In an article published by Cogitare last November, Daniel Stepke exhorted us to cultivate the virtue of intellectual gentleness, which he describes as “giving and taking offense well.” Besides being a compelling and edifying read, the article included a few diagnostic insights that deserve a bit more attention.
First, Stepke introduced the rhetorical climate of our day (specifically that of contemporary politics) as being “made of the offensive and the offended.” Secondly, and more subtly, Stepke warned against the temptation to “take [ourselves] too seriously.” It stands to reason that these two things are connected. As individuals, we take ourselves far too seriously, which means that we are far too easily offended – and you’d better believe that this bleeds over into politics and public discourse.
As a culture, we are in grave danger of taking ourselves much too seriously. This “offensive and offended” dynamic has affected everything from national politics to college debate to everyday conversations with peers. Every day, taxpayer dollars are being spent on efforts to re-word legislation to avoid offending people. Competitive college debate rounds are derailed when well-meaning debaters accidentally misgender their opponents – sometimes even losing the round when the offended party breaks down mid-round. And with standards of what is or is not considered offensive constantly changing, even conversations in school or the workplace can feel risky.
It should not come as a surprise that our sense of humor has suffered considerably in this climate. With the rise of all things woke, we find ourselves walking on conversational eggshells instead of laughing together at genuinely harmless age-old jokes.
All the way back in 2007, Roger Scruton lamented this very thing in an article called “The Decline of Laughter” for the American Spectator. His observations have only become all the more pertinent in the sixteen years since. Scruton explains that “laughter” is “the principal way we have of accepting the failings of our fellows,” of accounting for our differences. On a larger cultural scale, Scruton warns:
“A society that does not laugh is one without an important safety valve, and a society in which people interpret crude humor not as the first step toward friendly relations, but as a mortal offense, is one in which ordinary life has become fraught with danger.”
We’ve lost the safety valve. What used to be a harmless joke is liable to be taken as a mortal offense. Our discourse is fraught with danger.
What, then, might be the antidote to our “offensive and offended” rhetorical climate? How can we begin to recover from the fact that we no longer know how to take a joke? A healthy willingness to laugh at ourselves and to be laughed at may not be a bad place to start. You and I must simply refuse to take ourselves too seriously – and it must start on the individual level.
When we take ourselves too seriously, we start to believe that we are the center of the universe and that everything depends on us. The self looms large in the mind of one with this false sense of personal gravitas. A slight offense, even unintentional, is perceived as a full-on attack. Our stressful situations feel like the end of the world. Our failings seem irrecoverable.
Consider how easy it is to fall into this kind of thinking at college. Every paper you still need to write is inviting you to take yourself too seriously. It wants you to lose yourself in it for a couple of maximally stressful days (or, let’s be honest, an all-nighter) where you walk around assuming that your life is harder than everyone else’s. No one else would understand how busy you are, how tired you are, how much stuff you have to do. This kind of thinking excuses self-centeredness, anxiousness, and poor treatment of others.
We fail to trust God to provide for us. We neglect others and become dismissive of them. We get trapped in patterns of exhaustion, stress, and sin. When everything becomes “woe is me,” we lose sight of “my grace is sufficient for you.”
The best way to take ourselves less seriously is to get better at laughing at ourselves. Just as humor suffers in our culture when we take ourselves too seriously, humor can be the antidote to taking ourselves too seriously.
Consider Melville’s advice in Moby Dick:
“…a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.”
When we are willing to “spend and be spent” in this way, we take ourselves less seriously and invite others to do the same.
A healthy levity allows us to readjust our over-inflated views of ourselves and how important we are. It makes us pleasant to be around and blesses others. It keeps things in perspective. It brings us joy.
Some leadership advice I received once is “Keep your two a two and your ten a ten.” Some things are worth taking seriously, and some simply aren’t. More often than we’d like to admit, ourselves and our cares fall into the latter category.
Laughing at ourselves helps on the individual level, but such an attitude could also go a long way in our broader discourse. Humor is human. Laughter reminds us of our common humanity with a fellow man. Consider how powerful this can be in a conversation, or even in a high-stakes debate. Even two people who direly disagree can laugh together – in fact, it would do them good. Acknowledging our opponent’s humanity is valuable, especially in the offensive / offended climate where debate is too often reduced to ad hominem attacks instead of actual argumentation. When we take ourselves less seriously, we are in a position to take the actual content of our discussions more seriously.
Of course, a cheap laugh won’t do. We must not make cruel jokes at another’s expense just for the sake of it. A good laugh, however, is a mighty good thing, and we should be more willing to supply one when we can.