Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Stephen Fry decries self pity; internet reacts predictably

Stephen Fry messed up. Twitter responded accordingly and he apologized. Of course that was the end of it. Of course not.

Just as when any celebrity dares to express an unpopular (some would say "harmful") opinion, a barrage of think pieces followed, pitting freedom against privilege.

On the freedom side, Luke Gittos from Spiked points out how Stephen Fry is allowed to criticize self-pity when referring to his own vulnerability:
The reaction to Fry’s comments is bizarre and contradictory. Firstly, it is worth noting that Fry has expressed the same view of self-pity before. In a 2011 interview with the BBC, he described self-pity in the context of his own depression as a ‘destructive vice’ that ‘destroys everything around it except itself’. In another interview, he discussed the importance of ‘getting out of the I-mode’ as a means of moving forward from depressive thinking. This was at a time when he was the figurehead for various mental-health campaigns. It seems that when Fry is criticising self-pity in the context of his own vulnerability and victimhood it is entirely legitimate, but when he condemns it in others he becomes worthy of opprobrium.
That he said the same thing in 2011 without repercussions says a lot about how we're allowed to talk about trauma today compared to then.

Laurie Penny couches her argument in the faddish language of privilege:
All of this is the modus operandi of many institutions of privilege - including British boarding schools, several of which Fry went through in his youth. Researching a piece for the New York Times in 2014, I learned that the British boarding school system is an ancient, terrible and precise machine designed, over a number of centuries, to take little boys and systematically traumatise them until they are capable of running an empire. It enacts ritual bullying in order to create well-mannered monsters: men whose capacity for empathy has been hammered flat as a cricket pitch in summer. Those who, like Fry and many, many others, are too sensitive, too queer, or too obstinate to endure the system, still come away with the principle that you do not speak about the terrible things that happened to you and to others, things you were powerless to prevent. And you definitely don’t indulge in self-pity.
I am exponentially less privileged that Stephen Fry, and I agree with him. I loathe self pity. While his boarding school background most likely played a part as my working class one did, one point both arguments neglect is sheer human variation in the way trauma is experienced. What I've observed over the past few years as something of an infidel in leftist circles is that there is only one way to react to trauma, and if you don't -- for example, if you like to make jokes to take the piss out of big scary things -- you simply haven't suffered enough. You're privilege "allows" you to think that way. And it's been detrimental to my own mental health, which is why I no longer participate in online discussions of privilege and victimhood.

I agree with Penny that there is a generational component at work as well. For those of us over forty, censorship was something that came from the right, so watching "our tribe" use the same authoritarian tactics as those to ban Mapplethorpe's photographs or sticker heavy metal record (okay yeah, PMRC was liberal), it's a huge mind fuck.