You Are Not A Beautiful Or Unique Snowflake

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So a high school teacher tells the graduating class

Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. … But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

Predictably, the teacher has been fired after a storm of backlash and criticism.

Oh, no, wait.  “The reaction to the teacher’s blunt advice was overwhelmingly positive, both from students at the receiving end of the reality check and people who saw it [on the internet.]”

How can there be nearly universal approval for the message that we are not special?

Because the message isn’t that “we” are not special. The message is that “you” are not special. And everyone thinks that you are not as special as you think you are. That’s right. Every single person reacting to this is reacting to the fact that other people are being told that they’re not special. No one is thinking, “I wonder if he means me.”

If this high school teacher had said “we” are not special, instead of “you”, this would be a different story.

But then again, if the high school teacher believed that he himself wasn’t special, would he be giving a commencement speech?

…It reminds me of the old Phil Hartman “Sassy” video. 

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About JohnJ

Law student, currently studying for the Illinois bar exam. Iraq vet.

34 Responses to You Are Not A Beautiful Or Unique Snowflake

  1. Outstanding. The interesting next question is what purpose does sending messages to other people actually serve? Even if the audience and the speaker both were blind to how the message pointed to them as well, it’s still true and there are people who do need to hear this. Yet those people wouldn’t listen to this speech, they’d think him an old fart, etc, etc.

    • bogart says:

      “Excuse me, but you have a piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth.”; “I love you”; “Pardon me, but you’re eating a poisonous plant.”; “Excuse me, but do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”

      We can argue the merits of sending messages, but why are some messages welcomed (received, etc.) and others not?

      Interesting observation: All the comments here so far still refer to “them”, the graduating class. “That’s right. Every single person reacting to this [post] is reacting to the fact that other people are being told that they’re not special. No one is thinking, “I wonder if he means me.”

      No one here has internalized it either. A bubble in a bubble.

      • philtrum says:

        When I read “you are not special” I always want to ask, okay, so what does it mean to not be special? What am I entitled to, as a non-special person?

        What if I want something that is routinely provided to other people who are are not special, but I am told I’m not special enough to have it? (I’m thinking of, for example, the civil rights movement: in which non-special black people who wanted the things that non-special white people were given as a matter of course were told they were too demanding and too entitled etc.) If I persist in demanding this thing that is routinely given to other non-special people, is this “thinking I’m special”?

        What if the person telling me I’m not special is doing so for a narcissistic rush: “you’re not special, but I am, because the group I identify with is special, because I’ve had it hard or there are other people my age who have, and I’ve read the classics or there are people my age who have, and I am a higher quality person than you”?

        How do I reconcile my knowledge that I am not special with the need to present myself as special, for example, when applying for a job (which, if I don’t get, I’ll be accused of believing I’m “too special” to work)?

        • Red says:

          I always thought the term meant that one is not entitled to anything. And by anything, i mean anything: food, water, rights, sex, etc. As a not special person, one is entitled to nothing, and none of us are special. For me, the quote is an attack on the nature of entitlement. Many people believe they are owed this and owed that by other people, but, ultimately, those people are not under your control, and they do not actually “owe” you anything. They can cut you off. They can be unfair, denying you your rights, and there’s no amount of believing you were entitled to a certain treatment that’s going to change that.

          • philtrum says:

            They can be unfair, denying you your rights, and there’s no amount of believing you were entitled to a certain treatment that’s going to change that.

            Well great, anyone can do any heinous thing at any time, but where does that get you? Hobbes’ state of nature is where it gets you.

            No society functions like this. Social contracts exist. People expect certain basic rules to be enforced. That isn’t a bad thing.

  2. OttomanVampire says:

    Well, they will forget the second they listen to this because isn’t the golden rule of this generation that typical rules do not apply to them, they are not like everyone else and they are special with their self-actualization and social media accounts. They have thousands of followers, who are you to tell them they are not special?

    They will forget, just like classics and every cliche that has been told to them by their parents and all the books they skipped reading because they are not “cool” or just for “old people”. They will act like in that movie what was it called? “Carpe Diem” ? Yeah they will do that. Just doing everything for themselves.

    • philtrum says:

      All right then, I’ll get off your lawn.

      Seriously though, what made you so angry at millions of people you don’t know?

