Stephen Fry

A tower in Eden“It’s now very common to hear people saying ‘I’m rather offended by that’ as if that gives them certain rights – it’s simply a whine, it’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive’. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that’ – well so fucking what?” – Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival 2005, sourced here.

Lots of things offend me: hate speech offends me. It is a fairly new concept for me, hate speech: speech about a person or group which humiliates or derides or vilifies that group, with the intent that the group be treated as disgusting or as an enemy. Certain Rwandans referring to Tutsis as “Cockroaches” is an extreme example.

The “cockroaches” example is vile. Clearly “free speech” should not protect it. It is an incitement to violence. More subtle hate speech may smell wrong, but I might not be able to put my finger on exactly why. I have an emotional response to it. I say it is offensive.

If this quote is representative of his current view, Fry rejects the emotional response. He privileges people who are able to articulate an argument on why something is wrong over others who can only make the emotional response. I think the emotional response has value, because we can read human relationships and situations and react to them without engaging our verbal centres.

When someone calls my words “offensive” I want to look for the value in the communication, rather than dismiss it or privilege it. “Offence” is not a trump card, but sometimes a whine is the best I can do.

Also, while reasoned refutation of religious belief is absolutely acceptable though some find it offensive, some extreme speech deliberately to offend, such as gross insults of Mohammed, is wrong.

Mmm. What of the term “sky-fairy”? It is ridicule, it calls a belief stupid without saying why. It also expresses an emotional response of the atheist, willing to explain up to a point, but eventually driven to shout STFU. By then, we are simply offending each other. There is a place for reasoned dialogue, a place for shouting at each other, and sometimes you just have to go for a lie down.

Seeing that this was extempore speech, I love his articulacy, including the jewel-like exactitude of his use of the word “fucking”. The perfect word for that place.

Below is a Wordle of my last six weeks or so. Thanks to DC.


8 thoughts on “Stephen Fry

  1. It (the term sky-fairy) also expresses an emotional response of the atheist, willing to explain up to a point, but eventually driven to shout STFU.

    Umm, this connection makes no sense. Calling an invisible never-sleeping supervisory and judgmental father figure deity a ‘sky-fairy’ is a judicious use of vocabulary. Like many theists, you have confused criticisms of the belief-object with criticisms of the believer. The very typical response is for the theist to claim offense at such straight talk, which is then used to justify criticism against the means and methods of the shrill, arrogant, and militant atheist. This is what you have done here, presuming that the term really means STFU when used by an atheist. This substitution of meaning exists only in your mind and it, too, is imaginary. When an atheist mentions a sky fairy or sky daddy, he or she means the mostly hidden (except when it apparently plays peek-a-boo with us) deity the believer assumes without reasonable cause is real. That’s it.

    The STFU aspect of the conversation between theists and non theists trying to talk reasonably and rationally almost always comes from the theistic side whose members tend to be very comfortable painting any criticism of their gods (and the beliefs they attribute to them) as rude, offensive, causing trouble, promoting intolerance and hate, and reveals some kind of character flaw. And threatening this belief with reality to the contrary usually instigates the STFU response.


  2. Great post! I love the way Stephen Fry says things, even when I don’t agree with him. I think it’s so difficult to judge when something crosses the line to offense as it’s so subjective, and the context makes all the difference. I’ve never heard the term ‘sky-fairy’ although I think it’s rather lovely and a nice way to envisage a deity. If it causes offence, I would guess this is because it feminises the ‘serious’ male god that Christians believe in (the very concept of which offends me …)


    • Oh, yes. I use “God”, “Godself” rather than “He”, “Himself” etc, because my God transcends gender. Some God-perceptions need feminised. I was going to say “sky fairy” is offensive because it trivialises the rich, broad myth rather than because it denies the reality of God. Any God worth the name must be playful.


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