Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ill Humor

I've a piece on C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters that I should have up soon. It's a fascinating book, if fundamentally mistaken in its theology. Before tackling that, I would like to bring attention to one of its most astute oservations, concerning sarcasm. It's not referred to as such, but the definition is unmistakable:

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 [God] 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 practise it.

Perhaps the most annoying and pernicious quality of sarcasm/flippancy is how disingenuous it is. Discussion operates on the assumed good faith of both parties, that they mean what they say and their words can be taken at face value. When someone employs sarcasm for any great length of time it calls into question what it is he is actually trying to say. It's obvious what he isn't saying, but a single negative can imply any number of positives. This conveniently allows the sarcastic to disavow responsibility for his words, an act Rush Limbaugh, say, is well-practised in.

Rush is a useful example since his shtick--and by and large the conservative movement that's made him a millionaire--is based on spite of liberals more than any sort of positive value system, making his brand of humor distinctly mirthless.

One not even enter the realm of politics to find further examples. I am sure all know or have known someone of a profoundly negative and critical temperament. This drudge, when not griping outright about some minor infraction, speaks with knowingly inflated inflection, as if everything he speaks of is a bad joke. To him, it is.

1 comment:

  1. Ohh, I dunno, sarcasm has its place, too. You're right, it can be overdone or used in bad faith as a way of disengaging from earnest conversation, but properly deployed, it can puncture a bloated self-importance right proper!

    Plus, that whole battle of the wits thing can be quite fun, too.