So Stephen Fry is the latest target of Twitter fury. Recently, Fry gave American internet talk-show host Dave Rubin a 10-minute interview in which he discussed the threats to free thinking and Enlightenment values today. He talked about the deep infantilisation of contemporary culture and criticised the growing tendency towards simplifying and avoiding complex moral questions. Most controversially, he criticised trigger warnings and the ‘self-pity’ of some people who have been the victims of child sexual abuse, saying, ‘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’.
Fry could not have strayed much further from the contemporary script. Mind, the charity that he is president of, immediately moved to distance itself from the comments. Twitter was alive with people calling Fry ‘old’ and ‘out-of-touch’. Many online commentators pointed to the fact that Fry was a ‘privileged white male’ who simply didn’t understand the value and importance of ‘trigger warnings’ and the unique suffering of abuse victims. Celebrity pillock Piers Morgan summed up the liberal intelligentsia’s response to Fry’s comments when he tweeted that he was worried about Fry’s mental health. For many in the Twittersphere it was as if King Stephen, who had legions of followers prior to leaving Twitter for good this year, had finally gone mad. As a result of the uproar, Fry apologised ‘unreservedly’ on Thursday.
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.
What all this misses is that Fry is absolutely right about the toxic nature of self-pity. It is a dehumanising emotion. It robs people of autonomy and undermines their ability to move on from the bad things that happen to them. It embeds the idea that certain events are so catastrophic that they simply cannot be overcome. It has no benefit or value whatsoever. It is, by definition, harmful self-indulgence.
The attacks on Fry are even more bizarre given that self-pity is not normally celebrated. We have tended to recognise that excessive self-pity is a harmful and unproductive trait. A quick online search for ‘self-pity’ spits out endless articles on how to get over it. In psychological literature, self-pity is often referred to as a ‘trap’ and is frequently cited as one of the psychological symptoms of clinical depression. It is often thought to be connected to excessive self-concern and an inability to move on from bad events.