Offense taken, Mr Fry

*Warning – this blog post contains strong language*

stephen-fry-on-offenceI’ve been thinking about Stephen Fry’s little rant that made the rounds of social media a year or so back. It’s something I’ve been meaning to comment on for a while, mulling it over thoroughly, discussing it with other people and trying to understand the mindset that would provide such an opinion.

In short, I just can’t understand why he would say such a thing.

The blog Tea Leaves and Dog Ears has provided a good reply to his statement. However, there are still a lot of people who agree with Fry’s sentiment, including Ricky Gervais, who stated on his Facebook page in August 2013:

“We have to stop this recent culture of people telling us they’re offended and expecting us to give a fuck.”

Fry and Gervais’ comments are nothing short of belligerent. When someone does not care regarding the effect their words and actions have on society in general, they are also not acting in any way with compassion. Fry’s comments about taking offense are well and good if he is the one being offensive, however, as in Tea Leaves and Dog Ears’ blog, when it is his own person that is being offended, the tables turn and a double standard occurs.

I’ve been studying the Celtic worldview for some while now, diving in to the history and research, and have come across one perspective time and again: that of personal responsibility. In a culture, in a society, we all have a personal responsibility to behave in accordance with that society and the laws that it contains. If we don’t like them, we should be able to speak out against them in a peaceful manner, protesting using our freedom of speech. Yet every action, every word that comes out of our mouths we are responsible for, whether spoken with mindfulness or mindlessness.

I believe that Fry’s and Gervais’ comments were spoken out of mindlessness. In Mr Fry’s case, also taken out of context. I also believe that they would, and probably have, taken offense at something since they made those comments. It is human nature to have an opinion. We have a voice and we use it. Sometimes we do so with full intention, sometimes we do not think before we speak.

I simply cannot fathom walking around, saying things without thinking of the repercussions my words and actions would have on the world. My sense of personal responsibility lies too thickly ingrained in my soul. It is confirmed by my Druidry, by my spiritual path. Stating that those who are taking offense are merely having a “whine” is to diminish their point of view, their opinion as worthless. It goes against the very freedom of speech that the original rant seems to hold up.

Sometimes it can be hard to find the words at the exact moment the offense is being taken. We’re not all eloquent beyond belief, able to put thoughts and emotions into carefully constructed arguments on the spot. It is a talent that some people have, some do not. We should not dismiss those who cannot find the words to express their true feelings, who can only say at that moment that they’ve taken offense. We have hurt someone’s feelings. We hate it when our feelings get hurt. Why do we forget that when we are the ones that are creating the offense?

Acting with compassion in all things is central to Buddhism. Right Speech is part of the Eightfold Path. I personally do not believe that Fry or Gervais’ comments are made with this in mind. Speech, words and stories were very important to the Celtic ancestors. The Druid teachings up until the modern day were never written down, for various reasons – to keep it within a political and spiritual elite in Classical times, for example. Going back further than this brief point in history, the written word did not exist for our Bronze Age or Neolithic ancestors. What was said, expressed in a language either now lost or evolved into our current tongue mattered. Even before verbal language, body language meant so much. Just watch two strange cats meeting each other, eyeing each other up for the first time…

So, we shouldn’t dismiss someone for taking offense simply because they cannot express in words at that time what it is that is hurting them. It’s difficult for a lot of people. And what of those non-human beings that we hurt? We must act with compassion, yes – but we must also be allowed to stand up for our rights, to be able to express it in our own time without being told that we are simply “whining”.

Supporting Fry and Gervais’ statements can lead to all sorts of messy encounters. Sexual harassment, jokes of a sexist, racist or religious nature can lead to a culture sliding down the slippery slope of intolerance, misogyny and bigotry. The words “rape culture” are hot right now, filled with debate about what it is and what is isn’t, who is contributing to it and who isn’t. Again, here I think that personal responsibility is key to working in honourable relationship with the world at large. Not giving a f*ck isn’t.

There is also the argument that letting go without taking offense is the best way forward. However, this only applies to a comfortable Western point of view, where one isn’t being shot at, forced to marry their rapist, or being subjected to all manner of discrimination due to the colour of their skin, their gender or their religious beliefs.
We are a vocal tribe now, and as such we should discuss things with compassion. Simply stating that someone is whining is not taking a look at the broader picture. In doing so, one is dismissing another human being. In time, someone may find the words to express their offense – it is a matter of eloquence and language, not one of who is right and who is wrong. Dismissing the other for taking offense is, in my opinion, repulsive and incorrigible. It is bad behaviour and bad form.

Stand up for what you believe in. Express yourself as eloquently and as honourably as you can. Consider the impact that your words will have on the world at large. Use the tenets of Right Speech and personal responsibility to the best of your ability. It is all that we can do. We may fail, we may be brought up on it, and it is up to us to make amends. Do not let pride get in the way. No one is infallible.



