Social media is on fire again, fingers hovering over keys, new tweets, Facebook statuses and blogs composed. It’s another knee jerk reaction to somebody else’s words, ironically a reaction to an interview Stephen gave about free speech.
In the interview with Dave Rubin, Fry spoke about the renaissance, that lustrous time when innovative new ideas and uncensored free thought abounded in society. It’s natural to look back at it with nostalgia and wonder what happened. Fry mentioned the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. Campaigners called for its removal as it expressed a positive message about imperialism. He went on to say:
‘It’s started to happen in the attempted removal of statues of people who are considered unlikeable – once beloved – and have become ‘un-persons’ in a very 1984-way.’
I agreed with Fry when he suggested the statue should have better left where it was, it would have been a better tool to argue about the effects of imperialism than a non-tool once removed. This also speaks to a more general attitude whereby we cannot separate the talents of a person, say a great artist from the personal life of a man which may be rather sordid. Can’t we as a society hold two conflicting views any more, critique great works of fiction or study a painting and revel in its craftmanship, enjoy a persons talent and mastery and see it as something separate and distinct from the character of a person.
Fry was correct when he remarked that we are going backwards, we certainly are not moving forward any more, the progressive days of the renaissance are long behind us. We only have to look at religion; the pretend Christianity of the UK where there is no separation between church and state; the fundamental religious bigots in America or mutter the name Donald Trump to understand exactly how fat we’ve come. Fry may believe the UK is a secular place, but David Cameron is still fond of aligning himself to the Christian faith, couching his work as PM in some higher order religious undertaking when in reality he would be better employing Lucifer at the helm of his right wing fanatical death squad. I do have to add here that Stephen’s understanding of Britain having great social justice is rather absurd, borne from the fact that much of what happens in society doesn’t affect him. He is probably unaware of the economic plight of most of the UK population or the fact that David Cameron is doing away with the Human Rights Act, so as not to be held accountable for the forward motion of policies he will bring in.
In relation to being regressive, Fry talked about student campuses and although he didn’t mention it, the idea of not giving anyone a platform whose ideas you object to is relevant. It’s the same idea again, that unless someone shares the exact same opinions on important matters as yourself, then they don’t have a right to speak, even if they still have a huge amount of experience and original thought to offer their audience. He went on to discuss trigger warnings. I remember an article last year where a group of students campaigned for trigger warnings on books, these were young people claiming that literature that involved any form of abuse or violence was so distressing as to need a prior warning of the fact. This is the infantilism of society that Fry talked about, the need for everything to be sanitized and nice and not in the least ambiguous or complex so that people don’t have to struggle. It’s an interesting debate. On the one hand the arts has always covered difficult topics as it represents the civilisations we inhabit and the plethora of ugly and frightful experiences we can experience, similarly people who’ve experienced these things have often still been able to consume art of all varieties or if distressing, have been able to make an informed choice not to do so. It’s only now that suddenly young people want trigger warning which does strike me as absurd, but then films and music often carry warnings, so maybe it’s not so much about the absurdity as a natural consequence of the constant movement of a much more politically correct society.
Fry went on to say:
“There are many great plays which contain rapes, and the word rape now is even considered a rape. They’re terrible things and they have to be thought about, clearly, but if you say you can’t watch this play, you can’t watch Titus Andronicus, or you can’t read it in an English class, or you can’t watch Macbeth because it’s got children being killed in it.”
He has a point, isn’t the whole point of art to produce discussion and discourse. He says himself that these things need thinking about clearly, as the opposite stance is we ignore them, pretend they don’t exist in a our nice sterilized worlds. We can only move forward as a society by creating dialogues and analysing why these things happen, not by avoidance and wrapping our young in cotton wool, so as to give a warped fairytale backdrop to their understanding of the populations they inhabit.
Stephen’s final comments which has caused a storm on social media were in context to his earlier discussion, but as is now often the case have been taken as a separate entity in and of themselves, divorced from the contextual reference and used as some sort of stick to beat Fry with.
He said with regards to the art and trigger warnings:
“It might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place, well I’m sorry.
It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place – you get some of my sympathy – but your self pity gets none of my sympathy.”
I can understand that Fry did have quite the rant at the interview and he certainly got himself over excited, which is often the case with him. It’s my belief that sometimes when he’s talking, he gets so wrapped up in it all, that he loses himself and confuses everyone else in the process. There seemed to be something a little awkward about it, as he learned over the table in his impassioned speech, but I don’t for one second believe his words were aimed at abuse victims generally. The comments were in reference to those he had discussed before, the cries of people wanting trigger warnings on everything and anything in order to never be made to feel uncomfortable or taken by surprise by the evils of the world we live in. Maybe we will end up having them, but I for one don’t think it will be a progressive move, it will be a backwards one, whereby Shakespeare is no longer read and Lolita isn’t talked about and the only art talked about is the sort that doesn’t shock.
That would be a sad world and would make it even more isolating for anyone to come forward when they’re abused, not less.
Stephen Fry has since made a statement.