If Generation Snowflake were a joke, it might be quite funny. The term is a new one, coined to describe students who find various terms so offensive they insist these be banned from their halls of learning.

As a parody of the older generation, already quite sensitive enough about expressions which used to be in general use, this could work fine.

The problem is the self-righteous earnestness with which some students, and others seeking to conform or pander to their outlook, consider themselves entitled to curtail freedom of speech.

The Times reported yesterday that the government intends to take action:

“Jo Johnson, minister for higher education, has written to universities saying that they will be compelled to include a clear commitment to freedom of speech in their governance documents to counter the culture of censorship and so-called safe spaces.”

Every so often, a celebrated case arises. In the United States, students at Yale reacted with hysterical fury in November 2015, after a lecturer had the temerity to challenge the university’s Intercultural Affairs Council, which advised them to avoid wearing Halloween costumes which might offend minorities.

In vain, the lecturer told them, “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.”

On this side of the Atlantic, Germaine Greer attracted similarly hysterical condemnation after she claimed in October 2015 that transgender women can’t be women: “Just because you lop off your penis and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a ******* woman.”

Less celebrated instances of the same phenomenon occur at frequent intervals. A few days ago, Cardiff Metropolitan University advised staff and students to avoid using “gendered terms” such as “sportsmanship”, “mankind”, “gentleman’s agreement”, “the best man for the job” and “forefathers”.

A student from Berlin who is currently studying in London told ConHome: “In Germany, you have to be aware, as a university teacher, that if you use words in a certain way people might get offended. If you say ‘Der Student’ [the masculine form of the word ‘student’] you have to make clear you don’t hate women.”

Spiked has just claimed, in its perhaps rather harshly judged Free Speech University Rankings, that “only six per cent of UK universities are truly free, open places”.

It is very difficult to know how seriously to take this kind of thing. But Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, reports in her book about Generation Snowflake, I Find That Offensive!, that the student audiences she has addressed do indeed feel deeply distressed when exposed to opinions, whether about Islam or rape, which are contrary to their own.

And as Fox goes on, this emotional suffering is “combined with an almost belligerent sense of entitlement that their feelings should take precedence.”

She suggests we have coddled our children to such an extent that they can no longer tolerate views other than their own, and will certainly not accept the robust traditional teaching that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you”.

It is undoubtedly true that education exposes children to fewer hardships than used to be the case. Spartan conditions – cold baths, floggings, disgusting food – were thought to have the merit of toughening a child up, and inducing a certain imperviousness to whatever discomforts the future might hold.

Alec Douglas-Home, Prime Minister from 1963-64, went to Eton towards the end of the First World War, and recalled in old age:

“It was a fairly austere life, with rationing and all that sort of thing…the food was disgusting. There was something called Miss Marten’s pudding which I remember to this day. It consisted of cold suet and bacon fat. Can you imagine anything worse? You couldn’t get it down at all, it was awful.”

So amid privilege, there was deprivation. When he left, his housemaster wrote: “I have never heard him grumble or criticise harshly anybody or anything since he came here.”

That was part of the point: you learned (as Douglas-Home would also have done at home) not to bellyache.

Not everyone was receptive to this lesson. The future Prime Minister’s gifted contemporary, Cyril Connolly, used, according to Barbara Skelton, who was married to him for five years, to lie in the bath saying “Poor Cyril.”

But the likelihood of producing a Generation Snowflake was at least much reduced. The ruling class sought to ward off decadence by following the ancient custom, found in most walks of life, of subjecting its offspring to initiation through hardship.

A difficulty occurs when that code, with its corresponding imperviousness (or pretended imperviousness) to mere verbal taunts, clashes with latter-day sensitivity to the hurtful things people say.

So Boris Johnson, who is not only an Etonian but was reared in a household where it was not the done thing to complain about mere discomfort, recently attracted a certain amount of adverse comment by remarking of the French President:

“If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some sort of World War Two movie, I don’t think that is the way forward and I think actually it’s not in the interests of our friends and our partners.”

