Stephen Fry Aptly Sums Up The Problem Of Every “Clever” Person in the World

Whether they are genuinely clever or not:

If a joke or a neat phrase or an apparently convincing rhetorical trope or apt simile occur to me they will emerge from my mouth without passing Think.

Yes. That.

From here, in which Mr. Fry suffers the consequences of just such an act, and ends up apologizing (and apologizing well, it should be noted, which is harder than it would seem).

60 thoughts on “Stephen Fry Aptly Sums Up The Problem Of Every “Clever” Person in the World

  1. I concur that the apology was well written. But, I think that was as it should be. Given the quote he referenced, he very much owed an apology.

    And, yeah, I could see how this is a problem for the clever sort. When people are comfortable with a persons ability to frequently string words together meaningfully with deliberate intent these sorts of one liners that slip pass the think station on the way out have a stronger impact. But I do think everyone tends to have this ability to unintentionally wildly fail. Which is why the art of apology is important. Which is something I recognize, if generally wildly fail at.

    He offered an unfettered, truthful, eloquently worded apology taking responsibility for his actions. This was his duty, given the offense.

    I think somewhere along the line we’ve seen one too many public apologies from people (namely politicians) that weren’t really apologies for anything at all. These have set the bar at woefully low levels regarding the fine art apologizing.

    As far as his comments on Twitter, I certainly hope 15 word statements do not become the great equalizer wielded by the newly defined ‘fifth’ estate. Twitter is a great place for for us y2k-ers to go get our mst3k snark on. I don’t mean this to hate on Twitter, I just think there’s something to keeping this sort of medium in perspective.

  2. I agree with you that Fry brought the class. As for sympathy for Jan Moir — screw it. (I don’t want to stink up the Whatever, or drive eyeballs to The Daily Mail and its advertisers, by posting a link.)

    We all say damn stupid things that we regret when the brain gets back from vacation. But Ms. Moir and the gutter tabloid she writes for has so much form when it comes to that kind of malicious, crass and ignorant fag-bashing that I’ve got no sympathy to waste in that direction.

    It would also help if Moir and the Mail’s reaction had shown one percent of Fry’s insight and sincere regret. Instead, Moir was all over the British media complaining that she’d been the victim of an orchestrated campaign by “homosexual activists” to smear her.

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice (and the rest), shame on me.

  3. Fry’s unthinking one-off in the heat of a verbal interview and Moir’s pre-planned, typed, reviewed, presumably edited, and published load of stinking offal are only similar in that they were both offensive. But the degree to which that offense sinks and the proportional need for apology are in no way the same. The measures of offense are not the same because of the nature of the beast: Fry spoke without thinking. That isn’t an excuse and an apology was most certainly owed, which he delivered with grace and humility. Moir had many opportunities to think before spilling that bucket of slop over the pages of the Daily Mail, and she was confident enough in her piece to let it go. In essence: she meant what she said. Also, epic fail in the word department is usually mitigated by character, both past and future. Mr. Fry is not guilty of repeated failures and will surely continue to show his good character in the future. While Ms. Moir writes for the Daily Mail. ‘Nuff said.

  4. I often think that the internet is the world we all imagined where you get actually get to use that snappy comeback that you didn’t think of fast enough in a face-to-face situation. I am sure we all thought that would be a better world (those of us that are old enough to remember Before The Internet), but it turns out it’s really not. It gives people just enough extra time to be witty or cutting or devastating, but not enough to achieve meaningful communication.

  5. I cannot count the times my “clever” mouth has gotten me into hot water. People wonder why I’m so quiet in mixed company. If you don’t say anything, there’s no chance of you saying anything you have to apologize for later.

    Mr. Fry ended up on the business end of Godwin’s law, and regrets it. I can empathize with that.

  6. There is one thing that I greatly appreciate about Fry’s apology, a rarity in such a long essay that contains one: he does not quietly undo his apology in the following pages.

    Far too often public figures realize that they can give the “apology” in a short sound bite, and then spend the rest of their speech explaining (either subtly or straightforwardly) that they should not in fact have to apologize and were right all along — indeed, the apology itself was only the result of immoral pressure being brought to bear against them by their enemies as well as being evidence of their own personal grace and perfection.

    While everyone would no doubt wish that he had had no cause to apologize in the first place, I must appreciate the fact that by the time his piece was said, the apology remained intact.

  7. I think his apology is very nice, but having it in the middle of a post about a bunch of other stuff detracts from it. But I’m not in his apology target demographic, and the Polish comments seem appreciative, so I guess I’m wrong.

  8. Before clicking on the URL you provided, I wasn’t aware of Stephen Fry. (Okay, so I was born in 1928 and haven’t been excellent about Keeping Up With the Modern World.) What impresses me about his apology is that it’s both a good apology and a perceptive and honest analysis of the problems faced by clever people (moreso nowadays than a few decades ago).

