Stephen Fry recently appeared on YouTube talk show ‘The Rubin Report,’ a current events show which claims to take a “politically incorrect approach” to politics, religion and the media. I always get that mild sense of dread when I hear the words ‘politically incorrect.’ Not because I’m a spoiled millennial – although maybe I am that too – but because it’s highly likely that whatever follows is going to be fairly depressing. The poster boy for ‘political incorrectness’ these days is the ignorant, racist and misogynistic Donald Trump, so I don’t automatically assume that a media outlet proudly wearing that label will be all that respectful, intelligent or balanced.
If Stephen Fry’s episode is anything to go by, I was not far wrong. The comedian slammed the immaturity of society, insisting that we all grow up. According to Fry, in this age of information, when young people are becoming more engaged in politics, and very little can happen in the world without reams of articles, opinion pieces and tweets discussing its nuances and implications, no one can handle complexity. No one, except of course, Mr. Stephen Fry.
[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/eJQHakkViPo” align=”center” mode=”normal” autoplay=”no” maxwidth=”750″]
This is only mildly annoying, the kind of thing you would expect from an educated older man with a superiority complex, bemoaning the perceived laziness and stupidity of the next generation. But he then went on, almost unbelievably, to berate survivors of childhood sexual abuse, admonishing them for their “self-pity” and nastily suggesting that they grow up, as nobody feels sorry for them.
This current strain of anti-PC activism seems to be stronger than any previous manifestations. If it’s taking down well-respected and admired celebrities like Stephen Fry, we should be worried. Fry’s comments were absolutely appalling, and totally unwarranted. The nastiness, the lack of compassion, the visible disgust with which he said it; what could have prompted this vitriol on a widely-viewed talk show?[pullquote]This is only mildly annoying, the kind of thing you would expect from an educated older man with a superiority complex, bemoaning the perceived laziness and stupidity of the next generation.[/pullquote]
Perhaps he felt safe in the knowledge that he was surrounded by his anti-PC family, all similarly middle-class white men with chips on their shoulders, lamenting the bygone days when you could demean women or spout racial abuse with no repercussions; a judgement-free community of political incorrectness. A safe space, if you will.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve read 1984 too. I, too, worry that the thought police might be coming for us all, to plunge us into some dull Orwellian nightmare-realm of censorship. A world where we are told what to think, what to believe, what to wear, what to do with our bodies. As a woman living in a patriarchal society, surrounded by a sexist media and waiting on a government to decide if I should have reproductive rights, I certainly can’t imagine what a world like that would be like!
Leaving aside the abhorrent ugliness and cruelty in Fry’s comments, the heart of the problem is that he doesn’t seem to know who he is addressing. Sure, we’ve all heard that the coddled millennials and Tumblr-feminists are logging into our Facebooks in the night to steal our free speech. And maybe it’s the spectre of this imaginary army of cry-babies that Fry and his ilk think they’re defending themselves against.
But in reality, his callous comments are not going to whip some ‘overly-sensitive teenagers’ or ‘regressive liberals’ (as The Rubin Report refers to them) into shape, and get them to toughen up like they had to ‘back in my day.’ In reality, he is insulting the real human beings suffering from PTSD or living in the shadow of a traumatic experience, real sufferers of depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses for whom Fry himself has been such an influential spokesperson.
People like Stephen Fry have taken serious issue with the introduction of trigger warnings and safe spaces in college campuses and online. Personally, I don’t see the harm. Though they may not go by that name, trigger warnings are already everywhere. You’ll find them on DVDs, on CDs, and a presenter will introduce Skins on Channel 4 with the words “Strong language from the start.”[pullquote](Fry is) lamenting the bygone days when you could demean women or spout racial abuse with no repercussions; a judgement-free community of political incorrectness. A safe space, if you will.[/pullquote]
This isn’t an exclusionary tactic, and it isn’t censorship. It’s actually even more inclusive – a trigger warning lets you know what’s in store, and trusts that with that knowledge you can make a decision on your own: Do I want to read this? Do I want to watch this? I imagine there are more than a few survivors of sexual assault who would have liked to have had that choice before listening to Fry’s heartless rant.
As the wonderful feminist author Roxane Gay writes in her powerful personal essay ‘The Safety of Illusion/The Illusion of Safety,’ “trigger warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them just like the Bible wasn’t written for atheists.” Stephen Fry takes issue with both of these things – perhaps he believes that all things that don’t apply to or benefit him personally must be abolished?
Fry complains about the “infantilism of our culture” but marches off Twitter in a strop when there’s any pushback against his ideas. It’s surprising that such a self-proclaimed intelligent man doesn’t see the irony in this. As for political correctness, I’d like to come back to a quote by Neil Gaiman, in which he imagines “a world in which we replaced the phrase ‘politically correct’ wherever we could with ‘treating other people with respect.’”
Stephen Fry may feel that political correctness is harming society, but his opinion is irrelevant. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are put in place for the people that need them, not for men who can exercise their free speech by insulting vulnerable people on a YouTube chat show. I would expect him, of all people, to be able to handle the complexity of that.