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Abuse victims too sensitive? Get a grip, Stephen Fry

The actor’s advice to child sex abuse victims deserves condemnation, writes Megan Nolan.

Megan Nolan

ANOTHER WEEK, ANOTHER dull rant from thesaurus-clutching television personality Stephen Fry.

Fry mysteriously maintains the reputation of a charming intellectual in the UK, despite having stated a few years ago that women don’t enjoy sex as much as men do, and generally being a bit of a patronising paternalistic figure on his Twitter account (which he regularly quits and resumes after being criticised for such things).

This time, however, the remarks were not just silly, outdated and indicative of someone whose politics were no longer developing. He said a disturbing and deeply unkind thing, and it deserves highlighting and round condemnation.

Speaking to US TV show The Rubin Report about the idea of safe spaces on campuses and trigger warnings to mark sensitive content, Fry said: “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, you can’t read it in an English class, or you can’t watch Macbeth because it’s got children being killed in 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.

“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.

“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. The irony is we’ll feel sorry for you, if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Grow up.”

Even before taking apart the core argument Fry is making here, we can address the grotesque flippancy of his tone. There is a strange sniggery dismissal, not dissimilar to Richard Dawkins’ assertion that “caning and mild paedophilia” which took place in the past can not be looked down upon in the same way one might do so day.

What is it about this class of English men? Why the urge to trivialise the effects of such a horrifying and traumatic experience?

Part of Fry’s good reputation is down to his commendable work as a mental health campaigner, using his own experience with bipolar disorder to spread awareness. He is the president of the mental health charity Mind. This only makes his remarks about child sexual abuse more disappointing and bewildering.

Figures show that 12.4% of children who suffer sexual trauma will go on to access mental health services, compared to 3.6% of the general population. While mental illness in later life is certainly not inevitable, particularly with timely intervention and support, there is no doubt a child who is abused is at a heightened risk.

The attitude revealed here is an insidious one amongst people of a certain class and demographic. “Pull yourself together,” it says. “Look, I’ve managed to sort myself out, so why can’t you?”

It is perhaps easier for people like this to consider mental illness as a purely organic blip, a dysfunction that takes hold randomly and without any external prompts. But the reality is that circumstantial factors are absolutely not irrelevant and must be considered when we speak about mental illness.

Consideration

Of course, it’s more complex to concede that poverty, or racial discrimination, or, say, childhood sexual abuse contribute to people’s illnesses. That they may complicate or disrupt or slow down the time it takes to become healthy.

This, after all, would suggest that people are not born equal, as the liberal lie sells it – that it is our society which is woefully inadequate, not the individuals which get crushed by it.

I find it genuinely disturbing when people like Fry have the gall to suggest that there is something sacred and untouchable about a work of art, which leaves it above such mundane discussion as ethical concern.

A work of art is not above or superior to the people who create and consume it. It is no more noble to write a play or a poem than it is to struggle to stay alive every day after enduring years of horror.

The discussion around trigger warnings has become sensationalised by breathless accounts of clumsy implementations in universities by people desperate to lampoon what they see as hysterical political correctness.

The phrase itself has become burdened by an ideological weight which isn’t necessary for its intended purpose. “Trigger warning” is just the name of a concept which serves a very simple, humane purpose. The purpose is not to halt or to censor discussion of difficult issues, but rather to enable them.

The purpose is to create conditions in which a traumatised person might be given the room and power to engage in discussion about their own lived experience. I would say that that consideration is the very least they are owed.

Megan Nolan is a writer and artist based in London. Her work can be found here.

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