The Ethics Of… Being Offended

Ten days ago Stephen Fry, beloved English writer, comedian, actor and all-round intellectual, said the following sentence on live television:

“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.”

And the internet went absolutely apeshit. What the hell was this great paragon of progressives, strident advocate for homosexual rights, intellectualism and science doing mouthing off at the victims of one of the most traumatic crimes in existence? Shock was followed by anger and the entirety of Fry’s fan-based turned on itself, with most utterly furious at this betrayal while some came to his defense, claiming that the quote was being ‘taken out of context’.

Well, here’s that context:

Turns out dear old Stephen has a bee in his bonnet about what he calls the ‘regressive left’, who want to change the way we live, speak and think to better suit their values. He’s upset about a movement in Oxford College to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a 1900’s business magnate, politician and all-round arsehole who was really, REALLY into British Imperialism – that is, he thought Britain invading and oppressing the rest of the world was an absolutely wonderful thing.

While Fry acknowledges that Rhodes represents values we rightly no longer hold today, he objects to the removal of the statue as a form of censorship – censorship which he believes is based on people being offended. And Stephen Fry has never been shy on what he thinks about offense.

For Fry the fact that you find something offensive is worse than meaningless; it’s an attempt to control others based entirely on your feelings. And this leads us to the statement that caused all the fuss:

“There are many great plays which contain rapes, and the word rape now is even considered a rape. To say the word rape is to 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 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. Just grow up.”

Get past all the toffy rambling and the same point emerges; Stephen Fry is very sympathetic that you may have experienced trauma in your past, but just as we shouldn’t remove statues of historical bastards because they offend you, so too should great works of art not be censored because they might make some people re-live their personal traumas.

Put like that it becomes fairly clear that this was less an attack on victims of sexual violence, and more a statement that their loss should not be used to force others to change their behaviour. Of course the ham-fisted, rambling way Fry expressed it made that pretty damn unclear, but the fact that he has previously worked to denounce sexual violence does make it pretty unlikely he’s suddenly taken up with the likes of Todd Atkin and other victim-blamers.

Advanced stupidity.

So moving past the extremely daft choice of words, does Fry have a point? Well he’s right on one thing at least; the fact you find something offensive doesn’t mean squat when it comes to ethics. As I’ve written many times before, much like taste in music, favourite colour or preference in sexual partners, offense is a subjective thing – the mere fact that you are offended by something makes it offensive to you. Why you find it offensive, or whether you have a good reason or not are both irrelevant – the thing makes you upset and that’s all there is to it.

Try to decide if a thing is right or wrong based on how offended people get and you’re going to end up banning everything, because for every idea, behaviour or thing in this world, there will be a person somewhere that finds it offensive. And what about people who find conflicting ideals offensive? The world has millions of people that find homosexuality offensive, and millions more that find homophobia offensive – if we consider offense important then we have a conflict it’s impossible to resolve.

And so we ignore it altogether. Ethics is not about opinions or tastes, ethics is about facts and the consequences of our decisions. If a course of action is justified based on the evidence at hand and you still find it offensive, well in the gentle words of Stephen Fry, ‘so fucking what?’.

So if its facts we should be concerned with and offense is indeed irrelevant, then Mr Fry must be vindicated in his comments, right. Well no. See while dear Stephen is right about offensiveness, he’s actually guilty of the exact thing he’s complaining about in the video – he’s demanding others change their behaviour based on how it makes him feel, with a total disregard for the facts.

For starters let’s consider the whole issue of removing Cecil Rhode’s statue. Yeah the group wanting it removed are undoubtedly offended by it, but that doesn’t matter so let’s ignore it. Why do they want it removed however? Because it represents a period in Britain’s history and a set of values that they oppose and do not think should be celebrated. And while Stephen Fry acknowledges these points (and actually agrees with them), he completely fails to rebut them; instead he just says that we shouldn’t make decisions based on what is offensive and moves on like that’s an answer.

Given we don’t seem to have a problem pulling down statues of Stalin or Saddam Hussein when those monsters were toppled, the argument that Cecil ‘white man’s burden’ Rhodes should be exempt from that treatment seems a bit odd. After all this is just a statue we’re talking about here; it’s not like the group want to purge all knowledge of the man from history, they just want to stop celebrating the bastard like he’s worthy of it. Perhaps not a conclusive argument, but one worthy of a fact-based response at least – something Fry completely fails to deliver.

Look at these silly people being all offended by a statue.

