Stephen Fry Explains How to Deal with Bullying

Stephen Fry got sent off to a far­away board­ing school at the age of sev­en. His sub­se­quent years of stu­dent life far from home taught him, among oth­er things, a set of effec­tive strate­gies to deflect bul­ly­ing. (“I sup­pose it all began when I came out of the womb,” he once said when asked at what point he acknowl­edged his sex­u­al­i­ty, and that must have giv­en him plen­ty of time to con­sid­er what it was to stand out­side the main­stream.) The par­tic­u­lar line he rec­om­mends deliv­er­ing in the Q&A clip above (record­ed at The Oxford Union) may not be for every­one, but he also has a larg­er point to make, and he makes it with char­ac­ter­is­tic elo­quence. The eter­nal threat of bul­ly­ing, he says, is “why nature gave us, or enough of a per­cent­age of us, wit — or at least what might pass for it.”

Wit, which Fry pos­sess­es in a famous abun­dance, must sure­ly have car­ried him through a great many sit­u­a­tions both pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al. A mod­ern-day intel­lec­tu­al and aes­thet­ic heir to Oscar Wilde, Fry has the advan­tage of hav­ing lived in a time and place with­out being sub­ject to the kind of pun­ish­ment vis­it­ed on the author of “The Bal­lad of Read­ing Gaol.” But that does­n’t mean he’s had an easy time of it. He cites an “ancient metaphor” he’s kept in mind: “No mat­ter how dark it is, the small­est light is vis­i­ble; no mat­ter how light it is, a bit of dark is noth­ing.” The chal­lenges he’s faced in life — none of them a mil­lion miles, pre­sum­ably, from the kind endured by those seen to be dif­fer­ent in oth­er ways — have sent him to the wells of his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and even mythol­o­gy. 

“We have to return to Niet­zsche,” Fry says, and specif­i­cal­ly The Birth of Tragedy. “He argued that tragedy was born out of ancient Greece, out of a spir­it that the Athe­ni­ans had as they grew up as a spe­cial tribe that some­how man­aged to com­bine two qual­i­ties of their twelve Olympic deities.” Some of these qual­i­ties were embod­ied in Athena, god­dess of wis­dom, and Apol­lo, god of har­mo­ny, music, math­e­mat­ics, and rhetoric. But then we have Diony­sius, “god of wine and fes­ti­val and riot. Absolute riot.” Tragedies, accord­ing to Niet­zsche, “look at the fact that all of us are torn in two,” with part of us inclined toward Athen­ian and Apol­lon­ian pur­suits, where anoth­er part of us “wants to wrench our clothes off, dive into the grapes, and make slurp­ing, hor­ri­ble nois­es of love and dis­cord.”

This all comes down to the thor­ough­ly mod­ern myth that is Star Trek. On the Enter­prise we have Mr. Spock, who embod­ies “rea­son, log­ic, cal­cu­la­tion, sci­ence, and an absolute inabil­i­ty to feel”; we have Bones, “all gut reac­tion”; and “in the mid­dle, try­ing to be a per­fect mix of the two of them,” we have Cap­tain Kirk, “who want­ed the human­i­ty of Bones, but some of the rea­son­ing judg­ment of Spock.” The Enter­prise, in a word, is us: “Each one of us, if we exam­ine our­selves, knows there is an inner beast who is capa­ble of almost any­thing — in mind, at least — and there is an inner monk, an inner har­mo­nious fig­ure.” Each side keeps get­ting the bet­ter of the oth­er, turn­ing even the bul­lied into bul­lies on occa­sion. The best you can do, in Fry’s view, is to “go forth, be mad, be utter­ly proud of who you are — what­ev­er you are — and for God’s sake, try every­thing.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

Stephen Fry on Cop­ing with Depres­sion: It’s Rain­ing, But the Sun Will Come Out Again

Stephen Fry on the Pow­er of Words in Nazi Ger­many: How Dehu­man­iz­ing Lan­guage Laid the Foun­da­tion for Geno­cide

How Blondie’s Deb­bie Har­ry Learned to Deal With Super­fi­cial, Demean­ing Inter­view­ers

PBS Short Video “Bad Behav­ior Online” Takes on the Phe­nom­e­non of Cyber­bul­ly­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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