Why Stephen Fry’s “Offensive” Quote is Total Bullshit

offended

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.

91 thoughts on “Why Stephen Fry’s “Offensive” Quote is Total Bullshit

  1. you are clearly wrong and the comment by stephen stands on any subject. draw no line in the sand, offence is the problem of the person who is offended definitely no one else.

  2. I think there’s a difference between things that are truly vile such as blatant racism/homophobia/sexism versus political correctness run amok (ex: I had a cis person tell me very politely that I should not use the term transgender but transgenderED or possibly vice versa for some asinine reason that I forget because it was so idiotic. I’m also transgender btw.) I’ve seen other stupid far left PC examples like this which is where I tend to apply the quote.

  3. Stephen Fry is not at odds with himself. Nor is it a double standard. He wasn’t saying people shouldn’t be offended. He was saying that their taking offense didn’t entitle them to anything beyond the freedom to be offended. You can be offended, just as he was over Jewish ”connections”. But I’m assuming the reason he didn’t react beyond how he did because he understood that the world, and all in it, are not obligated to so much as scratch their balls because he took offense to something. And I think the generalization to Freeman and comedy in general is fair. You can be offended. You are entitled to your own emotions. But that offense is not a tool to make societal changes… least of all the words of others. Which, in their base for are small puffs of breath causing vocal cords to vibrate, creating sound that is then crafted by the tongue and lips. A fart has more power to directly threaten you than any spoken word.

  4. There is a slight misunderstanding going on here… in Swedish there are two words for what English has one. There is the word “offense” to signify “violation”, and then there is the word “offense” to signify “aggravation”, sort of. It’s this “offense” Stephen Fry is talking about. The “butthurt” kind. Displeasing, shocking, vexing, annoying, irritating, irking, provoking.
    He started this passage of what he was talking about by talking about how people talk about “respect”. “He wasn’t respecting me, so I shot him”. “He was disrespectful, so rude! I’m really offended right now!”.
    I suppose you all know very well the difference.

    I also doubt he was “offended” by the Jew comment. I think he got really angry.

  5. I read the article, and some comments.

    There is no double standard here.

    You can be offended by anything.
    1) If someone is being racist or anti-Semitic, you can be offended because those are hateful and bigoted assertions.

    2) As a second example if you assert something like the ludicrousness of biblical creation due to scientific research, somebody else may get offended and say so because it conflicts with a core belief of theirs.

    What Stephen Fry is saying (as far as I understand him and what all his prior and since views would support) is that the act of being offended in of itself is meaningless.
    In example 1) the person making the assertion is a major asshole because of their bigoted views, and after claiming offense a clear discussion of why those views are bigoted/fascist whatever could ensue.
    In example 2) the person making an assertion is simply stating truth as currently scientifically understood, and people are welcome to (try to) refute, which obviously will fail unless they have some insight the combined knowledge of all scientific reasoning throughout history has failed to glean.
    We all have a right to be offended , Mr Fry is simply saying the act of feeling offended in of itself doesn’t validate or invalidate anything asserted and is quite meaningless in that regard.

    So when someone says that offends them without any further reasoning, little attention or fucks should be given. When someone says that offends me because it’s the line of thinking that breeds hate, genocide, homophobia and suffering and they can formulate a reasonable explanation of why, you should reflect on whether the person doing the assertion is in fact an asshole.

    His quote is not an excuse for saying whatever you want and being as offensive as possible, and I do not personally believe that was ever his intention.

    P.s I’m offended by any comments that disagree with me… …

  6. The quote very specifically brings up those who say that they are offended. As in verbalizing it. It never intends to argue about the feeling of being offended. Fry himself may have acted as if offended in the past but he never said that he was offended and that is the point of the quote. Saying that you are offended means nothing. Argue against the point that offended you. But saying that you are offended is simply a whine. It means nothing.

