Thursday, February 23, 2012


A Brief Defence of Flippancy

A few days ago, this message popped up on Facebook. A surprising number of my contacts posted it to their walls and other people responded positively to it, clicking "like" and leaving comments agreeing with the sentiment.

Stuff like this makes me cringe for the following very simple reason: such wisdom has been bandied about for centuries but the world's still in a pretty dire state. I don't think that 'wisdom' works, to be honest. This doesn't mean that wise statements aren't true, but that nobody ever really listens to truth and acts on it; and why should they, if nobody else does?

I left two comments in response to the message above. The first was: "I say this to the taxman every year, but he just won't let unpaid bills be bygones!"

That went down well. People generally respond with enthusiasm to straightforward we're-all-in-the-same-boat jokes, especially when they are financial in substance.

My second comment was: "My problem is that I left the advice to leave things in the past in the past! And I never got it back..."

That was appreciated to a far lesser extent. Hardly at all, in fact. Indeed it was greeted with a faint hum of disapproval. But it's a wittier statement by far than my first comment (relatively speaking, of course; let's not be too arrogant). Why then didn't it earn the same plaudits? Because it's paradoxical? I suspect the real answer is because people decided it was flippant.

Now there's a concept that deserves far more investigation that it receives. Flippancy. What exactly does it mean to be flippant? And why are people who make flippant remarks held in such contempt, a contempt that seems to be generated automatically as a kind of reflex?

Flippancy, essentially, is assumed to be an inappropriately shallow response to something serious. The user of flippancy (the flippantee) seems to value the opportunity to make a joke higher than acquiring authentic understanding of some piece of serious information. For example, consider this Milton Jones quip: "I once worked for the United Nations investigating genocides. I was asked to locate a mass grave of snowmen. I did so, but it turned out just to be a field of carrots."

That is a flippant joke. Someone who tells such a joke during a conversation about genocide will probably be rebuked by the sharply barked order, "Don't be flippant!" The person who shouts this out will feel that the joke is making light of a subject (genocide) that can never be used as a basis for comedy.

And yet there's a logical contradiction in there. The command, "Don't be flippant!" is surely flippant itself. If flippancy means to demonstrate a shallow and unfeeling response to something serious, then shouting, "Don't be flippant!" is the ultimate flippancy, because (a) it's a shallow and unfeeling response to something serious (flippancy is a serious subject), and (b) it's ignorant of the logical contradiction it contains, which demonstrates a shallow and unfeeling attitude to logical contradictions.

But why is flippancy a serious subject, you might wonder? Simply because it has been around since the human race began. It's a part of every culture, every society, every civilisation and every period of history. People have always been flippant, the same way they have always been passionate, lustful, puerile, idealistic, angry, compassionate, ambitious, lazy, etc, etc. Flippancy is fundamentally human; it's one of the things we do that makes us what we are. That's why it's important and why a flippant remark deserves more consideration and sympathy in a response than the flippant brush-off, "Don't be flippant!"

In a nutshell, refusing to take flippancy seriously is... well, flippant.

There's a contemporary writer of talent and integrity by the name of Joel Lane. I'm fairly sure he regards everything I do as flippant. On one occasion, during some banter on a forum, he mentioned to me the French film Ridicule, a historical film set in a period and environment where in order to elevate one's status it was essential to be witty and avoid being ridiculed oneself. At the climax of the film the central character, who is a fundamentally serious chap, shames the others by making a speech denouncing their shallowness and flippancy; then he walks away with immense dignity, the moral victor. He has struck a devastating blow for seriousness.

It's an excellent film and I suspect that Joel mentioned it to me as a sort of rebuke, as a way of saying, "Look what society would be like if nobody was ever serious, if you had the world the way you seem to want it..." And I think that he probably identifies himself with the central character, the Marquis Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy, the only aristocrat who cares about the conditions of the poor, the only serious champion of social justice among a wad of shallow flippantees. I furthermore suspect that Joel also agrees with the analysis of comedy made by George Orwell, that it's a distraction, a palliative, that it diverts the attentions of the ordinary downtrodden people from their sufferings and dilutes their zest for change; in other word, that comedy is a brake on the righteous anger that drives social progress... and my basis for making this assertion about Joel is that although he's a phenomenally witty chap outside his writing, he holds himself back to an extraordinary degree inside it.

Well, that's one approach and a perfectly valid approach in its own way. But it's not the whole story by any means. Despite Orwell's assertion, comedy can be a radical tool. Consider the novels of Rabelais, Voltaire, Zamyatin, Bulgakov... Comedy, even flippant comedy at times, can be more incisive than seriousness. Personally I don't regard the world (as I imagine Joel does) to be full of shallow wits who need to be shaken up by a dignified fellow of seriousness; I regard it as full of humourless grumpy stiffs who need to be shaken up by an ironic jester. More Harlan Ellison's '"Repent, Harlequin!" said the Ticktockman' than Patrice Leconte's Ridicule.

Point taken about comedy, but I've noted that Steve Aylett seems to think satire doesn't actually change anything.
It probably doesn't. If Aylett says it, I'm tempted to agree.
An excellent post, Rhys. I've always considered your "flippancy" one of your strengths as a storyteller. It's easy to look upon a serious matter with the appropriate amount of frowning and head-shaking (because that's the thing to do) - but it is far more difficult (not to mention misunderstood) to look upon a serious matter with an absurdist's eye. The first method reflects the truth, the second (flippant) method exposes it.
Hey, thanks Jason!
Yes, absurdism and ideas-based fiction are hugely misunderstood in the present literary climate.
But fashions come and go: at the moment overemotional quasi-realistic works are in favour (and they often emphasise the 'emotion' by highlighting the deadness around it).
But I have no doubt that one day absurdism and ideas-based fiction will return... It seems to go in cycles...
And furthemore to the Steve Aylett contention (that satire doesn't change anything) I'd argue that serious fiction doesn't change anything either, at least to no greater extent than satire.
In fact I'd go further and say that I have serious doubts about whether even change itself ever really changes anything...
What do you think of the cliche that tyrants and dictators lack a sense of humour?
I think that cliche is hilarious!
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