Two such vast works were an incredible accomplishment in one life time.
Bowdler was not a fanatical extremist. He loved Shakespeare. He wanted to make it possible for families, by whom he meant women and children, to enjoy Shakespeare’s work also. In those days, fathers felt forced to leave out words and scenes when they read them to their wives or children. They feared the offensive impact on young minds. Notice the very gender-specific behaviours here!
Nowadays some might find this censorship – a dirty word in some circles. This is strange when modern television programmes that include violence, bad language, nudity and sexual scenes are promoted as reality. Our previous generations appear to have been so sensitive to what they read and heard. You may say “We’ve got past that age now”.
The Snowflake generation
But have we? It seems that we have a many more sensitive minds around today than ever before. And there are many more potential Bowdlers around who seek to sanitise what we read and watch.
“Generation Snowflake” is the name given to a growing group of youngsters who believe it is their right to be protected from anything they might find unpalatable.
Research by the insurer Aviva has found that 72% of 16- to 24-year-olds think the term Snowflake is unfairly applied. 74% think it could have a negative effect on young people’s mental health. I apologize, therefore, to any young person who is reading this. I do not intend to damage your mental health. Snowflake is a convenient term to describe some members of your age group.
Here are some examples of Snowflake behaviour widely quoted in the UK media:
- Sombreros were given to freshers by a UK Tex-Mex restaurant in a bid to drum up business. But the University of East Anglia ordered the restaurant to stop. It claimed that handing out such hats breached a ban on stereotypical imagery. The University defines this as “Discriminatory or stereotypical language or imagery aimed towards any group or individual based on characteristics will not be permitted as part of our advertising. We want all members to feel safe and accepted, so at all events we try to ensure that there is no behaviour, language or imagery which could be considered racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or ableist.”
- Some critics of the show Friends have accused the show of fat-shaming as well as being homophobic and transphobic in the treatment of LGBT characters. There are also suggestions of sexism and gender stereotyping, painting one of the world’s favourite 90s shows in a very bad light indeed.
- English literature lecturers at Cambridge University have started issuing “trigger warnings” on the works of Shakespeare. These advise students that they might be upset by the discussion of sexual violence if they are brave enough to attend lectures about the Bard’s works. (Welcome back Mr Bowdler!)
- Delegates at a student conference were mocked online after asking audience members to “jazz hands” instead of clapping – in case the noise made people anxious. The edict was issued before the National Union of Students’ annual women’s conference in the UK Midlands. The Women’s Campaign also tweeted: “Whooping is fun for some, but can be super inaccessible for others, so please try not to whoop! Jazz hands work just as well.”
- Students at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London gave a visiting comedian such a long list of excluded topics that he felt he had nothing humorous left. He declined the offer to give a show.
And the list goes on. There is a robust debate about not only whether such protective actions are right or wrong, but also whether they are a problem, and if so, where the responsibility for Snowflakes lies.
A generation gap?
Snowflakes include many interest groups; you can find insults almost anywhere if you look hard enough. Although some writing will resonate with people of all ages, it will be a surprise to no one that those who mock Snowflakes tend to be older: “We had to be a lot tougher in our day…”
Chinese children have a long tradition of filial obedience. Confucius said, “a young man should be a good son at home and an obedient young man abroad.” His pupil Yu Tzu went further: “Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man’s character.”
The Christian Bible is equally adamant in both Old and New Testaments. “Children, obey your parents because this pleases the Lord,” said St Paul to the Corinthians. Proverbs has a particularly unpleasant fate in mind for disobedient children: “The eye (of the child) that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.”
Yet, over the years in all cultures, young people have questioned, and even tried to tear down, the values and beliefs of their parents. My father, whom I thought of as ultra conservative, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in his youth at the London School of Economics! Five years later, he was fighting on behalf of the UK in the Second World War.
Generation gaps have existed ever since human beings developed brains. But, three major differences exist between the Snowflakes/Millennials of today and those of even only 50 years ago:
- Global TV and media coverage 24 hours a day means that almost everyone can read and see what is happening everywhere. The media requires sensational stories to create an impact and sell their services. So a simple comment will often be portrayed in a dramatic way. So-called “social” media enables anyone to say whatever they want to their followers. The most famous current user (arguably) of a ridiculous but best-known forum uses quite extreme language at times. “If he can, why can’t we”, say others?
- The global population today is around 7.6 billion, and over half regularly use the Internet. 50 years ago, there were half (yes half) as many people and communication depended on postal services. Estimates suggest that over 1 billion TVs are in daily use today – more than double the number 50 years ago. The CEO of one major Chinese telecoms company told me that, 50 years ago, there were only 250,000 telephones in the whole of China. Today there are over 1.5 billion mobile phones. A larger global population with instantly available communication channels means that people can talk and discuss anything they like, with whom they like, whenever they like. Young people are at the forefront of the technology that enables this.
- We all travel much more. 50 years ago, there were over 100 million international tourists. Today there are more than 1 billion – and the number is growing by 20% a year. These trips do not include the huge number of business trips to global destinations. More travel means more exposure to different ideas and people, the ability to make more comparisons and get more understanding of how things could be better at home.
Finally, we learn from surveys that young people are less interested in possessions than previous generations. They are more interested in experiences that enrich their lives. Money to buy stuff is less important than time off to travel and learn, for example. The world must live with this way of thinking. It is not going away.
What can we do?
The older generation can mock all it likes.But is there not something important in what is going on?
Should we not be paying attention to the views of the Snowflakes? Their ideas may seem crazy and over-sensitive at times, but young people are the future. Logic tells me that, sometimes, they will be right.
After all, heavy snow often signals the beginning of spring. Happy New Year!