Stephen Fry and the importance of self-pity

Is it ok for victims of childhood abuse to pity themselves?

Scott Mason
15 April 2016
 Press Association/Lauren Hurley.

Stephen Fry has been lambasted for his comments. Credit: Press Association/Lauren Hurley.

This week much loved comedian and national treasure Stephen Fry has once again found himself at the center of a controversy, following comments made about the victims of childhood abuse. Earlier this year Fry quit Twitter after negative responses to a joke made at the BAFTA’s about winning costume designer Jenny Bevan’s outfit.

This most recent controversy however, relates to an interview the comedian gave on the Rubin Report in which he stated:

“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.”

The internet has since gone into overdrive, with many slamming Fry for what they see as his inappropriate and insensitive comments. Others, have sought to defend the comedian, noting among other things, his long and distinguished record of campaigning for greater awareness of mental health issues.

Fry subsequently released a statement apologising for his outburst, saying: 

"I of course apologize unreservedly for hurting feelings the way I did. That was never my purpose. There are few experiences more terrible, traumatic and horrifying than rape and abuse and if I gave the impression that I belittled those crimes and the effects they have on their victims then I am so so sorry. It seems I must have utterly failed to get across what I was actually trying to say and instead offended and upset people who didn’t deserve to be offended or upset."

Since the story erupted on Tuesday, the vast majority of commentators have attempted to frame the controversy principally as a question of freedom of speech and the right of a privileged white male to attack victims of child abuse. For most therefore, Fry’s apology will be enough to satisfy their calls for contrition and as such will most likely signal the end of what has been a thoroughly unpleasant affair.

In doing so, however, it will have followed the familiar pattern of outrage and apology that has in recent years has led to a weakening of public discourse and a failure to effectively engage with arguments and opinions that are considered distasteful.

Far from simply dismissing Fry’s comments as just another example of an out of touch celebrity saying something objectionable. I believe that this controversy should instead provide the opportunity to address a far more important and substantive issue. Namely what is the role (if any) of self-pity and victimhood as a means of dealing with childhood abuse?

By and large people view self-pity as a negative and unpleasant emotion, one which we associate egoism, vanity, and particularly in the west, with western privilege. As a young lad I recall how I would be regularly scolded by my mother for bemoaning how much homework I had or complaining about how hungry I was.

Indeed, self-pity is rightly dismissed in most cases as a deeply unattractive quality, demonstrating self-centeredness and a failure to put your suffering into perspective, or to take responsibility for your own actions.

In the case of victims of abuse, however, things are far more complicated.

The first complication comes from the fact that unlike the self-pity that you may feel having stubbed a toe or been rejected following a job interview, the victims of child abuse have in fact suffered genuine and serious trauma, trauma which is life-changing and in many instances can lead to serious and long-term mental health issues.

Secondly, unlike most instances of self-pity in which the individual is often at least partly responsible for their fate, in the case of abuse, responsibility lies entirely with the abuser and not the abused. Whereas in many instances those who self-pity might be encouraged to think pro-actively about what they did wrong, or things that they could improve on in the future. In the case of abuse victims, the abuse was something which unambiguously happened to them  and which in the vast majority of cases – particularly in the case of abuse in childhood – they lacked the agency to do anything about it.

The question that should therefore be asked is, should self-pity when related to childhood abuse be treated differently, or even encouraged?

On the one hand, many academics and mental health professional have noted how a recognition of our own victimhood can be crucial in coming to terms with experiences of abuse. Beverly Engel notes how abuse victims often suffer from intense feelings of shame or guilt, and a belief that their abuse was in some way their own fault. These feelings can often last into adulthood and prevent victims from fully overcoming the abuse.

In this way, self-identifying as a victim can be an important first step in the recovery process, allowing the victim to recognise that they were not responsible for their own abuse and therefore help them to overcome feelings of shame and guilt.

On the other hand, however, as Pete Walker has noted: "Although long periods of self-pity can be healthy in some phases of recovery, it is possible to get stuck in and addicted to self-pity”. While a recognition of your own victimhood can be an important first step, for many experts it is equally important that victims do not allow themselves to be defined purely in relation to their abuse.

Despite his insensitive phrasing, I believe that this latter perspective is ultimately what Fry was trying to articulate during his interview; and whilst many have understandably taken offence at the Fry’s command that abuse victims ‘grow up’, we should not allow our distaste at his wording to stop us from dealing with the substance of the argument.

Indeed, there is something undoubtedly appealing about Fry’s appeal to the fortitude of the human spirit and his apparent belief that we all have the capacity within ourselves to overcome abuse no matter how traumatic. However, in the same way that I remain skeptical about Conservative parties continued insistence that the working class to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and work their way out of poverty, I treat with a great deal of caution any claims that those who have suffered horrendous abuse may be able to ‘overcome’ their trauma be sheer force of will. Clearly for many victims, the abuse they have suffered can have long-lasting effects including mental health issues, which are not so easily outgrown.

Given the sensitivities surrounding child abuse and mental health issues, it is perhaps unsurprising that Fry’s comments have caused such controversy. However, it is important not to allow our distaste for the language or tone of Fry’s comments, nor discussions of the comedian’s character to distract us from the very real issues involved.

It is in some senses ironic that comments made during an interview with a show whose raison d’état is the promotion of free speech, should now be the subject of ad hominem attacks. But ultimately the question which faces us is not whether Stephen Fry has the right to say these things, but whether what he says is right?

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