Stephen Fry’s use of “self-pity”

Recently, Stephen Fry’s gotten into some “trouble” for things he said on the Rubin Report. I find Rubin somewhat tiresome in that he keeps coming back to fairly static issues with different guests or even alone in front of the camera, but I do watch some of his stuff, and I happened to have seen the Fry segment before the UK media made noise about it. It surprised me, so I went back to watch it again. Although I see why some people decided to huff and puff about it, I agree with what I understand Fry to be saying, so I thought I’d write out what I hear from that interview.

Here is the quote: “There are many great plays which contain rapes, and the word rape now is even considered a rape. If you say: ‘you can’t watch this play, you can’t watch Titus Andronicus, or you can’t read it in a Shakespeare class, or you can’t read 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 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. The irony is we’ll feel sorry for you, if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just grow up.”

Fry isn’t saying that people shouldn’t feel self-pity. He’s talking about a very public, a very outwardly prescriptive type of self-pity, where you make extraordinary demands upon others, empowered by your affliction. The turn of phrase is harsh, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I haven’t found any psychiatric research to suggest that soft language and non-confrontation is useful when dealing with patients (if you’re aware of any evidence for this, please link it to me in the comments). The fact of the matter is, self-pity is and unappealing emotion, partly because it restricts communication. Look at it differently: just see Fry, who suffers from a bipolar disorder himself, raging at a predisposition to self-pity in himself and in others that is so tragically, and for him so personally vicious and self-defeating. If you’re seeing a rude, insensitive educated older white male, try instead to see someone speaking to himself as much as to others. If you’ve had times where you gave in to self-pity for even a short time, the impatience and frustration in his voice should be familiar.

I am not a Stephen Fry fan in general, but I was surprised by the outrage this sparked, and I suspect that the noise is driven by a few Guardian articles and some soundbites rather than the full interview, because his comments are directly preceded by a reflection about what he sees as the infantilisation of western society in which he says: “Nobody wants to believe that life is complicated. This is the problem […] in terms of the way they think, they can’t bear complexity, the idea that things aren’t easy to understand, that there’s a hm, that there’s an ah, you have to think, there are gradations. No one wants that, they want to be told, they want to be able to decide and say, this is good, this is bad, I’m saying so, anything that in any way conflicts with that is not to be borne.”

Perhaps, self-righteous keyboard warriors weighing in on the debate have not looked at the hms and the ahs. Is Fry’s message a potentially constructive one? Does it make sense for there to be a public outcry on this issue? A 60 second segment with an inexpert interviewer is not the place to wrinkle out the details of how we must deal with trauma of all kinds, but it should ideally spark conversation, not recriminations. If you’re found your way here, and find yourself having an opinion on the matter, you’ll find the comment box below.


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