Too scared to make a phone call, and hear opposing views, while simultaneously the greatest threat to civilisation and ‘Western/enlightenment’ values in living memory?

Dr Nicola Rivers and Dr Dave Webster

The idea of Schrodinger’s Cat has recently been adopted as a metaphor for numerous cultural phenomena or tropes. You may have seen it related to the office (typically male) sexual harasser, who is simultaneously only joking and deadly serious in his attempts to shag his colleagues.

Perhaps more widespread is the idea of Schrodinger’s Immigrant. The rhetorical reference here, or ‘joke’, is that someone’s argument or narrative seems to simultaneouslyschrodimmi posit two contradictory views. The invoked construct of the immigrant, according to the anti-migration lobby, is either lazy and thus a potential drain on our benefit system, OR so keen to work, and work hard, that they will compete for, and then take, jobs from existing workers. Either way of course, immigration is presented as negative. When anti-migration advocates warn of both then, they need to be exposed as indulging in a contradiction of their own ideologically-driven rhetoric.

‘Schrödinger’s Snowflake’ illuminates some of the contradictory ways current perceptions of students are framed or mobilized, particularly in arguments surrounding so-called ‘no platforming’ or the importance of ‘free’ speech. Such discussions posit students as the much-maligned millennials, (or iGen if you accept some classifications), who are too anxious to make a phone call, or hear a contrary opinion, and as such are mocked as ‘snowflakes’. And yet simultaneously, this same generation are presented as imperilling free-speech, and having the power to put the entire ‘enlightenment project’ of ‘Western progress’ in danger.

How odd then to characterise students and young people in general as too lazy, anxious and disengaged to look beyond their own selfies; and at the same time, as a generation furiously engaged in a political turf-war, attempting to silence racists, misogynists, transphobes, and those who challenge their project of advancing what some on the right want to call ‘cultural Marxism’.

Students then are presented as the problem. As Sara Ahmed (2015) has asserted: ‘[t]he idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that renders offendability as such a form of moral weakness (and as being what restricts “our” freedom of speech).’ The figure of what Ahmed has referred to as the ‘censoring student,’ or indeed the ‘consuming student,’ is then invoked as striking fear into the hearts of well-meaning professors who are now unable to teach classes without having to utilise ‘trigger warnings’ or introduce ‘safe spaces.’ And yet at the root of the demands of these now seemingly all-powerful student consumers, is their apparent weakness, their inability to be challenged or confront opposing views. Beyond this incongruity is the further irony that, despite the claims of silencing, student protests around transphobic speakers being invited to give talks on university campuses, for example, serve to highlight these issues not hide or deny them. Such protests then are a central facet of ‘free speech.’

The fetishisation of free speech has become a tedious and familiar trope in relation to the apparent tensions between students and previous generations of scholars. Along with their alleged disavowal of privacy-concerns, young people’s apparent inability to see the presumed intrinsic moral value of ‘free speech’ is cast a failing to be counted against them. The refusal to acknowledge the primacy of free speech as a moral good is added to the millennials’ tally of alleged flaws, intertwined with their sensitivity and offence-taking. What this easy bifurcation misses is that the very object of this discussion is constructed and political in itself. As Stanley Fish reminds us ‘there’s no such thing as free speech’, when he writes:

‘Free Speech’ is just the name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance; and we give our preferred verbal behaviors that name when we can, when we have the power to do so, because in the rhetoric of American life, the label “free speech” is the one you want your favorties to wear.

Free Speech is not a thing. Nonetheless, this doesn’t prevent its deployment within contemporary political narratives, particularly surrounding Higher Education.

A timely case study might be taken from the recent revelations around the Office for Students appointment process. While most attention has focussed on the appointment of Toby Young, the released material also contains reasons why certain potential student members were rejected. In examining these it is worth keeping in mind that one of the avowed intentions of the OfS is the protection of free speech on campus. This has been trumpeted in the press, but as WonkHE reports, is perhaps not as enshrined in the OfS as the press coverage might make us think:

Many were surprised to find obligations to ensure freedom of speech in the proposed regulatory framework, and Jo Johnson has outlined that OfS may enforce penalties where expectations are not met. This has been a recent addition to the function of OfS and is as a response of the “generation snowflake” critique of “no platform” and “safe space” approaches to cultural and political debate.

Of course, though OfS has the power to levy fines, it doesn’t have a free speech role enshrined in legislation other than under the Education (no 2) Act of 1986.

On these grounds, it seems contradictory, if not surprising, to see the range of possible opinions in the OfS restricted on the basis of guaranteeing free speech. In a Guardian summary, we find that students had been rejected as unsuitable for various reason:

A spokesperson for the prime minister also defended the more in-depth vetting carried out on student nominees to the OfS board members as “routine” advice given to ministers.

Asked if it was routine for ministers to blacklist candidates with union connections, the spokesperson said: “In terms of that particular case, ministers concluded that appointing student representatives who had publicly opposed the Prevent duty, or supported no-platform policies, could undermine the intended policy goals of the Office for Students.”

It would seem that in order to preserve free speech, we must restrict the range of possible views about it, and prevent some speech acts (namely those arguing that Prevent’s restriction of certain views is problematic, or that no-platforming isn’t a restriction on free speech at all). This is an almost exemplar case of Fish’s idea that when someone uses ‘free speech’ they have clear, pre-decided ideas about what is and what is not covered. For example, the students who seek to block speakers using no-platform techniques must be thwarted, whereas the extremist views of those restricted by Prevent duties must not be allowed to speak. Oddly, in some cases this might be the same speaker. Students might seek to ‘no-platform’ a Far-Right speaker on the grounds they are indulging in hate-speech. The Prevent duty is very clear in informing Universities that those promoting terrorism should not be given a voice in campus. In the OfS then, what counts as ‘free speech’, is clearly not applied to all speech.


As such, we should remain at least a little wary of the rhetorical deployment of Schrödinger’s Snowflake, at least until politically engaged young people turn their snowflakes into a blizzard.