14 thoughts on “Offense taken, Mr Fry

  1. Well said. I think this is too soundbite-y to understand completely, but would hazard a guess that Mr Fry meant the very British (easily parodied) ‘offense’ taken at mild slights to a person’s worldview that don’t actually hurt in real terms.

    However, those might still be of value… if instead of offense, we considered WHY they’re offensive to us, and perhaps that worldview needs investigating. Can ‘taking offense’ be transformed into ‘recognising a challenge’? *ponders*

    Thank you for this post either way, Joanna. I’ve been rather worried for ages that I find that image wrong and itself easily shared without due care or thought. But such is the ease of the internet 😉

  2. I imagine (because Fry seems avuncular and thoughtful) that he was probably objecting to people who used offence as a form of censorship ~ I am offended that you said something scathing about my belief in pixies, therefore you are never permitted to criticise my beliefs again etc.
    Hopefully he wasn’t deriding people for feeling got at per se (especially when they really are being got at). Also worth bearing in mind that there’s a clear distinction between someone trying very hard to give offense, and those who doing so without realising it because they are gauche, gormless, or whatever else. I think quite a lot of people spend their lives (or make careers out of it, in Gervais’ case) going out of their way to try and offend or goad other people.

    We can debate the wisdom of taking offence from someone who is eager to give it… is it the oonly logical reaction, is it falling into their trap etc? I’m not sure.

    • Good thought. If that is their only intent, then it will quickly become apparent in further discussion the nature of their argument, and the extent of their “trolling” behaviour. If one is dismised as “whining” then no further discussion can ensue, which in my opinion is dishonourable.

      Tea Leave and Dog Ears states the context in which Fry’s words were given, and the double standard that Fry gave when it was he who had taken offense in the programme “So Who Do you Think You Are” – although a further discussion from Fry may have been edited out – we will never know. Thanks for your comment!

  3. well said, and the follow up comments, too. So often when these things call for is an exchange, and if either side assumes rightness, or entitlement to control the other side, there are going to be problems.

  4. The thing I find particularly fascinating about Fry’s stance is that he’s a huge advocate for gay rights and gets extremely offended when people make anti-gay statements.

    For good reason.

    But what bothers me is that what he really means is, “I don’t care about your silly religious views!”

    You can have your own feelings about religion (and his are obviously very strong), but it’s fairly ridiculous to say, “I’m so offended by the use of a gay slur,” and to then turn around and say, “Don’t act all offended when we ask Muslims to take off their niqabs.”

    Again, he has every right to think that gay rights are important and religious views are not. But what he cannot say is that people taking offense to something that they think is important is irrelevant when it’s irrelevant to him and important when it’s important to him.

    Would he think twice about someone saying, “I’m so offended” in response to a gay slur? I really doubt it.

  5. Huh. I vaguely remember that rant when I first saw it, and I got the same uncomfortable feeling reading it this time. I keep getting uneasy from it because well, I can’t pick a side myself, and the thing existing seems to be wanting me to do so. However on the one hand I can see people maybe going too far with being offended – and therefore saying others have no rights, or that their own feelings are the most important, giving them license to trample on those of others… on the other hand, well I don’t want to be reading something with f-bombs all over it and being forced to say “oh, that’s wonderful,” and feeling bad if um, yeah I find that offensive. I STILL don’t know what to think about it.

    • It’s a difficult point of view, taken out of context and used/abused by others for a large majority to act without consideration or compassion. It poses questions of double standards, not only in the people who are being offended, but by Mr Fry himself.

      There’s another saying that’s often misinterpreted – live without having to say you’re sorry. This is sometimes used as a green flag for people to act belligerantly. What it really means is to act with honour and integrity, so that you will never have to apologise in the first place.

      We’re all working on it 😉

  6. It has always seemed to me that Stephen Fry tries to provoke response and even discussion by being slightly(?) outrageous and I would view his comments in this light.

    Based on his comment above (I don’t know if it has a context in a longer piece) he could just be saying that stating “I take offence”, without any rational argument as to why something is offensive, is, as he says, “simply a whine.” Would he still object if an objector stated their reasons as to why something gave offence?

    Equally, if he meant that “taking offence” is too often used in place of rational argument and objection, as a form of censorship as Robin comments, then I would agree with him. However, he’s clearly a man who believes in the power of words. I’m sure he wouldn’t be suggesting that physical actions and attacks should just be ignored and, if the pen really is mightier than the sword, we can’t ignore the harm that words can cause. It would be interesting to ask him if he believes that words do have any power and, if so how it’s possible to dismiss them in such an off-hand manner.

    • Good words! I think also that Mr Fry tends to forget that not everyone is as eloquent and wordy as he is, and that it can be hard to find the right words sometimes to express the offense taken… x

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