    • Saying you feel a generation is too sensitive because they are offended by everything is an even bigger WHINE. I am sooo sick of people being upset that their racist joke or homophobic cartoon or pornographic insult of women are viewed as offensive and people should just grow up and get over it. No Bill saying you are offended is a declaration that someone else is out of line. I find the only people who are sick of people being “so sensitive” are the ones getting called out on their shit.

      • Or the ones getting “called out” over meaningless jokes and cartoons. Up until now, calling someone racist or sexist evoked a reaction somewhere around the effect of “No!”, because these words still carry some objective meaning. Continue in that direction, however, and the reaction will become equivalent to “So?”, because they will be words unimaginative people use to describe what doesn’t suit their tastes in jokes and cartoons.

        So, a black female Gummy Bear walks into a candy shop, and the owner says “We don’t serve your kind here!”

  7. This article is trash.

    There is no such thing as the right to not be offended.

    Your offense is not my problem, unless, and only unless, it is important to me that you are on my side. If I have no need for your allegiance, agreement, or consent, you can take your offense and shove it up your ass, because it does not matter to me one iota.

  8. I have the right to offend, you have the right to be offended. No harm, no foul. You are not in charge of what I say and I can never be in charge of how you feel.

  9. There’s a difference between ‘being offended’ and objecting to a viewpoint. Being offended is an emotion that in itself acheives no constructive purpose other than, as Fry says, to whine. Objecting to someones stated view involves issuing a counter argument and seeking to stifle that view and prevent its dissemination.

  10. Being offended isn’t his problem with anti sometime and homo phobia. They’re ignorant and hateful views, I’m sure any non braindead person can defend this claim. “I’m offended” isn’t the basis of these arguments

  11. I think you miss the point where he says “as if that gives them certain rights”

    Using the example you pulled out about jews “having connections”.

    Fry was offended. Yet he didn’t silence the comment which he could have done (being that his program could have edited it out and he could have given no reaction pretending it didn’t happen)

    He didn’t invoke any of the discussion stopping “rules” that he is referring to in his quote.

    His quote isn’t that people can’t be offended. Quite the opposite, that causing offence isn’t enough reason to silence anything or anyone.

    He has never used offense as the grounds to silence another person. It is an unpleasant feeling that you have seen him experience many times. But it is not a debate tool.

    Compared to the expectation of the religious that sees people rioting and and killing because the western world hasn’t banned a cartoon or a novel that has a factually accurate portrayal of that religion in question

  12. Pingback: C’est décidé, je vais devenir méchant. | symboledesagreable

  13. Soo … the quote is genuine, it is NOT out of context, he means it pretty much as it sounds, but you have a problem with it because people you personally might dislike publicize it?

    Then you have no argument! Sorry.

  14. The problem here is that you’re overestimate in Steven Fry. I mean you’re right, obviously, what he said is gibberish, but he didn’t say it because he was being flippant about political correctness; he said it because he is, at heart, an arrogant hypocrite with absolutely no self-awareness. He was genuinely saying he doesn’t think it matters when people express offense because in that moment it served his purposes to think that. That’s Steven Fry. He’s clever and he does an excellent impression of depth so we all really want him to be a good person, but his ability to care about things stops at his mirror.

    • I’m not sure that that’s quite fair. I think it’s also important to point out that he said it as an off-the-cuff comment during a live discussion, and not a debate.

      But my larger point isn’t really to do with what Stephen Fry believes, or whether or not he’s a hypocrite. The issue at hand is the way that people on the internet use the quote to condone their own offensive/rude behaviour. You’re allowed to say whatever you want, and people are allowed to take issue with it. That’s what free speech actually means.

    • sounds like you’re offended by his saying that your being offended isn’t his problem.

      guess what, Virginia? he’s right. and the problem, such as it is, is your’s.

  15. In order to find something you have to look for it.

    Witless fools so ready to take offence need to grow a thicker skin. Natural selection will take care of your naivety as this world deteriorates.

  16. Do you believe we are just animals on a planet full of species that have evolved over millions of years? Then you will believe the fittest and most adapt will survive. I would suggest if the words of the ignorant are causing you stress and are destroying your life, then you may not be one of the fittest and most adapt.

