Screwtape on flippancy

Jay Nordlinger, at the Corner, has written a lot about the diminishing number of safe zones, places where people of different political persuasions can interact amiably. One big non-safe-zone is academia, where the majority ideology tends to be liberal, and where liberals delight in injecting political attacks into matters having nothing to do with politics.

Case in point: At a faculty meeting yesterday, we were discussing the process by which the department would fill an important position that is soon to become vacant. One person joked that Sarah Palin should get the job. Most of the room dutifully laughed.

I was perplexed. The joke was not at all funny, it was just weird. Sarah Palin is just one of countless people who would be inappropriate for the job, and who wouldn’t want it, and who weren’t relevant to the conversation. It would have made just as much sense to joke that Sidney Crosby should get the job, or any other name one might draw from a hat.

So why does the Sarah Palin “joke” elicit a laugh, while the Sidney Crosby “joke” would presumably elicit only an uncomfortable silence? I think that members of this particular political mindset have been conditioned to believe that Sarah Palin is inherently funny. Her very name is a joke for all contexts.

I was reminded of what C. S. Lewis wrote about flippancy in the Screwtape Letters. For any readers who may not be familiar with the Screwtape Letters (I like to pretend), they are a series of letters written by a senior devil to a junior devil, giving advice on how to tempt a young man away from the “Enemy” (i.e., God). In chapter eleven, Uncle Screwtape takes on the topic of laughter and recommends flippancy as the best form for the devils’ purposes:

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 practise it.

One Response to Screwtape on flippancy

  1. martin says:

    I have forgotten most of that book. I think it is time for a re-read. The quote is extremely apt.


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