In which I play devil’s advocate.
Stephen Fry got on the Reuben Report recently and got into trouble for his comments on self pity, trigger warnings, and what the correct response to trauma should be. Give the man credit for holding on to his stiff upper lip British heritage. The question at hand is political correctness and whether or not Mr. Fry is *allowed* to advocate for a stiff upper lip and toughening up when it comes to trigger warnings.
Before I defend him, let’s establish clearly that everyone who has experienced trauma has a right to determine a path to healing. It isn’t going to look the same for everyone. There could be immense value in settling into the trauma for an individual. No one can tell another person how to go through it.
But Mr. Fry is entitled to an opinion. And let’s consider what informs that opinion, namely stereotypical British culture, which values stoicism, restraint, distance, and that proverbial stiff upper lip. Culturally, anyone with a strong British heritage (including the dominant culture of the United States, which has deep roots in British culture) is simply uncomfortable with public displays of … well, anything. I’m one of those people with roots back to the British Isles, and people “causing a scene” by something as innocuous as talking too loudly in public make me deeply, viscerally uncomfortable. There is a physical recoil that happens whether I will or not.
But is he right? Is there any advantage to be had in one method of coping or another? I think that has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, and only by the person going through the experience. To the first charge: stop feeling sorry for yourself. Is there any utility in the approach? I tend to go back to Nietzsche. Nietzsche changed my life. It has been years since I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but somewhere in that wonderful, weird book, Nietzsche says that one must own everything, even those things over which you had no control, because in doing so, you take back your power. Your ability to choose differently. So long as all the responsibility lies externally, you are at the mercy of those around you to be decent human beings. A victim has no agency, no control, no choice. In a factual accounting, there is a victim and a perpetrator. But does accepting the role of victim help someone process what has happened and reclaim some kind of solid ground?
Well, I think I had to understand myself as a victim first and then begin the process of reclaiming my agency by choosing to define myself by more than just the thing that happened to me. But I wonder who I would have become if I had stayed there. Owning that I had been a victim of molestation was what got me into therapy. It colored my reading of Nietzche. It was a starting point and not an end point. Personally, I’d hate to see anyone get stuck there, but who am I to say what is right for anyone else. I did, however, find *utility* in defining myself as more than what I’d been through. Of course, he could have worded it better, but at the end of the day… I can’t be mad at him. I certainly wouldn’t want to shame him silent.
The second assertion: toughen up and get over your need for trigger warnings.
Would we be so dismissive of trigger warnings directed at soldiers with PTSD? I doubt it. Culturally, we are far more capable of being sympathetic to soldiers with PTSD than we are to victims of sex crimes, and even then, I don’t think those of us walking around with PTSD are feeling awash in understanding. I’d suggest that Mr. Fry consider whether the “toughen up” advice would be applied across the board, and if not… why? Is it because we’re just that uncomfortable with the idea of bad uncles and naughty places?
Here is where I might suggest some tough love… What does Mr. Fry’s opinion have to do with anyone but Mr. Fry? If this is an opinion you want to see drummed out of the culture, then isn’t it better for him to say it out loud and give you the opportunity to disagree? Isn’t that where healthy dialogue and the evolution of ideas come from? Someone saying something and someone else having the opportunity to respond constructively, teasing out the idea until it is either established as useful or discarded as useless…