    • That is some silly kind of Social Darwinism that has often been refuted. Our job as civilised human beings is to rise above our animal origins and cooperate for the greater benefit of the whole species, indeed the whole ecosystem. We need to find ways to defuse conflict, not exacerbate it. Yes, people need to be a bit thicker-skinned and not take offence where none is meant. That doesn’t mean we have to let bullies ride roughshod over the disadvantaged of us.

  17. Sorry but you’re wrong. That quote isn’t from a debate. It was actually a short question and answer session that was used to fill a gap in programming on late night television. I remember him very clearly saying it too.

    It also had him talking about swearing being unnecessary and how unnecessary things made life more interesting.

  18. To your article I say, So fucking what? You feelings do not trump freedom of speech and freedom of expression EVER. Your personal feelings are not a right. Having a good feeling inside is not a right. Your rights are to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. Notice that “pursuit” word, meaning you have the right to chase, not to obtain. Your article is a load of garbage. You just proved Stephen Fry correct. Your opinion is just that, an opinion. It is a meaningless whine that should never be taken seriously in any context.

    • The writer isn’t threatening freedom of speech. in fact, I doubt the writer has that power. Just a reminder, freedom of speech means, basically, that the U.S. Government can not control, alter, or censor your speech, or take legal action against you because of your speech (with a few exceptions that the courts have ruled on). However, the writer (who, by the way, has freedom of speech, too) is free to make an argument about what our society finds socially acceptable. People in our society are more than welcome to follow her suggestions. Freedom of speech does not protect you from the social repercussions of saying something stupid, hateful, or cruel.

    • Interesting rant there Kiran04 ( without being all that intersting ) .
      Very vitriolic too you seem to be very upset and ( that word again , offended even !?).
      “Your article is a load of garbage “. Much like your comment then Kiran 04 ( begs the question why you read it then felt the need to comment upon it ??) “Your opinion is just that , an opinion ” perhaps read and reread that part of your comment over and over again till it makes sense to you Kiran 04 ?!!

  19. It’s not crap unless a crime has been committed. You take offence to something. If you take offence to something then that’s your reaction. If you take offence to something that’s you; I may not find what you find offensive. If you take offence to something or someone then deal with it privately and move on.

  20. It’s not crap unless a crime has been committed. If you take offence to something then that’s your reaction. If you take offence to something that’s you; I may not find what you find offensive. If you take offence to something or someone then deal with it privately and move on.

  21. I’m 100% amazed that someone got offended over a comment that totally points out how stupid it is to get offended by comments…way to go, you have reach a new level of retard.

  22. “If I had a large amount of money I should certainly found a hospital for those whose grip upon the world is so tenuous that they can be severely offended by words and phrases and yet remain all unoffended by the injustice, violence and oppression that howls daily about our ears.” — Fry

    He’s not a hypocrite, you’re just refusing to take his quote in context so you can make a fuss about it.

  23. Pingback: Do we really have a right to offend? | infoism

  24. It’s not that you can’t be offended and state it but that you can’t expect anyone to care; they can still say what they want no matter who it offends and a persons offense is no reason to keep your own feelings quiet.

  25. So many stupid comments. There should be no laws against racism or homophobia. No laws against ideas. Words don’t “cause harm.” Thought police. What assholes you leftists are.

    • Did you ever hear of incitement to hatred?Have you heard any of Hitler’s(insert any tyrants)speeches?The Rwandan genocide where radio reports prompted people to massacre their neighbours.The ongoing murder of homosexuals in Uganda sparked by homophobic comments in the media and government,in Jamaica…

    • If people were all treated with the same level of equality and respect, there would be no need for laws against racism or homophobia. unfortunately, this is not the case. people who have an accent, different customs, different gods and religions, different abilities, and levels of intellect, or different colour of their skin or a different sexuality (ie, homosexual). do not get treated with the same level of equality or respect. even people who are different simply because they are female, or identify themselves as a different sex to the sex that they appear to be, are treated differently, and have to fight for something that should already be theirs – to be treated with the same level of equality and respect as everyone else. But they do not even get the same rights as everyone else.
      or so it would seem, the fact is they should have exactly the same rights as everyone else, and they do. but they have to fight for their rights to be recognised, even the simple right of being safe. It is because of this unequal treatment, that there are laws against racism and homophobia.