    Equally impressive was the way you recognized that in constructing your heading for this piece.

  9. Stephen Fry’s got some wonderful articles. He had one about fame that was my first exposure to his writing. Everytime I read him, I’m impressed.

    As far as twitter as the fifth column, hoo boy.

    On an unrelated note, but becaue there is no real “open thread” type thingy on Whatever, Craig Ranapia, could you email me offline at: email at greglondon dot com?

  10. Having had occasion to apologize for my own smart mouth getting me into trouble, I recognize that the best apology is often, “That was stupid and insensitive of me, and I apologize,” then leave by nearest exit before you can say anything else.

    Fry’s apology being part of a five-and-a-skosh-page blog entry doesn’t mitigate the fact that the apology proper was, in essence, exactly this. He explained what happened, he apologized for it, and then he used the experience as a springboard for a larger discussion. That’s what essayists DO. I have no problem with the way he approached matters.

  11. I’m a bit surprised (perhaps naively) at the furor a British comedian’s off-the-cuff comment about Poland and Auschwitz provoked. After all, it’s far from being a new argument or assertion that Polish attitudes to Jews made their country a more viable site for Nazi Germany’s biggest death camp than certain other occupied countries might have been. Whether or not that view is accurate or fair (and I personally don’t think where the biggest death camp was located was is nearly as relevant as reams and reams of other information about the Holocaust), it has been written about and asserted for years, usually by sources far more serious than Fry and with arguments far more detailed than anything Fry said. Is it that Fry, as a celebrity, has been heard more loudly than those more relevant sources? Or is it that an off-the-cuff one-liner remark is easier to rail against than a 10,000-word written argument?

  12. Sorry guys, The Daily Hate is not a gutter tabloid. It isn’t even a tabloid. It is the house organ of the ageing element of the British population who still believe Thatcher is the solution to everything and hell begins at Dover. Moir was preaching to her choir. Fry – a very clever man, very, very clever – was preaching to his.

  13. The decay of the apology is part of a general decay in a sense of responsibility to others. This isn’t a pattern of evil degradation; rather, it’s the natural result of having to deal with more and more people who aren’t in your tribe.

    For public figures in particular, a lot of the apologies they should be offering aren’t going out to anything they can connect to as people — they’re addressed to nations, to demographics, to audiences.

    Can you imagine how differently the government would have behaved if Bush or ol’ Brownie had spent a week helping a family and getting to know them as flesh-and-blood individuals?

    It’s not easy to avoid dividing the world into tribe and other. Yeah, there are some rotten people out there — but you can only recognize them individually. There is no group that’s composed purely of people who do not deserve respect.

    I find Mr. Fry’s willingness to take responsibility for his actions admirable. (His larger statement on his experiences with Twitter are quite interesting as well.) His distinction between the political group he opposed and the people he offended is appropriate and humane.

  14. Laura @16 I personally am pleased that Fry realized he was wrong and did not fall back on the idea that there was some half baked justification for his remark. A lot of people have said stupid things in great detail and at great length. That doesn’t mean that when a celebrity says something similar 20 years later it isn’t news or worth comment.

  15. So much of life now, though–particularly for anyone in the public eye–has become about apologizing, or being EXPECTED to apologize, on the basis of: A bunch of total strangers are piling crap on my name for whatever reason.

    This is indeed different than apologizing because your behavior has fallen below your own standards, or because you’ve in hurt, offended, or let down someone whom you genuinely do not want to hurt, offend, or let down.

    LauraR

  16. Laura Resnick:

    I do think in the case of Stephen Fry, however, that he judged it was appropriate for him to apologize, rather than feeling the pressure from others to do so.

    In a larger sense, pro forma apologies never really work; people resent giving them, and people resent getting them, and no one’s happy either way. I do agree that one should only apologize if one is, in fact, apologetic.

  17. Laura @ 21 -

    I think there aren’t too many cases of this happening outside the examples of public figures. I can’t really think of a situation where in a private personal environment life has gotten to the point where it’s all about bein expected to apologize for whatever your personal friends tell you to.

    For public figures, I heartily agree that there needs to be someone willing to step back and nit demand An apology from someone that simply disagrees. Or step forward, like Grayson from Florida did on the floor of the house and say not only will I not apologize for speaking the truth…

    That said, when you are a public figure in a public venue and you say something inappropriate or offensive or crass, it’s worth apologizing. I think this isn’t entirely applicable to political campaign dialogue. But, I do think Frys example falls squarely in the apology camp.

    And, as he notes, he shouldn’t have let the imp of the perverse talk him out of doing so immediately or shortly after. When you find youself saying “it’s all those other people (like the population of Poland) who are assholes for being offended. Not me, I’m just speaking irrelevant truth to nonpower”… Maybe it’s time to be an adult and apologize appropriately.