There was much protest that this was a tasteless remark. The press, which can be just as touchy as Generation Snowflake, was more than willing to entertain the idea that the Foreign Secretary had gone too far, and indeed proceeded on the assumption that in the interests of international harmony, narrow bounds should be set to his freedom of speech. But Michael Gove leapt to Johnson’s defence by tweeting:

“People ‘offended’ by The Foreign Secretary’s comments today are humourless, deliberately obtuse, snowflakes – it’s a witty metaphor #getalife.”

It is true that much of the outrage directed against Johnson and others on this kind of occasion is entirely bogus. People express, often on behalf of some group to which they do not themselves belong, the outrage which they think they ought to feel, rather than the amusement, indifference or mild disapproval which they actually feel.

A teacher in a comprehensive school told ConHome that he did not think his pupils had become more intolerant over the last 30 years. All that has changed is the nature of the taboo subjects on which they considered themselves entitled to brook no disagreement.

And that is not a point which should be made only about students, or only about the present day. In 1840, when John Stuart Mill reviewed “M. de Tocqueville on Democracy in America”, he wrote:

“The tyranny which we fear, and which M. de Tocqueville principally dreads, is of another kind – a tyranny not over the body but over the mind.

“It is the complaint of M. de Tocqueville, as well as of other travellers in America, that in no country does there exist less independence of thought. In religion, indeed, the varieties of opinion which fortunately prevailed among those by whom the colonies were settled, has produced a toleration in law and in fact extending to the limits of Christianity…

“On every other subject, when the opinion of the majority is made up, hardly anyone, it is affirmed, dares to be of any other opinion, or at least to profess it.”

But as a description of the present state of affairs in America, this will not do. The country is divided, and the election of Donald Trump as president can be seen as, among many other things, a tremendous rebuke to all the stuff about “safe spaces” and sparing the feelings of the young which is sometimes found on American campuses. Generation Snowflake cannot be said to be having things all its own way.

I cannot resist quoting a further passage by Mill, who was writing eight years after the passing of the Great Reform Bill, which saw the abolition of rotten or pocket boroughs, which were generally in the hands of wealthy noblemen who put in their own sometimes very gifted nominees; and the extension of parliamentary representation to many towns which had previously elected no MPs:

“The House of Lords is the richest and most powerful collection of persons in Europe, yet they not only could not prevent, but were themselves compelled to pass, the Reform Bill. The daily actions of every peer and peeress are falling more and more under the yoke of bourgeois opinion, they feel every day a stronger necessity of showing an immaculate front to the world. When they do venture to disregard common opinion, it is in a body, and when supported by one another; whereas formerly every nobleman acted on his own notions, and dared be as eccentric as he pleased. No rank in society is now exempt from the fear of being peculiar, the unwillingness to be, or to be thought, in any respect original. Hardly any thing now depends upon individuals, but all upon classes, and among classes mainly upon the middle class.”

That has worn pretty well. What peer now dares to be eccentric? Freedom of speech exists mainly because of disagreements within the middle class, especially that portion of it which read PPE at Oxford; and is still greatly inhibited by “the fear of being peculiar”.

In order not to be thought odd, or indeed mad, bad and dangerous to know, we conform to the standards of those around us. Racial epithets which used to be considered harmless are now regarded as utterly intolerable, while various swear words which used to be regarded as utterly intolerable are now considered harmless. Which of us does not pay at least some obeisance to these changing notions of blasphemy?

I happened, the other day, to find in a second-hand bookshop the first collection of Dear Bill: The collected letters of Denis Thatcher, written by Richard Ingrams and John Wells, and published in 1980. They remain wonderfully funny, but some of the reactionary epithets put less than 40 years ago into Denis’s mouth would not now be printed even in Private Eye.

If Generation Snowflake has attempted, with touching naivety, to systematise these stern injunctions about what can and cannot be said, and to treat the fashions of the hour as eternal truths, it is only parroting the morality preached to it by its stern, self-righteous elders.