    • ” So many stupid comments ” hmm Nancy Pike yours especially yes !!
      Are you attempting in the comment section of a blog , to justify your bigotry to others or is it just a troll your on ?

    • Nancy Pike so it is trolling your about !! “Your opinion is ridiculous ” read that comment ( yours by the way !!!) , over again Nancy Pike maybe you will realise something ( like your own ridiculousness for example )

    • All new ideas are ridiculous to sheltered and ignorant people who haven’t thought about them. More conservative reactionary whining.

  26. “In his Who Do You Think You Are episode, he was livid when someone suggested to him that if Jewish people had so many connections, it seemed suspicious that they didn’t leave Germany when things were getting bad for them during the second world war. He announced that it offended him and said that he didn’t bother to correct or address the statement when it was made. Yet he still marched back to a camera to whine about it.”

    Here’s the actual segment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-L32ZfMbAtY#t=7m8s

    As you can see, it was very much distorted.

    • Brian you are correct here. The actual word Stephen Fry used was furious at the Anti Semitic remarks made to him but he related the story within the context of them meeting a very happy man who had been deported for being Jewish and was renovating the synagogue in his town.
      His purpose was to give an example of not letting hatred / fury caused by others control you and your feelings.
      He did not use the word ‘offended’ at all.

      What about some decent journalism where you actually quote verbatim what is said in the article you pretend to have watched rather than distort it for your own purposes.

      • You read articles Edwina . You obviously read into the comments by mr Fry in question becasue he definetly whinged to the camera about the offensive comments that offended to him . I think you wish to remove your rose colored glasses

  27. Pingback: Offense taken, Mr Fry | Down the Forest Path

  28. The point is that homophobia and racism are objectively wrong, and have a real-world, detrimental impact on people who actually walk the planet. Blasphemy is only “offensive” because people think their superstitious holy cows should be sacrosanct to everyone else, too, and the only “person” being directly affected is your sky fairy of choice. Laws against homophobia and racism *should* apply to everyone. Laws against disrespect towards imaginary bullshit should not. I think your blog mostly misses the point, though you’re right about the quote being conveniently abused by some.

      • Yeah. Cos we should all be subject to your irrational views. 🙂 And sky fairies have equal standing with real world ethics.

        Nice try. Thanks for playing.

    • your reply is totally incoherent. If there is no transcendental source of morality or sky fairies as you put it, morality is at best subjective literally false constructs of a bunch of degrading chemicals. or are you saying everything that comes from your own head is true for everyone. you’re on dodgy ground philosophically

  29. When someone says they’re offended all they’re saying is that their feelings have been hurt. They’re not pointing out an inaccuracy or inconsistency in the offensive material. It’s a near meaningless phrase.

    Worse though is that offensiveness is Subjective. Just because someone claims to be offended does not make the allegedly offensive material wrong. If we let claims of being offended in and of themselves be measures of correctness then anything can be condemned and it would all be done arbitrarily. Not sure who could condone that kind of society, where simply saying “You’re gay/black/jewish/female/elderly/etc and that offends me” makes something wrong or socially unacceptable.

  30. You make a good point about the need for setting the boundaries of Fry’s statement. This isn’t a pre-made get out of jail free card for people to throw around when they haven’t thought about the harm their words might cause. But I think your point falls down a bit with this line: “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” and “… Fry so believes that religion is silly that he doesn’t recognize the same objection being made from the other side.”

    Objecting to a religion and objecting to homophobia are not the same. If you are right that Fry believes religions to be silly, he is expressing one side of an argument that does not have an agreed right and wrong half. Religions are faith based positions. There is no universally agreed right one. Furthermore, they are mostly mutually exclusive in their claims. Most people who subscribe to a religion do so because they just do. Observation or their own sense of morality did not point to one clear option over the other.