    I would say if people are calling for an apology, it’s best for the person to either apologize sincerely or to explain why the person will not apologize. Blasting rude communiques into public and leaving them to fester is just not cricket.

  18. John, I agree, Fry does seem genuinely abashed at his own off-hand remark, and I’m not arguing with his impulse to apologize. I was commenting on someone’s comment about the decline of the apology in our culture. I think a lot of famous apologies in the 24/7 news cycle have made apologizing look increasingly cynical, calculated, and unprincipled, instead of like the stand-up thing to do when you’ve messed up.

    LauraR

  19. This is why I hate debate. I ALWAYS end up saying something stupid. I’ve got no problem with being offensive. Some people need offending. My problem is that I usually offend the wrong people.

  20. Just to add some historical context to the background of this subject: Poland, unlike France and most other occupied countries, did not have a Quisling government; the Germans took over its territory and declared it a new part of Germany. This made it much easier (and much more private) for them to do whatever they wanted in Poland because they did not even have to do a song and dance number with a rubber-stamp foreign government to achieve their ends.

  21. Laura @ 26, I think it’s not the apology that has declined but our willingness to accept something that isn’t really an apology as one that has increased. The art of the non-apology is near it’s apex at this point I believe.

  22. I think more accurately, cynical calculated attempts to respond to criticisms have become so common that many people have somehow gotten the impression that I’m sorry is French for stick it up your ass.

  23. Laura@26:
    I think a lot of famous apologies in the 24/7 news cycle have made apologizing look increasingly cynical, calculated, and unprincipled, instead of like the stand-up thing to do when you’ve messed up.

    Indeed — especially when these non-apologetic “apologies” are almost inevitably couched in what I call the Passive-Aggressive voice: “I regret any offense caused.” Of course you bloody do, but that’s not the problem. How about taking direct, unspun ownership for your own conduct?

  24. My personal favorite is the “I’m sorry you’re being so unreasonable about this” non-apology.

    Followed closely by the “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology.

    LauraR

  25. Craig – my favorite, “I’m sorry there were people offended…”

    yes, I suppose this imaginary person must think it just terrible that ‘those’ people exist. It’s definitely rude to express regret over someones existance.

  26. Laura @32:
    Followed closely by the “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology.

    Oh, that one never fails to get under my skin. I frequently would rather they just tell me, “You’re an over-sensitive whiner and I wish I hadn’t given you an excuse to complain.” At least that would be an honest opinion!

  27. John Murphy @ 34 -

    exactly.

    Although I’d always translated that one as “I’m sorry you’re too stupid to understand why I’m right and you’re wrong.”

  28. Mr Fry is a true gentleman. A really horrifying mistake, and a graceful, meaningful apology. It’s good to see.

    Thanks, JS, for posting this.

  29. Or in Moir’s case (or more precisely, the PR firm hired by The Daily Mail to issue press releases on her behalf): “I’m really sorry an orcestrated campaign of Stephen Fry’s brainless Twitter-bots, homosexual activists and PC fools are trying to crush my free speech. Because I’m the victim here, not the dead man I trashed as some drug-addled, sex pervert whose “sleazy” death is being covered up by a vast conspiracy of silence.”

    Whatever happened to the idea that you at least wait until after the funeral before you piss on someone’s grave?

  30. John Murphy@34:

    Heh… Reminds me of a withering bitch-slap Michael Kinsley handed down to then-Vice President Bush back in the 80′s: “He’s nice enough not to want to be associated with an ugly remark, but not nice enough not to make it in the first place. Lacking the courage of your nastiness does not make you nice.”

  31. What’s telling about Fry’s comment is that he subconsciously thinks of his opponents as Nazis.

    What’s equally telling is that he seems to genuinely regret it, not just the comment but the mentality that led to it.

    It would be disappointing if all Godwin’s Law managed was a little self-censorship. If people actually stop believing that anyone who disagrees with them is a racist or Nazi or Fascist or whatever then Mike Godwin will be one of those rare individuals to have made the world a better place.

    The Jan Moir bit was gross. She obviously had nothing on the guy but tried to create something to sell papers. Disrespecting the dead for profit pretty well scrapes bottom.

  32. DT, what, don’t you know that every gay man is a drug-crazed slut who dies in ignominy, never a nice guy on vacation with his spouse of many years who happens to tragically and inexplicably die?

    (Just to be clear, it’s Moir, not you, I’m accusing of thinking that.)

    I think British journalists, especially the conservatives, should never say anything about anyone that they wouldn’t say about the Queen. (Yeah, I’m anti-monarchist, how could you tell?)

