Crisis, yes. Climate, no. The problem is the accumulation of snowflakes, by which we mean the growing number of younger adults who have come of age believing they have a right to never be offended. It makes no difference to them whether the offender had any malicious intent, knew they existed, or had a legitimate reason to use the offensive language or take the objectionable action. In fact, these snowflakes often seem to go searching for reasons to be offended because victimhood has become fashionable (and indeed, advantageous).
We have no scientific explanation for how the gene pool mutated to produce skin of such exquisite thinness in these generations. Perhaps they inherited some of it from their parents, many of whom were themselves introduced to the joys of victimhood over the last few decades. But the most important causes of this trend are social media and the rampant narcissism it provokes. The snowflakes feel compelled to expose as much of their lives and persona as possible to establish and maintain relationships and a public image, but in the process they create an indelible record that can be scoured for the minutest of offenses. Sadly (for them), this makes them vulnerable if they leave behind something objectionable in a moment of thoughtlessness or rebellion. While some snowflakes are oblivious, others grow perpetually fearful of exposure.
The association is seldom made, but we believe it is the appearance of snowflakes that gave rise to the "cancel culture." When a person is acclimated to feel outrage or anger from any expression even slightly uncomfortable, disagreeable, or demeaning—regardless of the intended target—those feelings are then typically directed at the source, regardless of how remote he or she may be. Add to that the lynch-mob tendencies of many on social media, and the result is neverending, bloodthirsty, vigilante justice that can be as draconian as destroying a target's livelihood.
We are in a conceptual ice age where actions and speech are too often frozen by the fear of being canceled. Older people at least have the advantage of not having comprehensively documented the inevitable offenses of their lifetimes. Have many of us ever made disparaging remarks or repeated jokes about blacks, Hispanics, Brits, blondes, Irish, Italians, Jews, Catholics, WASPs, Native Americans, et al.?
Of course, but most often those remarks have no deeper implications or consequences whatsoever. Should we expect, over many decades of adult life, absolute purity of thought, the complete absence of irrational hostility toward anybody, ever, and the innate ability to understand the life experiences of people of every color, gender, and ethnicity? Sadly, it seems that the snowflake generations apply that impossible standard to others willy-nilly, even while it is highly improbable that they themselves comply.
Real life provides constant examples of the excruciating punishment meted out to offenders who fail to meet the standard, even if they are complete strangers whose life experience is unknown. Television shows offer it in living color.
Most recently, this could be seen on "The Bachelor." The primary character seeking love, Matt (a mixed-race black bachelor), saw his relationship with his chosen mate, Rachel (a white woman) disintegrate because viewers unearthed pictures of her with friends at an "antebellum"-themed party three years earlier. What followed was a soap opera-esque succession of apologies, on-air angst, and a host suspended for the sin of asking for a measure of forgiveness for Rachel. The denouement featured a cloying, tearful discussion of how any hint of racial insensitivity was incompatible with a sincere, empathetic, intersectional relationship.
But does that imply a societal obligation for everybody to fully understand a priori the experiences of persons who differ from them? Isn't dealing with differences a part of growing in any relationship? Do we expect everyone to appreciate what it is like being Asian? Or transgender? Or to have had ancestors who experienced the Trail of Tears? Or whatever?
This is not to deny the value of empathy for any identity-associated challenges, but rather to say that expecting extensively shared experience to be the basis of every intersectional relationship is wholly unrealistic. Other common interests and goals must drive them. And the ability to identify with every identity group is not necessary in order to treat people as individuals without regard to identity and with a focus instead on character, merit, and achievements—a threat to tribalism that progressives seem to find objectionable.
Most, if not all of us have some history of actions or comments that in 20/20 hindsight are regrettable. How futile is life if nothing can be forgotten or forgiven? It is simply impossible for us to frame every action or expression with perfect foresight of its future interpretation or context. Thankfully, only a very few of us will experience repercussions from imperfect foresight by being humiliated on national television. But on "national" social media? Many, many more surely suffer.
The current rampant obsession with identity has opened up a vast new universe of potential "serious" offenses that can force us to walk on eggshells. It has upended standards that have underpinned this country since its founding, and even the messages of renowned proponents of minority and civil rights such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., thereby turning eggshells into land mines. Less well understood is how this intolerance of imperfection has spawned the cancel culture by extending the reach of perceived offense and ensuing retribution far beyond an individual's immediate circle of relationships. Snowflakes well trained in victimhood and oversensitivity will only continue to make this worse.
There should be a Nobel Prize in Medicine to whoever can devise an elixir for growing thicker skin that can be administered before school age.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.