C.S. Lewis/Screwtape and the spiritual threat/value of "flippancy"

In Chapter 11 of The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape examines “the causes of human laughter” from the POV of a tempter-devil. “Joy” and “Fun” are dismissed as useless. “The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity,” is useful to the extent that it can lead a person to actually take pride in bad behavior if he can succeed in passing it off as a joke. (Bawdy jokes are useful only in tempting persons who love sex, not persons who love jokes.)


Before I pose Lewis’ position about “flippancy” for debate here, does anybody have any idea just what he’s talking about?! I thought I knew what the word “flippant” means – just one more near-synonym for “humorous,” with connotations of very casual off-the-cuff witticism at a greeting-card level of humor (i.e., like the one-liners one would expect from the kid in the room in any sitcom) – but I might have been wrong.

Flippant has a connotation (if not outright denotation) of disrespect. A flippant joke, in the sense Lewis is using it, is one which makes virtue itself the joke.

Screwtape seems to be saying that traditional jokes are not very useful in deceiving people because they cause joy (unless they can be used to arouse or titillate), but that flippancy or a sort of disrespect for virtue can be because it’s easy and because it is generally free of joy.

At least, that’s how I read it.

Another thought: Have you ever tried to have a serious conversation with the office joker? One for whom every topic is just the start of a bad joke? It’s that sort of constant sarcastic approach to life that Screwtape is encouraging, because it short-circuits serious thinking but doesn’t provide any of the joy that a real joke does.

I dunno that I’d equate it directly to sarcasm.

I would more call it petty or mean-spirited jokes - anything that’s directed specifically at mocking something good or pretty or nice.

Sure, sarcasm does that a lot, but it is also used to devastating effect in mocking things which are overdone, wrought, or ridiculous.

In other words, I think it’s the direction of the joke (or to get really specific, the intent of the joke-maker), not the form of the joke itself, that’s causing the perceived “benefit” from Screwtape’s perspective.

ETA on slight reflection: The other thing that came to mind was the type of person who really puts effort into being superficial. Everyone knows someone who is nearly incapable of having a deep conversation about important things, because they’ll either wander off-topic, go silent on you, or turn things into jokes, or purposefully take over the conversation to lead it somewhere shallower. I think that’s also a big part of the idea of “flippancy” - that inability to enjoy (or perhaps even be capable of having) deep thoughts about what’s supposedly important and virtuous in life and spiritual awareness.

Perhaps this would be an example?

Earnest parson: Will I see you in church Sunday?
Flippant response: No thanks if I’m going to sleep through something I may as well do it at home in bed.

A quick dismissal of the virtuous act without forming any real argument against it.

Let’s forget about C.S. Lewis’ religious philosophy for a moment.

Let’s say you’re a completely secular idealist trying to win support for a cause you consider obviously virtuous. It doesn’t matter whether you’re calling for legalized gay marriage or the abolition of abortion, whether you want to reduce global warming or cut taxes. What matters is, you have a cause that you believe is righteous, you’ve spent a long time thinking about it, and have what you think are important things to say on the subject.

You stand up before a crowd to speak your mind. You go in knowing that, if you say something stupid, people are going to laugh at you, but you figure you’re ready for that. You do a lot of scrupulous research, you go over your notes repeatedly, and you’re sure there’s absolutely NOTHING in your presentation that could possibly inspire a smirk, let alone ridicule.

But… as you start to speak, you notice something: much of the crowd is ALREADY smirking, before you’ve said a thing! Your every statement draws snorts and snickers, even when you KNOW you haven’t said anything foolish or even incorrect. You try to keep your composure, and say, “I seem to have said something hilariously wrong. Would someone be kind enough to set me straight and tell me what it is?” But nobody tries to engage you- they just continue to snort and snicker for the duration of your talk. And when you leave, angry, you hear them saying that you were a pompous stiff with no sense of humor.

“Flippancy,” as Lewis uses the term, describes the attitude of the crowd. A normal crowd of people with ordinary senses of humor is always ready and willing to laugh, as soon as they see/hear something funny. An ordinary crowd is prepared to laugh hysterically when Jerry Ford slips on a banana peel, when Joe Biden makes a silly gaffe, when Dan Quayle trips over his words, when Ted Kennedy babbles on in a drunken stupor.

A flippant crowd, on the other hand, doesn’t wait for you to say anything stupid. It comes in ASSUMING you’re stupid, and interprets everything you say to confirm that assumption.

In my opinion, he’s talking about sarcasm, and some uses of verbal irony. And he has a point. It can shape the way you think and make you one hell of a negative bastard.

Right. I think the key phrase is “If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour”. Treating anything and everything as a joke makes you immune from thought and reflection.

Somewhat related to the idea of laughing at someone vs. laughing with them. Telling what Lewis calls a “Joke Proper”, the intention is to make the target laugh. Having a flippant response to someone is intended to make the target feel uncomfortable, and the teller superior.

Think about Seinfeld for an example of what Lewis is talking about - Susan’s death, the mugging of a man on the street, “Schindler’s List,” etc. are all treated flippantly.

I think astorian’s post was excellent and hit the nail on the head. The Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck types have convinced their followers that any attempt to protect the environment should be dismissed with a joke. Likewise any protest of Bush’s torture policies or any complaint about wiretapping and so forth. That’s the sort of flippancy that’s being referred to.

… No. You’re brionigng politics into this, foolishly, and incorrectly to boot. You may think that Rush Limbaugh, and to a much elsser degree Glenn beck, are paid to be loudmouthed and annoying (I would agree with you). But they are not flippant. You may not like their reasons for saying things or disliking liberals. But they definitely do not treat liberals as a joke. Would that they did. Likewise, I’ve known a lot of people who dismiss your concerns as foolish. But never as a joke.

To the extent that either political side does this, I would consider the Left to be the far worse offender. Note that I do not consider Conservatives, or for that matter Libertarians or what, neccessarily better in general. I would say we have a bad habit of gross humorlessness, a seriousness which borders on obsession. But flippancy? Hell no.

Even having cause to reflect on the state of Jerry Seinfeld’s soul is a somehow disturbing prospect, he said flippantly.

And, therefore, impious? That seems to be Lewis’ point – the only kind of point with which Screwtape is essentially concerned, anything that draws the souls nearer to or further from the Enemy.

But it would be sad to contemplate a Heaven with no flippant or sarcastic bastards in it.

I think you’re confusing people with a strong sense of humor with people who turn everything into a joke because they can’t take anything seriously. When all is made perfect, we will no longer need to mock it; we can laugh without demeaning. It’s that element of devaluing which Lewis targeted, and which is among the cruellest things you can do to someone. Flippancy has negative connotions because it implies at the bottom that you don’t consider the human object of your attentions worth your attention, respect, or consideration.

Sarcasm can go both ways. But at it’s very best it illuminates human farilties in a cutting and insulting way. And all too often it’s a sign that someone didn’t actually do their homework. I rarely see it employed well. People use it as an insult and not a corrective.

Nothing should be taken more seriously than humor, and nothing more humorously than seriousness. Chesterton, after all, noted that the great difference between Angels and Demons was that the latter had no humor whatsoever. Everythjing was a tool.

Right, hence Screwtape’s caution against Joy and Humor. Those are tools of God. Flippancy - the act of being dismissive and prideful under the guise of humor - is just the opposite, because it tears down instead of building up.

Rush Limbaugh mixes nasty, dismissive jokes with serious claims (usually false serious claims, of course) and other types of entertainment. As for Glenn Beck, his on-air behavior defies description and beggars belief. I was not asserting that those two and their ilk are flippant themselves, but rather that they’ve created an automatic inclination towards flippancy in many of their listeners. That is to say, many right-wingers react to every opposing position with a dismissive joke and then act as if the joke is proof of their own correctness.

A better specific example of flippancy would be something like South Park, wherein the creators have a formula for going after anything they don’t like, such as protecting the rain forest or small businesses. Write an episode where the person who holds that position is a liar and hypocrite, throw in scores of uses of “shit” and “ass”, add some gross-out jokes and presto! You have a “brilliant social satire” demonstrating the flaws in the position, at least according to the critics.

In reality, it does not take high intelligence to react to everything with a joke. It is more usually a sign of low intelligence.

Boy did Chesterton have it backwards! Just like Lewis, ascribing Music to God and making it inimical to devils.

I know you are an atheist, but certainly both the Jewish and Christian sources supports him. Angels visited us, wrestled with us, ate with us, drank with us, rejoiced with us. Demons cursed us and manipulated us.

It is a distinctly modern fantasy that demons would be having all kinds of fun. Like other humans consumed by evil, fun ceases to exist. Power becomes everything. And the lvoe of power erodes everything from the human spirit.

If Heaven and Hell exist, I suspect George Bernard Shaw is nearer the mark than C.S. Lewis, as to the difference between them. See Man and Superman.

If this be flippancy, then flippancy is a spiritual good.

BrainGlutton, if you’re an atheist, then in your beliefs there is no God, no demons, no heaven, and no hell. You’re quoting Shaw, so I assume that he’s an atheist too (or at least you think so). How then can you say that the opposite of what Lewis believed is true? You can’t consistently say that demons are the ones having fun while God doesn’t and that hell would be the enjoyable place while heaven would be boring. Those entities don’t even make sense in your beliefs.

Now, it’s certainly possible to say that you’re having fun and that the religious people that you find yourself continually arguing with are boring and miserable. Maybe that’s true. Maybe, on the other hand, you don’t understand the people you find yourself frequently arguing with, and maybe they are much happier than you. There’s no way for us to know.

Perhaps it’s true that you are much happier than the religious people you disagree with. Perhaps that means that you’re right and they’re wrong. Or perhaps it doesn’t. Sometimes the fun-loving guy turns out to be wrong. In any case, you can’t consistently claim (while being an atheist) that heaven is boring while hell is fun and the demons are happy while God is having no fun. That just doesn’t make any sense in your belief system.