This quote, which gets passed around quite a bit (particularly following the Martin Freeman shit from last week), has become an unfortunate call to arms for all rape joke apologists and casual racists. It’s reached a point where “what it really means” has become eclipsed by what it’s been taken to mean — namely that you shouldn’t get mad when something offensive is later defended as being “just a joke.”
Fry’s original comment is from a debate in 2006 that the actor/writer/presenter/director/etc. had with the late Christopher Hitchens on the topic of blasphemy and the proposed British law to criminalize “incitements to religious hatred.” It was assumed that this law was meant to ensure that Muslims felt safe and unprovoked on London streets.
Hitchens and Fry disagreed with this proposal for a number of reasons, but during the debate, Fry responded to the concerns of religious people that a mockery of their religion was “offensive” by saying the above statement. What I suppose he meant — and what many people have argued that he meant — is that you can’t simply say, “That’s offensive!” as though that comment in and of itself should end any discussion or suspend someone else’s freedom of speech. But I don’t quite buy it.
It’s not even so much that it was taken out of context but that the context of the comment was never all that clear in the debate itself. I love Stephen Fry, and having read and seen a lot of his work, I’m a little surprised by him saying this at all. Because normally I’d say Fry is the first person to call bullshit on arguments like the one he’s made here.
He has serious problems, for instance, with anti-semitism and homophobia — since they directly affect him — and often gets incredibly angry, outraged, and — yes — offended when he encounters it. In his Who Do You Think You Are episode, he was livid when someone suggested that because Jewish people had so many “connections”, it seemed suspicious that they didn’t leave Germany when things were getting bad during the second world war. In short, he was offended by this comment, though he didn’t bother to correct or address the statement when it was made. Instead, he marched back to a camera to — using his own words here — whine about it.
I understand his anger, I agree with it, but it’s a moment that directly contradicts what he’s said above. By his own rules, he needs to have a better reason than simple “offense,” and he should probably address it to the person who said it in order to have a proper discussion . But in Fry’s mind, the fact that anti-semitism is offensive is a given. Because it affects him personally.
So when someone tells him homophobia is a moral evil, or that Jews all have “connections,” why doesn’t he shrug and say, “So fucking what?” And why shouldn’t we say “So fucking what?” when he complains about it?
Because in that moment, when it’s about something that affects him, that bigotry is important. It’s rude and hateful and harmful.
So even though I do love Stephen Fry, he needs to cut this double standard out. If you can feel offended by anti-semitism or homophobia, Catholics can feel offended when you mock them for being “simple,” and Muslims can feel offended when you accuse them of belonging to a violent and backward religion.
But Fry so believes that religion is silly that he doesn’t recognize the same objection being made from the other side. Unless, you know, it’s a religion he identifies with (though doesn’t actually practice).
Getting back to the original problem, people need to stop passing this statement around as a flippant response to other people’s objections.
The truth is that many people do — like in the case of Martin Freeman’s rape joke comments — qualify what it is they’re offended by. They don’t simply say “That’s offensive — you can’t say it,” they explain that it’s a comment that adds to rape culture, for instance. So the “so fucking what” has indeed been satisfied by the original statement and you can’t argue that because Stephen Fry once made a flippant remark about political correctness that it should shut up and invalidate all perfectly acceptable objections.