Media sources across the globe have dubbed us a generation of “delicate snowflakes,” unprepared to thrive in the real world. We are told that we are being too sensitive when we demand that the government or administrative systems on our campuses protect us from offensive words and acts. The Sun, a popular United Kingdom news outlet, described this generalization with the headline, “Snowflakes are freezing a generation out of work with lazy attitudes — and they have missed the basic truth that ‘life is tough.’” We are called sensitive as if it is an insult that is synonymous with a lack of ambition or with fragility. But it is the opposite; we are incredibly strong and are simply struggling to make our way in the hateful, exclusive society into which we were born and raised.
I was only three years old when two planes turned thousands of people into piles of rubble in the center of New York City. From the safety of our Boston suburban home, my mother struggled to explain to her beloved little girls that some people are just hateful—a sentiment that has been reinforced for me throughout the years by the events at Columbine High School, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Sandy Hook Elementary, the Boston Marathon, Las Vegas, Parkland, and far too many more. My generation has seen more mass memorials than birthdays. We have grown up learning that we need armor to protect ourselves and those we love against the hatred that we see on our TVs, tablets, computers, and phones.
If my sarcastic father were reading this, he would chastise me with the familiar “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Violence is awful, but simple words don’t matter, he would argue. He is wrong. He and his generation who look down on us forget the hatred that our country has condoned and the way that marginalization has historically been enabled through speech, and sometimes through a lack of it. They forget that we have seen the hunt of our presumed enemy, Saddam Hussein, turn into the murder of countless civilians and the pillage of Iraq, because no one challenged our president’s words of blame. They forget that the influence and power of words allowed the entire Hollywood industry to hide and ignore the realities of sexual harassment and assault. They forget that it is the words of a passionate, gun-toting minority that allows white men to buy weapons designed for war and bring them to concerts and schools.
Our words have never been just words. They construct the laws and systems that oppress and belittle countless people. Our words further isolate the marginalized and support the privileged. Words can validate and fortify the hatred that fuels tragedies like those in Ferguson, Orlando, or Charlottesville. How are we expected to overlook a hateful joke about gun violence, race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when almost every day we bury our loved ones because of that same hatred? Our generation knows that it is words alone that hurt us beyond our ability to heal.
But we also know that it is our words that make change. In times of injustice, we remember—and emulate—our heroes who fought only with words: Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon. Like these activists, we know that our society is deeply ill, but we cannot forget that as thinking, communicating humans, we are society.
Yes, our generation is sensitive. When we open our mouths to speak or our ears to listen, we do not tolerate words that perpetuate the abusive systems our parents and grandparents created. In a society of apathy, the absolute best thing that our generation can be is kind, empathetic, and unapologetically sensitive to experiences other than our own.