Who’s the Snowflake Now?

Imagine of a GOP elephant and a yellow speech bubble
Getty / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The right often accuses the left of exaggerating victimhood, turning a blind eye to reality, and distorting language to do so. The left, it’s often said, harbors “snowflakes” and the like who are beset by a victim complex. Lately, however, this frame of mind knows no party or political affiliation. Especially since the Capitol riot, assorted conservative figures have embodied a fragility of the right.

A conflict certainly exists between the rhetoric often used about society on the hard left and reality on the ground. Many on the left seem convinced that university campuses—some of the most studiously anti-racist locations on the entire planet—are hotbeds of pitiless racism. The idea that America’s trajectory since the early 17th century has been founded on, flowed from, and been defined by oppression of Black people, and today implacably “functions to” reinforce system inequality, strikes many as a useful conversation starter, but is almost curiously simplistic as actual sociohistorical analysis.

If the right likes to call out these theatrical exaggerations, it has also learned from them and in the last weeks has emulated them. Fox’s Jeanine Pirro, for instance, compared the act of tech companies de-platforming Parler for harboring unfiltered right-wing terrorist propaganda to “Kristallnacht.” Jews tormented on Kristallnacht would have interesting words for Pirro’s view, especially since her ideological compatriots had just stormed the Capitol and left five people dead.

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Fox’s Tucker Carlson is also pushing right-wing victimization. He claimed that the insurrection was rooted in something as blunt as “the population” asking, “Listen to us!” with their leaders merely yelling, “Shut up and do as you’re told.” He ignored the clear-cut denialism about the vote count, and the fact that leaders are listening to that denialism and encouraging it. The notion that the insurrections represent the neglected and unheard is especially odd since the mob at the Capitol was not comprised entirely of impecunious people worried about their bank accounts, but included a great many financially stable, educated people.

Another exemplar of right fragility is Senator Josh Hawley, who recruited the term Orwellian to describe the cancellation of the publication of his upcoming critique of Big Tech. George Orwell’s 1984 described a dystopia where the state refashioned language to make it impossible to harbor unwelcome thoughts. Simon & Schuster (a private company) canceled Hawley’s book in a world where views of Hawley’s kind are and will continue to be widely disseminated.

Although obviously lacking the censoring power of the state, the woke left can court the Orwellian. The left flings around the term cisheteropatriarchal to dismiss seemingly anything most Americans find familiar, pleasurable, and even progressive, and in one notable case to praise looting—evidence of a desire to shunt thought into forbiddingly constricted channels.

However, the right’s use of Orwellian to refer to certain bodies choosing not to broadcast their views represents a sloppy dilution of what the author meant. Orwell would have had choice words for the notion that the response to an invasion of the Capitol and a subversion of the election process, not the invasion and subversion themselves, ought to make us heed the warnings in 1984.

This transformation of the term Orwellian parallels, as it happens, what the right complains about in the left’s transformation of “racism” from referring to prejudice and discrimination to referring to their results; that is, disparities indicate a “racist” society. To consider this post-1960s usage of racism manipulative and dismissible is interesting coming from people who would pretend that 1984 was about reasoned censorship as opposed to a radical reprogramming of all human thought.

The right parallels the excesses of wokeness also in denying sheer logic when it’s inconvenient to a larger ideology.

Some on the hard left believe that it is wrong to generalize about groups, but quite readily delineate “whites” and “whiteness” as unitary categories. Some leftist education reformers justify racial-preference policies on a quest for diverse views in classrooms, even as they consider it racist if Black students are expected to represent their “diversity” in classroom discussions. This tension is not considered inconvenient as long as both phenomena are processed as countering racism: fostering diverse views to decenter whiteness, and countering white supremacy by pushing back at unfair expectations. To question any of this is to not “get it,” because the overriding principle of battling white privilege is sacrosanct even in the face of logic.

Anyone who takes issue with these logical failings should attend to the more extreme anti-empiricism—and with a violent streak added on—of the Trump supporters who believe that the election was stolen from the president, but nevertheless affirm the validity of the House and Senate elections on the same ballots. They will not accept the reality, apparent to anyone who can put common sense before politics, that Trump lost. These supporters fiercely and implacably resist logic in the name of a greater good: battling the left.

On both the left and the right, this brand of exaggeration and anti-empiricism seems rooted not in politics but in the alienation of modern life. Humans were minted in small bands of people nested in lifelong intimate relationships of kin and marriage. The ideal of atomic individualism remains alien to perhaps most persons on Earth. Mass movements offer a sense of belonging that modern life often does not provide, as well as the delicious feeling of having it all figured out.

Small indigenous tribes like the Matsigenka in Peru live in groups so close-knit that rather than go by names, people use family terms—one is Sister, Father, or Aunt, not Maria, Fred, or Pauline. Americans are stuck with their names. But membership in a Trump-right or woke-left movement lets people be Sister, Father, or Aunt of a kind, a part of a whole united by a sense of eternal battle against a menacing “other.”

The upshot is that the right has no grounds for supposing itself immune from the contemporary pathologies of the left. At this moment, the right must also reckon with the fact that while the left’s victimhood complex gets people fired and creates a lot of social grief, the right’s victimhood complex can end in members of Congress huddling under their desks as five citizens lose their lives.