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Special snowflakes and safe spaces: Should we be using these terms in debate?

By Sophie Hack

Monday 28 November 2016 Student Journalists

We've had two political milestones in the space of a year, both of which have divided opinions across the globe. With the internet being the marvellously enormous platform that it is, political debates are leaving our television screens and becoming part of online conversations as well.

The term ‘social justice warrior’ has crept into this conversation, more as an insult or in a pejorative context. It’s a term used to describe someone who supposedly wants to boost their own reputation, by arguing about social justice issues on the internet.

I had this term used against me by a number of older online users to dispute my choice to vote remain in June. By standing up for my views I was a ‘special snowflake’ who needed my ‘safe space’. It got me thinking how these terms have snuck their way into debates, and if they are doing more harm than good.

Labour member and supporter Callum Baker said we are in an age of digital democracy. “I think a lot of arguments stem from radical debates from both the right and left side. I’ve been called a ‘loony leftie’ and ‘Corbyn cultist’ in debates. I think it’s something to do with the rise of PC culture and how most people have been conditioned to be against that as they grow up.”

Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, authors of Micro Aggressions and Moral Cultures said this new morality is similar to cultures where men fought duels. Duellists would understand that even unintentional slights demand a quick, unconditional and public apology from the offender – unless a serious response.

“If someone insults you, why not just insult him back or challenge him to a fight?”

It’s not ground breaking news that people use insults in debate. Our ex prime minister David Cameron threw some serious shade when he told Corbyn to do up his tie and sit up straight.

However, could sarcastically saying someone needs a ‘safe space’ and is ‘triggered’ by the argument take away from the importance of these terms?

'Triggered' is a term used in psychology and therapy. If a victim finds something takes them back to a traumatic time, or if something on the internet may make someone feel this sense of trauma, it is given a trigger warning.

Melody Hensley

Melody Hensley said she suffered PTSD from online harassment, which led to her image being used as a "triggered" meme.


American political activist Ralph Nader, in an interview with Pacific Standard, raises a point that can be transgressed across a multitude of topics: people have had it much worse, so why should you complain?

“You see it on campuses — what is it called, trigger warnings? It’s gotten absurd. I mean, you repress people, you engage in anger, and what you do is turn people into skins that are blistered by moonbeams,” he said.

“Young men now are far too sensitive because they’ve never been in a draft. They’ve never had a sergeant say, ‘Hit the ground and do 50 push-ups and I don’t care if there’s mud there’.”

Baker added: “It’s a pretty nifty way for people to discredit another person’s argument without having to come up with a counter argument... it near enough renders their stance impenetrable.”

Birmingham City University’s senior lecturer in journalism Paul Bradshaw agrees.

“There seems to be an unwillingness on both sides to engage in different perspectives. The whole ‘safe space’ thing seems just as insular as Brexit campaigners saying ‘you lost, just accept it’.”

Is calling someone a social justice warrior an insult? I see being an ‘SJW’ as a great thing, that someone can be passionate about all aspects affecting their life, that they feel like they shouldn’t brush something off because others may have it worse off in another context.

However, using the terms ‘safe space’ and ‘triggered’ to poke fun or win an argument takes away from the legitimacy of these terms from someone who needs them to function. Someone who feels like they are ‘shrinking’, being taken out of the conversation as it ‘trivialises the concept’ of PTSD or trauma, in the words of mental health blogger Jamie Dillion.

Does it have a place in politics? I disagree, but then it could just be me being ‘too PC’. What do you think? Let’s start the discussion.


Sophie Hack



I'm currently studying Media and Communications at Birmingham City University, studying journalism theory as well as the practical side. I specialise in entertainment and music journalism, one of my highlights was interviewing Wheatus last year in a Steakhouse! I'm currently the editor of my university's magazine The Scratch, which covers fashion, sport, entertainment, tech and all aspects of student life. I'm really interested in writing opinion pieces on governmental and social changes that affect young people, as well as students. I believe that more than ever young people have a voice on things that will change their life, and we should utilise this opportunity. After I graduate university, I really want to expand my skills and hit the ground running, and I feel like writing for NUS will help me take that step from student life to real world issues. I want to get out of my comfort zone and explore new fields within the industry and find out what other people's views are. In my spare time, I love playing video games and I'm currently trying to teach myself Japanese.