Humor and Seriousness

Katherine Boyle is a partner at the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and she is a thoughtful writer on many topics.  See her post The Case for American Seriousness at Bari Weiss’s substack; also, her posts at her own substack, The Rambler, especially those concerning family, parenting, and technology.

In an interview, she said “The biggest criticism I got from the (American Seriousness) piece, and other times I’ve written about seriousness, is that it doesn’t leave room for frivolity, play or the unseriousness that makes us deeply human. And I empathize with that sentiment, but I don’t think the opposite of seriousness is humor: the opposite of seriousness is irony.”

I agree absolutely that there is no inconsistency between seriousness and humor…quite the contrary, I would say.  Concerning Irony, I’m reminded of something C S Lewis wrote.  The following is from The Screwtape Letters, a book of advice from a senior devil to his protege about how to do the maximum harm to humans:

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 that inherent it 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.

Irony, I think, is closely related to the Flippancy about which Lewis’s devil wrote.  Also related to irony is Sarcasm, concerning which Field Marshal Lord Wavell offered 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.

Wavell defined Sarcasm as “being clever at someone else’s expense.”  In his view, sarcasm always offends, and a general (or, presumably, any other officer or individual in a position of authority) should never indulge in it.

I think that in many organizations in America today–perhaps, even, most organizations of any size–fear of Cancellation has reached the point at which easy interaction among people–which includes a certain amount of humor–has been replaced with a kind of fragile pseudo-formality.  This is not good for either innovation or productivity, not to mention its toxic impact on individual lives.

What are your thoughts on humor, seriousness, irony, and sarcasm?


18 thoughts on “Humor and Seriousness”

  1. I’ve always been sarcastic or, as an older colleague once described it, sardonic. And cynical, too, which probably preceded my sarcasm. The primary thing I can say about sarcasm is that it doesn’t work very well on the internet – particularly comment sections.

    My favorite humor is absurdity – the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Mel Brooks.

    But humor is like pizza toppings – people like all kinds and sometimes it’s hard to figure out why.

  2. I may be working from a bit of a different definition but Lewis’s Flippancy would not be my synonym for Irony, however I think it is absolutely what Ms Boyle is labeling as Irony. I would probably tag Sardonic or Cynicism as a more modern word, being the pose that one sees through the surface appearance that causes other people to think of things as being critical or essential to an ultimate triviality and meaninglessness, or alternatively that they are being affected by a giant misdirection that you are uniquely able to discern. A sort of philosophical gnosticism that makes other people objects of derision but is only funny if one is already in on the Joke, and would seem to make it impossible to see the world as Real, and not just an illusion.

    I like to claim liberalism results from an irony deficiency, an inability to see that you are making arguments you would reject if they came from your opponents. I remember seeing some pompously serious announcement from a religious organization on the day of the Dobbs decision announcement, solemnly intoning about the evils of people who would impose their values on others and thinking, do you even stop to consider what Roe did before posting that?

  3. Missing from the line-up? Wit. An emergent property of intelligence. Wit doesn’t have to wound, though it can and often does.

    As a boss and as a teacher, I was very wary of snarking down. Not all my colleagues were, sad to say.

    Some of my left-lib friends insist that Hunter’s activities, even if egregiously venal and corrupt, have no connection to and no bearing on his father, and they would feel the same if it was one of Trump’s kids.

    I’m not sure they know they’re lying–that would take some ironic distancing from themselves that they don’t exhibit.

  4. I think in her use of “serious” the opposite is insignificant, or maybe better trivial, not either humor or irony.

    What’s Mark Twain? Flippant? Sarcastic? Whatever he is is far more American than any commentator today. That’s what we need. The concept of looking at the scum in DC, raising your eyebrow at your neighbor, and you both turning away, leaving the scum to themselves, not to start shouting and yelling and wasting all your energy thinking about them.

    I’m sure some Chestertonian could bring some appropriate quip to bear, something about how the most weighty matters should be decided by children, because they’re far more serious than adults, or something. Of course his line about how tragic it is that so few politicians are hanged comes to mind a lot lately, but that’s a somewhat different topic.

  5. It reminds me a bit of the people who sell high end stereo. They have developed what I call ‘apocalyptic verbiage’, to sell their very expensive pieces of sculpture, to rich people who really don’t understand what is going on.

    I tend to trust people who use short words and understatement myself.

  6. Wit to me is an aspect of humor, but it is focused, often reactive and spontaneous where humor is generalized. To my mind the best aphorisms are both humorous and witty.

    I crave laughter, but to me the best laughs come from something unexpected in a real context; good joke set-ups and punchlines are nothing to be sneezed at, but anyone can learn jokes–wit is different. IMHO.

  7. Cousin Eddie…I suspect that when women say that are attracted to men with a sense of humor, it’s Wit in that sense that they mean, rather than memorized jokes…Wit reflecting an ability both the think quickly and to sense/understand context.

  8. Lack of humor and relentless seriousness are hallmarks of people and sites I prefer to avoid.
    One site I used to visit and post comments on was once full of quips and bon mots. They still covered serious issues with serious thought, but I think the ability to laugh helped keep some things in perspective. Then the election cycle started up, and it was like they decided to outdo the Karens on being serious and humorless. Left, and haven’t been back since.
    ‘Apocalyptic verbiage’ – I’m reminded of something posted elsewhere, where a PC sales clerk was trying to wow the potential customers by rattling off lots of PC tech-speak. Until one person in the crowd asked if the PC was LRF equipped. Can you say deer-in-the-headlight look. The questioner checked the bottom of the case and said that it did have….Little Rubber Feet.

  9. St. Lawrence, while being roasted alive on a gridiron, asked his torturers to turn him over because he was “done” on that side.

    It seems as though a lot of humorlessness comes from treating transient things as ultimate. “My pain is sacred; don’t you dare joke about me.” You can’t joke about President N or N-1 because … lese majeste. Or blasphemy–your god is what you hold most sacred, and it’s easy to find people whose real god is the Party.

    To cite Lewis again: “No people find each other more absurd than lovers”

  10. Thanks, David – this does make one think.

    Sophomoric humor is often like a bumper sticker – it seems to say something but doesn’t really say much and distracts from the real discussion, problem, whatever, On the other hand, humor is often helpful because it is a way out of a boxed way of thinking and looking from another angle. I’ve always thought that Mr. Bennet’s humor in Pride and Prejudice wasn’t the greatest angle on a ditsy wife and five daughters – it distanced him, but he wasn’t really giving them guidelines (which would work with a different tone but just as much humor). I suspect few roles require more of a sense of humor than being a good father.

    Of course, it was also a bit of too much head and not enough heart; the daughter that understood him best liked that humor but her own became richer as she became wiser. .

    One of my more lousy relationships ended because we both had barriers up (I think if we’d really talked it out we’d have found out sooner it wasn’t going to work, I’m not saying it should have): I’d respond to most of his cheerful plans with “that’s so nice for you” which, looking back, diminished him and his thoughts. On the other hand, I became furious when he’d make a pun from my intense expressions of either feeling or thought. It clearly indicated he wasn’t listening to what I saw as depths by dealing only with the words that were earnestly trying to express them – of course, I was young and had remarkably little self-consciousness and lacked sufficient humor.. This is off subject.

    I suspect the devil may be equally delighted by those who poke saracastic fun and those who are rigidly humorless – neither gets us to an appreciation of our fellows, but humor can also help us accept others’ complexity and flaws.

  11. Arrogant humor laughs at others, both to belittle the others and to make yourself feel smug and superior.
    A more humble humor laughs with others, knowing that you are as prone to failure as anyone else. Self-deprecating humor falls in this category.
    One humor wounds, separates, and divides; one draws people closer together.

  12. Self-deprecating humor is a two-edged sword. Use it more than a little and you look weak.

    The boundary between sarcasm and meanness is subtle and easily crossed.

    In-group humor, which relies for effect on a shared negative belief about a political/religious/ethnic/racial out-group, generally isn’t funny. However, it’s main purpose is to affirm the joke-teller’s and the audience’s allegiance to the in-group.

    Humorlessness is OK when tempered by kindness.

    Slapsticky physical humor can be sublime. Who didn’t laugh at this. ..

  13. Humor has to have some edge to it, but sometimes we go over the edge. The night I died on stage, I did it to myself- with a routine about suicide. From 1996:

    I’m gonna get real sick here– bear with me.

    I hear that Jack Kevorkian “attended” the suicide, by carbon
    monoxide, of a woman named Cohen from Skokie, Illinois.

    Oh my god, fifty years after WW2 and they’re still gassing Jews!

    The Ku Klux Klan will probably give him an honorary membership
    for that stunt.

    Redundant though– there’s already three K’s in Jack Kevorkian.

    At least a white hood would improve the ugly old fart’s looks!

    But with his hobby, it oughta be a BLACK hood.

    If I was as ugly as Kevorkian, *I’d* be suicidal.

    Or I’d wanta kill people.

    The newspapers always say he “attended” a suicide. Is this like
    “attending” a concert?

    Ya know the old antiwar slogan- “What if they held a war and nobody

    Well, what if they held a suicide, and nobody went?

    He stopped doing it in motel rooms ’cause he always stayed past
    checkout time…

  14. A weak person will use self-deprecating humor in an attempt to preemptively deflect attacks, but it ends up just identifying him/her as an easy target for the bullies.
    A strong person using it makes those around him/her feel more at ease, as it shows the awareness that ‘I too, am only mortal’….someone you can hang out with with no worry of elitist ego attacks.

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