Back in September, I mentioned some articles describing efforts to give artificial intelligence systems something resembling a simulated sense of humor. “Interesting research, perhaps,” I wrote at the time, “but at this juncture I’m less concerned above providing a sense of humor for AI systems than maintaining a sense of humor for human beings.”
Comes now Claire Lehmann, tweeting: “In clinical psychology you learn that the loss of a sense of humour can indicate deterioration in mental health.” I’d assert that this is probably also true of entire organizations and entire societies.
While people in general are increasingly too afraid to engage in real, lighthearted humor, there is a kind of faux-humor that is toxically thriving.
In The Screwtape Letters, C S Lewis’s devil responds to a letter from his protege, in which the latter refers to his “patients” as “great laughers,” which the younger devil sees as a good sign for his project to lead them into damnation. Maybe yes, maybe no, replies Screwtape; it depends on what kind of humor the patients are engaging in. He goes through a categorization of types, and says:
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.
Flippancy is closely related to sarcasm and snark. Field Marshal Lord Wavell had some thoughts:
Explosions of temper do not necessarily ruin a general’s reputation or influence with his troops; it is almost expected of them (“the privileged irascibility of senior officers,” someone has written), and it is not always resented, sometimes even admired, except by those immediately concerned. But sarcasm is always resented and seldom forgiven. (emphasis added) In the Peninsula the bitter sarcastic tongue of Craufurd, the brilliant but erratic leader of the Light Division, was much more wounding and feared than the more violent outbursts of Picton, a rough, hot-tempered man.
A few pages later (in his little book The Art of Generalship), Wavell again addresses the topic of sarcasm:
He (the general) should never indulge in sarcasm, which is being clever at someone else’s expense, and always offends.
At the same time humor is being suppressed among people in general, late-night comedians and other media types are heavily engaging in sarcasm/snark, with socially-toxic results that would have been no surprise to Lord Wavell.
Also, some thoughts on the damage done by snideness in advertising.