Then we have the far bigger issue of rape victims and media that include rape. Once again offense is almost certainly a factor here, but once again since it’s irrelevant we’ll ignore it. What points are these rape victims actually making? Fry doesn’t actually give any solid examples, and that might be because I couldn’t find a single example of rape victims trying to ban a play with rape in at all. Not one. I’m happy to be corrected on this, but until someone provides an example I’m going to have to write that argument off as a strawman.

I did find plenty of criticism of plays, movies and television shows that include rape, as well as many people who advocate for the sort of ‘trigger warnings’ that Fry and his interviewer bemoan at the end of the video. But if we set aside the whole issue of whether we like these arguments or not, do they have any merit?

Should media that contains sexual violence include trigger warning so those who have experienced trauma can avoid scenes that may upsets them? Well, yeah, of course they should. We already to exactly that thing with content warnings for TV and movies, why not for plays and books as well? Oh it might seem like political correctness gone mad, but ask yourself the question: what do we lose by doing this? The media is all still available, no one is restricting it or censoring bits they don’t like. All we’re doing here is adding advice so that consumers can make informed decisions about what they view.

Maybe you personally think trigger warnings are stupid, impinge on your apparently divine right of unlimited free speech, or oppress you somehow, but given the tininess of this cost (not to mention it’s complete failure to exist) and the significant benefits of avoiding triggering post-traumatic stress disorder in a rape victim, I think the conclusion is pretty damn clear. And if you are unsatisfied with that answer, well to quote Stephen Fry, ‘so fucking what?’.

Look! Look at that single line of text! It’s SO OPPRESSIVE!

Criticism of media that include sexual violence at all however, is a much trickier topic. Many critics of shows like Game of Thrones argue that it should tone down the rape and/or remove it entirely. This is a much bolder claim, because unlike trigger warnings, it will significantly change the media involved. To justify this, the critics need to demonstrate that the inclusion of rape in media causes more harm than good – something they have so far failed to do.

The idea that no media should include sexual violence in case victims stumble across it and are traumatised is a sympathetic one, but not convincing. Given the rating system already in place for TV, movies and video games, traumatised people already have options to screen what they wish to view, without restricting what others can enjoy.

The argument that inclusion of rape in media normalises or even promotes sexual violence is a far more compelling one, since it suggests such media presents a very serious, practical danger to others. But an argument alone is not enough – facts are what we’re interested in here and the facts tell a slightly more complex story: sexual violence alters viewer’s attitudes depending on whether the act is shown as good or bad. To put that another way, if a TV program shows rape as a horrible act of violation, then viewers came to think of it as a worse thing. If it portrayed rape as something the victim was secretly enjoying however, then the viewers became more accepting of it.

“In general we found that if the rape depiction emphasized the victim’s abhorrence our listeners were less sexually aroused than they were by either the mutually consenting depiction or by a portrayal in which the victim becomes aroused.” – UCLA media researcher Neil Malamuth

In a way these facts show that both sides are right to a degree. Yeah, portraying sexual violence can make viewers more accepting of it, but only if it’s shown as a positive thing. When rape is shown in media as a terrible crime – as it is in Game of Thrones – then it actually helps reinforce our disgust and abhorrence of that crime.

And, just as with every other conclusion we draw in this topic, how you personally feel about that is completely irrelevant. If despite this evidence you still think that sexual violence in media is always a bad thing, then you’re wrong. Get over it. And, conversely, if you believe in totally unlimited freedom of speech, and that sexual violence in media is always ok, regardless of how it’s portrayed and the affect it has on the audience, then guess what? You’re wrong too. Get over it.

Don’t get me wrong here, I understand what Stephen Fry was trying to say in his trainwreck of an interview. For a society to prosper free discussion and criticism of ideas is crucial, and allowing people to shut that down based on their feelings is a road straight to hell. But if you reject offense as a basis for making decisions, then you damn well better be willing to prove your point with that empirical evidence Fry is so keen on, yet completely failed to bring to the table on this issue.

It’s all very well to demand enlightenment, but if you fail to hold to that ideal yourself, then all you’re doing is getting upset. How ironic.


8 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Being Offended

    • Thanks FuzzyPotatoCat, that’s quite the compliment! Thanks also for making it clear just how atrocious my spelling and grammar is in the post too – quite a bit of cleaning up needed there.

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Kicking out the Muslims | The Ethics Of

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Moving Australia Day | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Barnaby Joyce | The Ethics Of

  4. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Priorities (Farewell, for now) | The Ethics Of

  5. Actual scientists in the field of physiology say trigger warnings cause more harm than they prevent. Life is full of little barbs and if you shield people from anything that could possibly upset them you end up with fragile people upset by everything.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s