  3. ThomasR says:

    The positive response to the speech wasn’t just because people failed to realize it applied to them, rather it is a reaction to the prevalence of the message that everyone is special. Even (perhaps especially?) people who are below average academically recognize the blatant falsity of such a message. Perhaps at some point in the past, in occasional one-on-one discussions, the “you are special” message had a positive effect, but it is certain that no one today believes that message or respects anyone who offers it.

    So, even though the students probably failed to grasp the import of the message that “you” are not special, they prefer it to the meaningless and rote recitation of the “you are special” message. If only because it is different.

  4. MarcusB says:

    Really? Is this exactly what a graduating class of high schoolers needs to hear? I agree with the message, but I’d like to think that what an 18 year old in 2012 needs is a bit of encouragement to propel them a bit longer, even if it’s false, delusional, a bit harmful to others, and self gratifying because they’re about to get their egos shattered in the next few years anyways because of a world that’s getting more comfortable with being cynical.

    • JonnyVelocity says:

      I can’t help but think you’re right. This message came 40 years too late, because it’s the boomers who really needed to hear it when the world was their oyster. Nowadays, things aren’t quite so bright for HS graduates.

    • eqv says:

      Just want to add that nothing shatters the ego like graduating from university and being thrust into reality, esp. if you’re in the liberal arts.

  5. JohnJ says:

    Thanks for cleaning up my writing. I need a good editor.

  6. Dodge says:

    Haven’t watched the video yet, but all this makes me think is, “It’s deep and edgy to contradict the you-are-special self-esteem movement.” The kids applauding this aren’t glad to know that there’s nothing special about them or their peers. They just want to see someone give Barney the finger for not talking to them any more.

    • vprime says:

      My thoughts too. The “you are not special” message has become just as banal as “you are a special snowflake.”

  7. paxilpaul says:

    I really can’t grasp what utility exists in even debating the propriety of the speech. First, its not as though this has never been done/heard before somewhere in the media. Hell, a book/movie/title of this post bears that out. And second, the angle is obvious. The speaker is going with the “tell the fat kid he’s fat,” that ell motivate em’, angle. Blatantly, its the tails side of the motivation coin. Less preferred perhaps by some, perhaps by his listeners, yet, equally valid in intent.

    “Judges? OHHHH, I’m sorry, they were looking for: Pussy”

  8. Jentham says:

    Good spot JohnJ. There’s a 3 letter word missing from the words of his speech but implicit in the message : ‘yet’. ” You’re not special.. yet. But you might be, if you work hard like me”. Which is why it’s ‘you’ not ‘we’. His language says the kids aren’t special because it’s all unearned, whereas he deserves his specialness. “I graduated college, got a suit and a dental plan, and that’s why I’m giving the speech mofos”. He implies that if they work hard, one day they can be special too. But even that’s making too shallow of an attack. Because setting goals and achieving success doesn’t make you special, it just makes you an adult. He should have said “Bill Gates? That guy ain’t special. Sure he wrote some nice code back in 1983, but it took a company of hundreds and some crafty monopolisation to make him the king of every desk slave from Montana to Macau. And Steve Jobs? What a loser! You think he can solder the chipset of an iPhone 4? Fuck no. That’s a 15 yr old in Hunan with white gloves and belt scars”. Being special is overrated. People who are truly special become alcoholics and commit suicide. We need to read Aristotle and get a fresh appreciation for being average.

  9. Guy Fox says:

    And here’s the irony: the Guy was fired. Irony = the actual conveyed meaning contradicts the literal meaning denoted by the words. The powers that be in his world want to convey the message that the kids are beautiful, unique snowflakes. That’s the literal meaning. But as soon as someone in their charge deviates from that message and presents an alternative point of view, i.e. more closely approximates uniqueness, what happens? He gets fired = actual conveyed meaning. In trying to reinforce the uniqueness of the kids, they have shown the kids that if they actually take that doctrine seriously, they will not get ahead in the world. The nail that protrudes is hammered down.

    Teenagers probably don’t really listen to adults, but they are watching what we do.

  10. Minerva says:

    Preaching to the choir.

    The people who really need to hear this speech, ie. children from undereducated, mostly lower class backgrounds, never will.

    • vandal says:

      “children from undereducated, mostly lower class backgrounds” will never hear that they aren’t special?

      maybe not but they’ll know it by the time they graduate

      inner city schools never tell poor children they’re special, they just wait for the clock to run out

    • MarcusB says:

      No way, I totally disagree.
      When you’re an inner city kid, you have four options: One is get out of the ghetto and the next three are rapper, NBA, and coke dealer.
      When you have nothing else to live for or have enough food to eat, being a gangbanger and proving your loyalty is the only way these kids could ever see as a way to prove that their lives aren’t meaningless. Let me put it this way: Tupac’s homies, the ones who had just gotten out of jail; their LIVES revolved around him, he was all they had. They were more ready to take a bat to someone elses head for Tupac than he was.

