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Stephen Fry's objections to trigger warnings aren't acceptable - but they are understandable

For those of Fry's age and background, there is something terribly uncomfortable about the new insistence on self-expression. 

Stephen Fry, like many of his generation of progressives, seems to be triggered out by trigger warnings. Last week, in a discussion on The Rubin Report about free-speech, trigger warnings, censorship, safe-space, the actor, writer and broadcaster came out with an extraordinary pronouncement on abuse:

"There are many great plays which contain rapes, and the word rape now is even considered a rape," he said. "They’re terrible things and they have to be thought about, clearly, but 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 read 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 because self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity."

Fry has since apologised unreservedly. But in his curious outburst, and the pained, painful public outrage that instantly followed, I found myself understanding something that I had not been able to express before. I found myself understanding not just the different paradigms of trauma and repression among different generations of progressives, but the deep defensiveness - the profound sense of personal hurt involved.

Let’s be clear: nobody is saying you shouldn’t read Titus Andronicus. (In fact, you probably ought to read it, in all its ultra-violent, awkwardly racist glory, because it’s an object lesson in the fact that even the greatest writers are not above producing gory trash for cash). I have encountered far more articles and arguments about the scourge of 'trigger warnings' in the past year than I have encountered trigger warnings themselves. It's an idea that seems, for a certain school of educated, progressive, usually privileged commentator to sum up the younger generation, with its messy, uncomfortable insistence on taking people's feelings into account and calling it politics.

So why do some progressives of older generations react with such violence and horror to the new way of doing politics, online and in the streets, to the radical sharing, the intensity of emotion, the insistence that trauma and hurt are political? Why does this matter so very, very much to them?

The shitty thing about privilege, the real kicker, is that it doesn't protect you from pain. If, like me, you're one of the weird queer kids who grew up reading everything Stephen Fry ever wrote, you'll know that he is as close to an expert on suffering and survival as the British upper classes can produce. When we look at Stephen Fry today, especially if we’re too young to have been culturally aware in the 1990s, who do we see?  We see the tweedy national treasure, the voice of Harry Potter and the face of Twinings tea, the mental health campaigner insulated by wealth and success from the worst of his demons. And that's part of the story. 

But if you were one of the weird queer kids who read his novels and memoirs for hope and comfort as a child, as I was, you'll know that there have been other Stephen Frys. There’s the traumatised schoolboy. The teenager in prison. The young actor so broken by stage fright that he disappeared days into the opening run of a play and turned up a week later in Belgium after the papers had started to wonder if he might have been murdered. 

And then there’s the writer of mad, funny books about lust and shame and otherness, books that, when I read them as a kid, made me understand that maybe it was alright to be very strange, and very sad, as long as you were also very clever, very hardworking, and very, very lucky. It's not a universally applicable parable for the ages, but I'll wager that it has saved a few young lives in ways Stephen Fry will probably never credit himself for, because people that strange, that sad and that successful are usually blind to the good that they manage to do in the world.

The generation now in its fifties and older endured various iterations of the same philosophy in its youth: the principle that the best thing to do about trauma is not to talk about it, still less demand change. Talking makes you weak, and weakness makes you vulnerable. In the short term, it's a way to survive abuse, but it's also how abuse perpetuates, how it becomes, inexorably, the systems of oppression that affect all of our lives. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, poverty and prejudice - all of these structures of oppression are experienced individually as trauma. They hurt us, and then they hurt us again when they forbid us to fight back. 

All of this is the modus operandi of many institutions of privilege - including British boarding schools, several of which Fry went through in his youth. Researching a piece for the New York Times in 2014, I learned that the British boarding school system is an ancient, terrible and precise machine designed, over a number of centuries, to take little boys and systematically traumatise them until they are capable of running an empire. It enacts ritual bullying in order to create well-mannered monsters: men whose capacity for empathy has been hammered flat as a cricket pitch in summer.  Those who, like Fry and many, many others, are too sensitive, too queer, or too obstinate to endure the system, still come away with the principle that you do not speak about the terrible things that happened to you and to others, things you were powerless to prevent. And you definitely don’t indulge in self-pity. 

When Fry said those horrendous things about abuse this week, that’s what I thought of immediately: of those lattices of silence that have held together the institutions of cultural and social power for so many generations, especially in Britain. The way that Stephen Fry responded to deep personal trauma as a young man, the way he advises others to respond to it now, was in large part the way he had been taught. He survived by making a joke of it, by making a joke of everything, striving hard to get ahead through sheer talent, force of will and yes, immense privilege. It's a quintessentially British response. You don't get angry in public. You don’t feel sorry for yourself. You can ask the system to change, but politely. You change yourself, for the most part: you nurture and sharpen your rage and use it, if you're lucky, to cut your way through to a safer place.

By its very nature, that's not a strategy that works for everyone. But those are the emotions, the suspicion and self-defensiveness, that are so often at play when ageing liberals tell younger ones to shut up and stop whining. The unspoken sentiment is: after all, we had to. Coming from that sort of background, with that sort of history, there must be something terribly uncomfortable, something undignified about this new insistence on self-expression, on the voicing of trauma, on making space for rage, on demanding change with an urgency that is occasionally unmerciful. There must be something terribly threatening about it.

I'm not saying that this is the reason for every argument every recalcitrant liberal has put forward for shutting up young people in the name of free speech. I’m not handing you a free pass for acting out like this if you’re under forty. Not at all. 'Free Speech Under Attack' is the straw-man of the moment, and there’s a real and malicious refusal to listen at play, a deliberate twisting of rhetoric by so-called progressives to justify their outrage that progress did not end with them. I’ve written about this before; I’ll probably have to do so again. 

But the divide is also, sometimes, a cultural one, a generational one, and an emotional one, and I'm saying: I think I get that. It’s not always about being a contrarian bully. And perhaps, even as we justly condemn the impulse to shame and silence those who have suffered, a little empathy is not beyond us. It might even be instructive.

This is a perpetual struggle for progressive movements. How do we move forward, firmly but kindly, with the recalcitrance of older generations who have maintained their dignity through suffering in silence things that today's young people are simply not prepared to put up with? We might start by affording them what they are so slow to afford us in return: a little understanding.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game