On the Loss of Humor in a Very Serious Age

One of the more irritating and sadder characteristics of our times is that we seem to have lost our collective sense of humor. Our ability to laugh at ourselves appears to be gone, replaced by “frowny-faced” political correctness; there are seemingly endless rules about what can be said about whom, when, where, and using what terminology. On college campuses, young people demand “safe zones,” where nothing can be said that might cause them to feel “unsafe.” In media circles, outrage is a commonly expressed reaction to what used to be called ordinary disagreements.

We are too easily hurt and take offense in these thin-skinned times. We like to think we are more enlightened and sensitive than our boorish forebears (we’re allowed to scorn them because they’re dead), but I suspect the problem is more rooted in pride. The capacity to laugh at ourselves is referred to as “humor” and humor has the same root as “humility.”

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas posed the following question: Whether there is a sin in lack of mirth? He answered as follows:

In human affairs whatever is against reason is a sin. Now it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment. … Now a man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently, they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states (Ethic. iv, 8) (ST, II, IIae, q. 168).

St. Thomas is careful not to make mirth an absolute virtue. He does not envision a foolish running off at the mouth and indiscriminate mirth at the foibles and qualities of others or groups. Thus he adds,

[However], it follows that “lack of mirth is less sinful than excess thereof.” Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix, 10): “We should make few friends for the sake of pleasure, since but little sweetness suffices to season life, just as little salt suffices for our meat.” (Ibid).

In other words, mirth is a virtue to be had in moderation. A little salt goes a long way; a lot of salt will likely raise blood pressure. St. Thomas is not affirming hurtful or harsh humor here.

I would argue that today we do not have moderation. Rather we exhibit a prudish, hypersensitive fretting about every offense, perceived or actual. In a word, we are “uptight.” We have become all too precious and fragile, like snowflakes. There are a lot of party-poopers around today; they frown at any levity and take offense at every insight that suggests we human beings are funny, inconsistent, predictable, and just downright silly at times. Stereotypes can be funny because they contain an element of truth. It is not that there are no exceptions, but they are generally observable. They make the simple observation that group dynamics exist in the human community.

Why can’t we just have a good laugh at some of our foibles and admit that there is at least some truth in how others see us? The most straightforward answer is that it is because we lack humility. A second reason is that we engage in “identity politics,” in which our political positions are based on the interests of a group with which we identify. Hence, even if we could laugh at a joke made at our own expense, we do not feel free to laugh at any “insult” to the larger group. All of this is a subset of the “tyranny of relativism” and subjectivism, in which the truth is a matter of opinion rather than an external or objective fact; the locus shifts from the object to the subject. In this environment, if you find humor in or disagree with an observable object, you are laughing at or disagreeing with me. Thus enters the phenomenon of taking everything personally. Too many people have become narcissistic, boring, fragile snowflakes. Some become so angry at mere mirth that they threaten lawsuits; they seek to silence anything that they perceive to be “hurtful” (and they are easily hurt). St. Thomas well describes this sort above: [They are] burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment. … Consequently, they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude.

This does not mean we should give blanket approval to every form of humor. Poking fun at our quirkiness is one thing, but ridicule, demeaning talk, derision, and racial/ethnic scorn are quite another. As is the case with most things, moderation is key.

The ability to laugh at ourselves is a sign of security and trust. Security and trust anchor us in God’s love. We are funny and we are quirky, but we are loved.

Here is a video that pokes a little fun at our Catholic identity. When I posted it some years ago, about 25 percent of people took offense, saying that he was belittling sacred things. I think he was merely celebrating the fact that we are distinguishable by our traditions. He’s poking a little good-natured fun at our Catholic culture. Lighten up and watch Deacon Dan, whose car dealership is at the end of Water St., right before it turns in to Wine!



Here’s another celebration of being Catholic, by Justin Stroh: