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?