    I’ve never taken ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ as attempting even to masquerade as an apology. To me it’s an ‘I’m sorry’ as in ‘I feel bad’ not as in ‘I apologize’. When I say “I’m sorry for your loss” to someone whose loved one has just died, I’m not apologizing. I think ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ means “it saddens me that we’re so far apart on this that there’s no hope of reconciliation” and often “well, I guess our friendship is over then.”

    It’s not an apology, but I don’t see it as a fake apology either, any more than ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is.

  33. Xopher:

    The thing is Gaitley’s death wasn’t “inexplicable” at all — young, otherwise healthy men (regardless of their sexual orientation) do die of congential heart conditions. Every damn week of the year. (Charlie Brooker brilliantly and furiously fisks Moir’s dubious medical expertise at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/oct/16/stephen-gately-jan-moir)

    But Moir — that internationally renown psychic forensic pathologist — knows better. He’s a queer, therefore there must be something “sleazy” about his death. Because she says so — and Gaitley’s own mother and the coronor who conducted the examination of his body MUST be lying to advance the homosexual agenda.

    I think a line from Tom Stoppard is relevant here: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but nobody is entitled to their own facts.”

  34. Well, yes, on that tangent, now that I’ve read some of the articles, I’m puzzled by Moir’s venom on Gately’s death.

    He seems to have died of natural causes in his sleep while on vacation with his civil partner in every version of the event–except for Moir’s; in her version, and so far supported by nothing but her own vague riffing, he seems to have died in the middle of a drug-filled, booze-fueled, well-attended sex orgy.

  35. And, yes, indeed, seeming healthy young people die of natural causes all the time. I worked with someone whose 30-ish husband keeled over dead without warning one day; and I have a close friend whose 35 year old fiance keeled over dead with warning one day. I think we all know people to whom this has happened; and some of us here, alas, have probably lost loved ones this way.

  36. the coronor who conducted the examination of his body MUST be lying to advance the homosexual agenda

    And don’t forget the doctor who presumably gave a cause of death and signed a death certificate. I have a suspicion that if I implied Moir lied on an official document, I’d be served with a defamation writ by the end of the working day.

  37. I hadn’t gotten those details, Craig. I was still back at the “he just died, WTF” stage.

    So, Moir is an eviller jackhole than I thought. I hope she never works again (though I’m sure she’ll actually get a raise).

  38. Well, yes, on that tangent, now that I’ve read some of the articles, I’m puzzled by Moir’s venom on Gately’s death.

    Why? That’s just how the Daily Mail rolls. I remember seeing a documentary about Nigel Hawthorne, and eventually it came to his Oscar nomination for The Madness of King George (wonderful film of an equally good play, BTW) and the tabloids responding with a remarkably spiteful ‘outing’ of a man who was never closeted but valued his privacy just before the ceremony. (The headline in the Mail was “The madness of Queen Nigel”.)

    Cut to Helen Mirren, who was his co-star. She was incandescent with rage, but visibly trying to choke back her tears, and said: “The shits took what should have been the best day in Nigel’s life and shat all over it. This lovely, kind man who never did anyone any harm.”

    Reason number One Million and One why I love this woman. :)

  39. Craig Ranapia@41: I think a line from Tom Stoppard is relevant here: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but nobody is entitled to their own facts.”

    heh. nice one.

    Oh, and Craig, could you email me offline?

  40. Stephen Fry’s apology is good and I like his analysis of the circumstances leading up to there being a need for the apology. However, I agree that he could have made that two different blog entries.

  41. “(Just to be clear, it’s Moir, not you, I’m accusing of thinking that.)”
    I got that, but thanks for being considerate.

    I went way off-topic and inconvenienced our host. I apologize and promise to do better this time.

    Try to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s making an argument in good faith. If nothing about that argument makes sense from that perspective, only then should you go on to question the integrity of your opponent.

    Someone using Alinsky’s rules for debate is easy to spot, and the “never admit defeat” part in particular can lead to repeated doubling down on a really lousy or in Mr. Fry’s case horrific argument.

    The only reason I’m not like that is probably because I have no home in any one party or ideology. If I did I would probably put a thumb on the scales for the home team and the thoughtfulness of what I had to say would no doubt decline.

    I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else, I just think I’m able to see something others can’t because I’m on the outside looking in. The Manichean Alinsky mentality doesn’t just lead you to tactically demonize those you disagree with — it leads you to believe it. Were I to go down that road I would end up hating everybody.

    If destroying your ideological enemies is more important to you than being a well-reasoned intellectual you’ll find yourself surrounded by like-minded people and alienated from anyone else. I would like to think that even if there were some ideological movement out there that matched my thinking perfectly I wouldn’t want to live that way nor surround myself with people who do.

    Mr. Fry sounds like someone who might have moved in my direction, and I hope others follow his example.

  42. [Deleted. What part of "take it somewhere else" are you not understanding, Dominic? Congratulations, you're now in the moderation queue -- JS]

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