Every era has its own brand of humor. Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas were the toast of Victorian London; the Marx Brothers’ buffoonery left 1930s audiences roaring with laughter in their theater seats, and Brian Regan’s honest, contagious humor has entertained us for nearly two decades. Satire, that darker strain of humor, is almost always “in,” but depending on the author and the era, this more biting brand of laughs may be more or less insightful or more or less stinging.
Current millennial pop culture seems to lean not simply towards satire, but to comedy of an ironic, sarcastic nature. Not all of it, of course; but it’s pretty obvious that the flavor of mainstream popular comedy has gotten remarkably more cynical and sarcastic in the past few generations. Perhaps the corny wisecracks of Bob Hope or the social comedies of P.G. Wodehouse simply resonate less with a generation of hipsters inclined to wearing t-shirts for their ironic value and to re-sharing awkward high school photo memes. Subversive and sarcastic humor is at a heretofore unthinkable zenith in popular culture—from cynical TV shows to Facebook pages dedicated entirely to generating memes that tickle the millennial fancy for making fun of social awkwardness.
So, why the cultural tendency to sarcasm? Part of it probably has to do with the tremendous polarization of society and how easily we can dismiss “them”—whoever disagrees with us—with a wry smile, a snorting “OMG so true,” a hashtag, or a Buzzfeed list. It’s psychologically comfortable to reduce someone else’s opinion to a sardonic image and half a sentence (not always inaccurate)—because it excuses us from actually engaging them. And it can be all too easy to let what should be a passing wry laugh become a permanent cynical mindset. The relative anonymity and disconnection of the internet, for instance, provides a veritable breeding ground for unrestrained sarcasm, where debates quickly degenerate into sarcastic jibes and mocking memes. When divorced from a deeper sense of humor, this more deadly sarcasm is easy to slip into because it feeds directly into our ego, letting us feel superior to the object of our jibes.
It’s dangerous to let the cynical, the sarcastic, and the ironic take root in a soul. It grows and—true to its nature—bites deep, eating away at our ability to see clearly enough to value a more innocent joy. When we consider ourselves “in the know” and habitually mock those who aren’t, we risk becoming practically impervious to the influence of grace—or unreceptive to it, at the very least.
C.S. Lewis’ devil Screwtape put it best when he tells his nephew Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters that sarcasm “builds up around a man the finest armor-plating … that I know.” With flippant or sarcastic men, he adds, “Every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it…. It is 1000 miles away from Joy. It deadens instead of sharpening the intellect, and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”
Lewis knew, better than most, the incredible value of joy; it was joy fundamentally that brought him to conversion, as he chronicles in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. He believed true joy to be a fleeting taste of the eternal, and thus wisely distinguished it from the sort of biting irony that is the mark of the sarcastic. The Screwtape Letters, meant to be penned by demons, drips with sarcasm.
Etymologically, sarcasm derives from a Greek word that means “to rend flesh.” By its nature, the cynical and sarcastic wit is a divisive one. It may not even be much of a wit—a truth G. K. Chesterton hit on when, in his collection of short detective stories The Club of Queer Trades, he depicted a man who became the most famous wit in London by secretly arranging with a conspirator to let him acerbically mock him to the amusement of parlor guests. When deprived of his conspirator and the butt of his wit, the man was reduced to humorless silence. He could not be funny without someone to make fun of.
Sarcasm closes a soul. A true sense of humor, by contrast—and joy, by extension—is something that opens a heart to things greater and grander than itself. The soul that can laugh, that can see the honest absurdity in the things of this world, a soul that can laugh even at himself, is a soul that is open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, has an insight into the fundamental glorious discrepancy between God’s goodness and man’s deserts.
But the sarcastic man walls himself up in the cell of his own heart—from which prison he can look out and judge those in the rest of the world to be less wise, less self-aware, because they cannot see the ironically humorous inside of the cell, as he can. He is certainly “in the know.” If only he could get out.