Mercilessness is the ugliest human emotion
When most people hear that I’ve survived sexual assault multiple times in my life, the first thing that they tell me is how sorry they are that I’ve gone through it.
I have a lot of ambivalence about that. On the one hand, I’m grateful for the fact that people don’t think sexual assault is trivial, but on the other, I can’t help wondering if the same people who feel so sorry for me to my face reinforce the shame and stigma that made it so difficult for me to come to terms with what happened to me in the first place.
I’m here again, unsurprisingly, looking at the widely broadcast and completely un-stifled words of yet another wealthy white man complaining about how he is being silenced. Meanwhile, my mind goes back to an altercation I had with a journalist when I was 14 who insisted on writing about Pride like it was a public sex party with children watching. I knew then and I know now what it means to have the powerful platform of the media behind you.
Stephen Fry recently said the following about sexual abuse victims, uncensored:
“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… Self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity. Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself. The irony is, we’ll feel sorry for you if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Grow up.”
I wish that sentiments like Stephen Fry’s were few and far between, but unfortunately they are not. What most people have when they “feel sorry” about my abuse is actually a shallow expression of pity that has not once helped me. Because when I actually ask for respect instead, which is what I want, if it means me just expressing that I don’t like a television show because it has too many rape scenes, that shallow expression of pity collapses.
Coming from the US South where my first Pride was a small crowd huddled in a Virginia park, thick with the anticipation of an impending hate crime, the idea that a gay man such as Stephen Fry being mainstream and liked was inspiring to me. I looked up to Stephen Fry in a way that illustrates my own privilege as a white person who could see themselves in some media. But over time, I’ve instead found myself looking down and shaking my head.
Mr. Fry, I have never known a fellow survivor of sexual abuse who wants or needs pity. Your harsh and hateful words towards us survivors, not victims, illustrates that you feel sorry for no one but yourself. I personally don’t feel sorry for myself and don’t need anyone to feel sorry for me. What happened to me happened. I refuse to walk the line between “survivor” and “victim”. I refuse to hide what happened to me as if I have something to be ashamed of. And I refuse to believe that I can prove how “over it” I am by pretending it never happened and never giving someone the inconvenience of mentioning it.
I believe the words you’re searching for, Mr. Fry, is empathy and respect. I can’t speak for all sexual abuse survivors, but I do know that perhaps if I hadn’t lived in a country where 13 out of 14 rapists walk away free, where people are either blamed for their own assault or laughed at, or where I wasn’t told by family members that I shouldn’t talk about my assault because they don’t talk about theirs and it made them stronger as people… maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard to recover from what I went through.
Survivors do not need pity. And no survivor I’ve ever met pitied themselves. Asking for a trigger warning is not an act of self pity, it’s a plea for sanctuary. It is not a symptom of being unable to handle the world, but an attempt to create a space that is a little less crappy. And providing a trigger warning does not curtail any expression, it demonstrates compassion and understanding that we’re all different and that we lose nothing by showing each other kindness.
I disagree with you Mr. Fry. Mercilessness is the ugliest emotion in humanity. When we begin to see each other as less human, being cruel becomes second nature. And it’s mercilessness that has been the bedfellow of every bigotry in time. As someone who is supposedly doing work to help remove the stigma of mental illness, I don’t understand how you can support the idea that those asking for help are asking for something so trivial as pity.
The same people who chant “Get over it” with you to sexual abuse survivors, Mr. Fry, are the same people who would have spun around and told you to get over the depression that comes with being bipolar. It was my understanding that feeling alone, that not feeling able to address the problems mental illness gave you created more problems for you, not less. But maybe I was mistaken.
There is a hopelessness I feel when this ugly face of humanity rears up again, when we find some huge threat in showing a bit more compassion for each other, and when we pretend like days before technology connected us on such a massive scale are comparable to today. What is so scary about being more compassionate?
I honestly believe, and I’ve written about this specifically with regards to Stephen Fry before, that the culture we grow up in encourages and fosters in us that being “right” is what’s important instead of learning and growing. I see that same mercilessness on both sides of the fence. There are people who take far too much glee in calling folks out and times when the frustration in dealing with ignorance can make us forget to have compassion for those honestly willing to learn.
We are afraid of the embarrassment that is being wrong or messing up. So afraid that we’d rather shut anyone up who dares to ask us to change. We mock safe spaces because we don’t want to accept responsibility for having a hand in what can make the world unsafe.
What do we really have to lose by showing some compassion for one another? Maybe it’s a bit more work and it takes some self-reflection, but I believe it’s worth it. Mercilessness is a refuge for the lazy and the bigoted who may as well be one in the same.