    But holding the views of homophobia and racism work differently. We as a society have agreed that our morality tells us that denying people rights based on their race or sexuality (and more besides) is fundamentally wrong. At any time, a christian can choose not to be, but you can’t choose not to be gay, black, mentally handicapped or of jewish parents. Criticism of someone for their choices and viewpoints is different to criticising someone for being who and what they are, Fry’s point from the discussion with Christopher Hitchens makes this distinction. Criticism of a viewpoint should not be blashemy.

    Making fun of homosexuals and Jews or arguing the case FOR homophobia and anti-semitism requires more than just a sense of humour. You have to actually be racist or homophobic to start with. Similarly, making jokes about rape crosses the line.

    Religions should for one, be able to withstand criticism, just as the concept of human rights has withstood it for centuries, This feeds into a point someone else here made about the follow up line of ‘so what?’. If a Catholic is offended by being called simple, then they should explain why the other person is wrong for saying it, by using reasoning. They have to do more than just say ‘You can’t say that, it offends my religion.’

  31. So the quote is not bullshit by itself, it’s only bullshit if people use it hypocritically as a defense. But you know what is bullshit? Using inflammatory terms that don’t actually work in context in order to generate heated responses. That’s bullshit. You’re bullshit. Try thinking your articles through before posting them.

  32. I disagree with your argument simply because I think you misunderstood it. He is playing no double-standard by being “offended” by homophobia or anti-semitism because he isn’t trying to enforce a law upon it. In the context, however, there was a proposed law which he deemed to be founded on being “offended.” It’s that difference that gives appropriate context and meaning to the quote. If he goes and makes a video about being “offended” by something then anyone can watch it and respond with a So Fucking What. Try doing that to the law.

  33. I think usually when someone is offended enough to protest, they think it speaks for itself.
    SF is offended about homophobia and antisemitism and thinks that everyone is on the same page about WHY it is offensive even if they don’t agree it should be.
    He’s not entirely sure why blasphemy is offensive, hence the quote.

    I’m sure there’s a cognitive process at work.

    • That’s exactly my issue. If he himself stuck to this principle, then at the very least you could say it’s something he truly believes in. But he doesn’t. So when it’s something he doesn’t find offensive, people owe him a reason. When it’s something he finds offensive, he doesn’t owe anyone else the same courtesy.

      Again — I love Stephen Fry and this is some garden-variety hypocrisy, but I’m just tired of this quote being thrown around like it’s gospel.

  34. I don’t really know the relevant context, but do you think he was saying that people should say something more substantial than “I’m rather offended by that,” and articulate a stronger position? Not that he doesn’t care, but that they should address the “so what” of their argument?

    • Yeah, I went back and re-wrote the piece because my point wasn’t clear enough. My bigger issue is that people who claim this — including Fry himself — tend to have heavy double-standards. So they can get offended by something without offering proper explanation and then demand it of others.

      Or — and this is my bigger problem — people will offer a full explanation and have some version of this thrown in their face anyway.

      • It’s just a moment of hypocrisy, which EVERYONE has, from time to time.

        As Louis C.K. said, “I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of them.” His point can still be correct (so what if you’re offended?) and find certain things offensive. He’s not saying he never whines, he’s just saying that the statement “I’m offended” doesn’t entitle anyone to anything, including himself, presumably. That he is a hypocrite doesn’t negate the validity of the quote, it just means that the quote should apply to him as well, during his moments of hypocrisy.

      • I have the right to have double standards, you have the right to not like it. I have the right to offend, you have the right to be offended. You are not in charge of what i say, it’s not possible for me to ever be in charge of how you feel. If we ever try legislate any of these things by enacting laws, we will soon learn that in our fruitless attempt to offended no one, everyone ends up offended because then no one has a clue of what or what not to say, which is the antithesis of Free Speech.

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