There has been what I think is generally termed a twitter-storm (though I have never been on Twitter) over recent comments by St Stephen, Ye Martyr of Fry about victims of child abuse. I think people are outraged in part at least because Fry is so popular: how dare he say anything remotely offensive? Fry is sensitive and liberal: he is compassionate and egalitarian. How dare he tarnish our image of him?
This seems to happen increasingly often. We elevate certain people to the status almost of saints; then god help them if they put a foot wrong. And in an era when sound-bites or even sound-nibbles are quoted as though representative of an entire conversation, it’s easy to arouse a storm of ill-informed ire.
So: did Stephen Fry or did he not tell victims of child sex abuse to ‘grow up’ and ‘get over it’? The short answer is yes. Sort of. But then again, no. Not as such. I think (though he was uncharacteristically less than coherent) he was protesting, ironically, at the tendency of social media to narrow the channels of debate, so that people quickly line up on one side or the other, hurrah-words and boo-words are aired and the page bristles with ad-hominem arguments.
There are certain subjects on which it is impossible to question social norms. These include rape and racial harrassment: but the most incontestable subject of all is child abuse. Even to raise the topic is to lay yourself open to accusation. You cannot deviate from the script, which is to express horror and outrage that these things happen. If, god help you, you start to question these responses – all hell will be loosed in your direction.
So I think that’s what Fry was getting at. He also stuck his foot in it somewhat by lambasting some victims as ‘self-pitying.’ This is a difficult one because on the one hand I know what he means. But on the other hand, never having experienced child sex abuse, I am not qualified to say much about it. But I do believe in the indomitability of the human spirit; in people’s ability to fight back, to endure and to overcome. I don’t like the notion of being forever defined and limited by something that happens to you, whether it’s rape or abuse or war or any other kind of trauma. I resist that notion with all my being.
Anyway, here’s an article on Fry’s interview and his later apology. He’s very sorry and he won’t do it again.
Compare and contrast with a recent BBC programme on the ‘legacy’ of Savile: