In addition to reading Letters to an American Lady for myself and Prince Caspian as a bedtime story for my daughter, last week I started listening to John Cleese’s great audiobook performance of The Screwtape Letters again. While a coincidence and not even remotely by design, I’m now getting a triple dose of CS Lewis—two of them in epistolary mode. This is not a bad thing.
Lewis’s cutting, brutally honest insights into human behavior and sinfulness make Screwtape a revelation and a joy and a disturbing challenge every time I read it. Uncle Screwtape is particularly good at creating taxonomies of human badness, sorting basic kinds of sin into more specific subcategories that still ring true. Consider this, from Letter 11, in which Screwtape explains that while human laughter qua laughter is not necessarily useful to the devils, certain kinds absolutely are. The “patient,” the young tempter Wormwood’s human victim, has recently made fashionable friends with a penchant for certain kind of knowing laughter. After parsing a number of ways humans can amuse themselves and laugh together, Screwtape concludes with a description of hell’s favorite kind of humor:
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.
The key line here is, I think, Screwtape’s succinct explanation that “Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made.” This kind of flippancy is mostly a matter of tone: simply invoke a particular person or group or idea and wait for the laughter as if it’s inherently funny or worthy of mockery. We’ve all seen this.
But flippancy also relies on a certain in-group disdain for outsiders, and it’s this tendency, as the full letter in the broader context of Screwtape makes clear, that gives flippancy its real danger—the inherent danger of bad company, of cliques. Lewis called such cliques “the inner ring” and was particularly attuned to the temptation offered by inner rings. The bad influence of an exclusive set—especially one perceived as fashionable—appears repeatedly in his fiction and non-fiction work throughout the 1940s, probably most notably in That Hideous Strength, in which Mark Studdock strives for and is seduced into a prominent place in a diabolical circle of scientists.
In “The Inner Ring,” a 1944 lecture, Lewis gave a good description of such cliques and their dangers, but what concerns me here is his description of the kind of language and humor that marks membership in the group: “There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks.” The more unthinking disdain you can pour into your flippant references to opponents or enemies, the more you mark yourself as a member of the group and the more the group affirms you.
(Take away the jocular element and you get something even worse—pure virtue signaling. Virtue signalers are almost invariably humorless people, so even among the flippant there is still hope.)
I think we have a surfeit of this kind of laughter nowadays—exacerbated as always by our internet bubbles and media that are inimical to serious thought or discussion—and it’s exactly as destructive as Screwtape implies. Flippancy borders on mockery but without the potentially salutary moral effect that well-deserved mockery can supply, leaving only the self-satisfaction of the mocker and his audience. Flippancy is also lazy, relying on no more cleverness or wit than a child in a schoolyard pointing and laughing. At least the child gets the exercise of lifting his arm.