      What inner city kids need is to see nice college campuses, they need to see shiny medical operating rooms and clean engineering rooms with fancy equations written on the wall. They need the chance to see something glamorous outside of gangbanging for once. And if this takes lying to them and telling them they’re special, then I advocate that.

    • philtrum says:

      You feel that poor kids have too much self-esteem but rich kids do not? What?

      • Minerva says:

        Feeling special does not necessarily equal self-esteem.

        Most poor kids I know fully expect to get somewhere in life but only a few of them are actually doing the (home)work to get there.

        Even if a kid just wants to do the rapper, NBA and dealer thing, they still need to connect the dots between work & success.

        The difference between Tupac and his homies is, he was willing to put in what was required. They didn’t.

  11. Felix says:

    Similar sentence: Humankind has to change.
    Translation: Everybody else has to change, but me.

  12. TheBoyDetective says:

    Everyone is special. That’s why no one is special. As for the specialness of such a speech, the superego obverse to the sort of claim that “you are all special” given by parents and kids’ TV shows to kids has always been “you are not special”; any even elementary school-aged kid automatically inverts and perverts whatever sort of message authoritative voices issue to them. I think it’s grossly condescending telling graduates they aren’t special; it seems more like something the friendless, nerdy valedictorian would say to his “mindless drone robot” peers out of feelings of alienation and frustration.

  13. thestage says:

    Of the angles to look at this (most of which are semiotic), lets go with this one:

    The kids listening to this speech actually are special. Look at the meat of the speech. He’s delivering this to an upper-upper class, undoubtedly all white group of eighteen year old children. Yeah, the world sucks; yeah, nothing is guaranteed in “today’s economic reality” (cue the cellos). But that hammer is going to fall on literally everyone else before it falls on these people. The you-are-not-special is all pretext, it’s just a semiotic buffer for the real message: you are special, and this is step two or six or C or Q on the path to making sure the cards are stacked as favorably for you as is possible. And be this your-cross-to-bear liberal guilt school or its psycho-prep polished-shoe-on-the-throat conservative cousin, we all know the drill.

  14. Screwed says:

    Wisdom can only be earned through trial and error. A lot of what he said is of course true but the most alarming thing is that this was special enough to make the news. Why was there not a single “Fuck you!” from the audience of students, parents, family, friends and faculty of all ages after being told they were not special?

  15. ExOttoyuhr says:

    On the one hand, you are a unique snowflake. On the other hand, that means that you have N-fold radial symmetry (probably six), a planar structure primarily in two dimensions, a primarily star-like or filled-solid shape, rates of growth on each of your ‘spines’, and so on. Uniqueness does not mean unclassifiability.

  16. Tim says:

    People, on some non-surface level, generally know exactly what realitly rationally is.
    This counts even for the nuts – why does the pedophile killer choose the least socially acceptable outlet if not that he is aware it is socially unacceptable, beyond his irrational thinking.

    So, below thier common, every day complex, you, me, and those kids know that we are probably not exceptional by the very definition of the word.

    Now imagine that, given you know you are not special, people tell you that you damn well better be.
    imagine that a job at the corner store, or in a cubicle, or even at a big bank isn’t okay, unless you are important enough to pop up on tv from time to time. because unless you do, your success is not real to the people that matter to you, your parents, your teachers, your aunt that asks so competitively how you are doing compared to her artifact children.
    now imagine someone, who has authority, who’s oppinion you care about, tells you that you are not special.
    that you don’t have to be special.
    that not being exceptional is okay.
    that you can have a goal that you belive you can achieve.
    that you can be happy with yourself.

    would you like to belive them?
    given that you know they are right…

    • philtrum says:

      And in my experience as a kid from a certain amount of privilege, that is the really subversive message to these kids: that you don’t have to go to the top school or be at the very top of your profession or have the very best of everything, that it is not shameful to be ordinary.

  17. vandal says:

    I hear the main critique of special snowflake as “If everyone is special no one is”. Which seems to really be internalized as “If everyone is special that means no one notices my specialness, special is devalued. The real special people, me, go unnoticed in this coddling fountainheaded world.”