Stephen Fry, Self-Pity And The Media Response: Two Writers Debate

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Stephen Fry recently caused controversy after he appeared on US TV talk show The Rubin Report, where he discussed political correctness and clear thinking with host, Dave Rubin. It was his comments regarding the “self-pity” of child abuse victims, in particular, that drew the ire of many. But was the media response to what Stephen Fry said reasonable? 

This is a debate between Luis and David on Fry’s interview.

Luis: Anyone is free to say or publish whatever they like and I consider the media reaction to be exaggerated and they took Fry’s speech out of context. In my view, many articles I read about “offensiveness” towards people who were sexually abused are mostly self-pity, and I read those even from journalists I admire on other topics, such as this one:

David: I think the lead of that article has it right in describing him as having “[sneered]at child sex abuse victims“. Personally, I hope he apologises for his comments regarding self-pity, and hope that they came out in a way that didn’t reflect his intentions. That’s not to say I agree with the other main thrust of the article, mind. The opinions expressed by Fry do not gain some kind of “platform privilege” merely because he has expressed them (on a media platform) – or at least, no more than the opposing opinions expressed by the author do for the same reason.

Luis: He said “they are terrible things and they have to be thought about“. The point is that paraphrasing it is a step back for free speech if, in one example, Macbeth was banned in a class just because it reminds someone of a bad experience (whatever it was). Why did he say that? Because nowadays you could ban that via “trigger warnings”, “safe spaces”, etc. in uni campuses.

David: I’m not saying he shouldn’t critique self-pity, or that everything he said in that regard was bad, but the bit that’s caused the controversy is inexcusable as I see it:

…it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once because Uncle touched you in a nasty place. Well, I’m sorry, yeah it’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that [it happened]but — you get some of my sympathy — but your self-pity gets none of my sympathy because self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity. Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself. … Just grow up.

Luis: Supposing you are right, David, and given that Fry has now apologised; I still wonder, would he (hypothetically) apologise to sexual slaves, bullied kids, tortured people or any other (ex)victim, if he had used one of those examples instead? Or perhaps it was the politically incorrect manner to say it? (Which was, precisely, expected.) And by the way, the “sneering” was much stronger for angels-believers than for the sexually abused as I see it. Why are they not making a big fuss about that? He just laughed strongly about them without even saying sorry.

David: What he said seemed to express a view that he was fed up of people who have been abused feeling upset and sorry for themselves, as if they should just get over it instantly. And the “grow up” part implied he thought it was childish to react in a perfectly natural way in response to abuse suffered. So yes, I think there’d be the same uproar if he’d used basically any example. Viewing self-pity as something people should try to overcome doesn’t mean you also must hold such views, of course, thankfully he’s saying he doesn’t hold such views.

I think this was simply a case where he misspoke and said something bad that doesn’t actually represent what he believes, rather than him saying something he believes but people dislike like the way he said it (or took it to mean something that it doesn’t necessarily mean). I think his defenders in this case simply assumed he didn’t mean exactly what he in fact said and interpreted it generously, sort of the reverse of “political correctness”. That’s how I see it anyway.

Luis: Once again, I think you are judging him for what he “seemed” to say, taking his words out of context. Moreover, if you tell someone to “grow up” in this context, for me it sounds more like cheering them up, wishing them well. Evidently, for anyone who has suffered any type of abuse it takes a process (or psychological treatment at least, whether legal action is taken or not) to take this person back to a “normal” way of living. And this implies exposing yourself to the adversity, the risk, the mock, the love, and even the risk to fall as a victim again. If you start protecting minorities or selected groups of people because something might be offensive for them, you are not only encouraging other people (with different “victim profiles”) to claim the same, but you will be creating a bubble for them, preventing them from re-incorporating into society (exposing them to the same risks) and also depriving them of the same liberty.

I am more for the idea that looks are deceiving and what matters is the real self and deeds. In this particular case, many people will criticise just because they found an apparent crack. Whether they are taking the stake for all the people who were sexually abused, or they want a bigger “platform” (because talking about Fry will increase their ratings), or whether they are somehow trying to gain more power by telling society how they should behave or what their opinion should be, what matters is what the message is about, instead of letting self-pity authors criticise you because you could probably, maybe, perhaps, hurt somebody. As Fry said in the same interview; “what you mock, you love“.

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