During the Bafta ceremony on Sunday evening, Stephen Fry made an acerbic comment about the dress sense of one of the award winners. He referred to Jenny Beavan’s appearance as being that of a “bag lady” – a remark made all the more cutting since she happens to be a quite brilliant costume designer of some considerable renown. “Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to an awards ceremony dressed as a bag lady,” he quipped, extempore, as only the best of them can.
Cue Twitter onslaught. “Misogynist swine..”; “..your comment about Jenny Beavan was disgusting!”; “My opinion of @stephenfry just went right down after such rudeness”; “a really unkind, uncalled for comment.. Disappointing”, etc., etc.
Fry responded with characteristic candour: “Will all you sanctimonious f***ers f*** the f*** off Jenny Beavan is a friend and joshing is legitimate. Christ I want to leave the planet.”
He has not (so far as we are aware) left the planet, but he did subsequently delete his Twitter account. In a humourless world of censored imagination, where every joke offends and amicable repartee incites outrage, even the comic actor must guard against being comical. It’s a point that’s been made time and again by Rowan Atkinson. The Age of Enlightenment has morphed into the Era of Censoriousness, in which everything that might be perceived as a cause of harassment, alarm or distress must be expunged by the brooding cyber-mob on behalf of the supposedly harassed, alarmed and distressed, even if they are not so. Vicarious fretting on Twitter is such a wonderfully smug way to signal one’s social-self-righteousness. Poor bag lady: what a complete and utter bastard that Stephen Fry is.
He explained his departure:
His decision to quit Twitter (again) has yielded some harsh criticism, abuse, mockery and gloating. It’s not all unreasonable: Stephen Fry wasn’t averse himself to whipping up his Twitter hordes when someone or something offended against his (occasionally hyper-) sensibilities. He who lives by Twitter will die by Twitter, you might say. No matter how reasonable and intelligent one tried to be in challenging some of his beguiling obsessions and mono-manias, his Twitter devotees and disciples would invariably descend in “a tsunami of derision and displeasure“, and he did nothing to intervene.
But Stephen Fry suffers from depression. And he suffers badly. It’s not just the occasional bout of black dog, but weeks and sometimes months of bipolar purgatory. Walk with him through The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, and then spout your unfeeling judgments about his depthless charisma and thin skin.
Some people despise him for his celebrity, his wealth, his husband, or perhaps (more accurately) they resent his polymathic mind and scintillating wit. And some Christians see in the final sentence of his vindicatory valediction a gratuitous swipe at Evangelicals. It may rather be a reasoned polarity, but it isn’t important; really, it isn’t. Whatever you think of Stephen Fry, his celebrity, wealth, husband, mind or wit, he has been and is an undoubted ally in the culture war against invidious censorship, intimidation and coercive political illiberalism.
It isn’t only our elected politicians bartering away our sovereignty, liberty and sacred birthright in Brussels: we ourselves, in the way we use social media, are destroying the foundational freedoms of liberal democracy. A technocratic, managerial, orthodox way of thinking is being inculcated as a pious expression of social justice. All injustice and inequality will only be eradicated when we can control every utterance, or bludgeon dissenting wits into oblivion. This is the new consensus: social-media emotion as the primary tool of honing social stability.
The infantile Twitter horde will ultimately drive out all foundational reason because its conception of humanity is embittered by its own social impotence and intellectual inadequacy. When, today, a manic depressive can’t innocently quip about a friend’s dress sense without being damned to destruction, then tomorrow, be assured, our societal coercion will reach its fulfilment in a dogmatic and uniform conception of spiritual normality.