Mr. McCabe [an atheist writer who had criticized Chesterton, not for his views, but for his style] think that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.
The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology, is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question of instinctive language and self-expression.
Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German…
The two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular. Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and sincere. Mr. George Robey is funny and not sincere. McCabe is sincerer and not funny. The average cabinet minister is not funny and not sincere…
The thing that is fundamentally and really frivolous is not a careless joke. The thing which is fundamentally and really frivolous is a careless solemnity. If Mr. McCabe really wishes to know what sort of guarantee of reality and solidity is afforded by the mere act of what is called talking seriously, let him spend a happy Sunday in going the round of the pulpits. Or better still, let him drop in at the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Even Mr. McCabe would admit that these men are solemn—more solemn than I am. And even Mr. McCabe, I think, would admit that these men are frivolous—more frivolous than I am…
It is solemnity that is stopping the way in every department of the modern effort… Every rich man who wishes to stop the mouths of the poor talks about ‘momentousness’. Every cabinet minister who has not got an answer suddenly develops a ‘judgment’. Every sweater who uses vile methods recommends ‘serious methods’… In the modern world, solemnity is the direct enemy of sincerity.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – Well, things haven’t changed too much in a century, have they? It would be interesting to do a modern updating of who is funny, who is sincere in the modern scene. GKC is careful to choose people he doesn’t especially agree with in his examples. I would say, for example, that John Stewart is funny and sincere, any number of comic actors (which was what George Robey was - I have to confess I’m a bit unfamiliar with who’s out there right now) would be funny and not sincere, Planned Parenthood is not funny and sincere, and yes, most members of congress or parliament or any high elected office are neither funny nor sincere. Some things just don’t change that much.
Obfuscation, the use of big words, long meandering phrases, furrowed brows, evasive answers and the heavy reliance on talking points and slogans—these are the hallmarks of the solemn gasbag, the insincere person who always presents himself or herself as a serious engaged individual, tackling the problems of our time.
Right now, I find the solemnly insincere word of the day to be ‘hatred’. Any effort to have a serious conversation about human sexuality and its meaning, and whether or not there is a meaning, and whether or not the meaning of human sexuality has anything whatsoever to do with the meaning of marriage as a civil institution—all of this has been rendered impossible to have by the invocation of the sacred word ‘hatred’.
Now I know that there are people who read my blog who disagree quite strongly with me on the question of same-sex marriage. Bless you! I’m so glad you’re willing to come and read the ramblings of this retrograde priest from the frozen Canadian wilds!
But this particular matter is not about whether I’m right or wrong (right, of course, but that’s for another day…). It’s about whether or not a conversation is even allowed to happen. More and more, the use of the magic word ‘hate’ shuts any conversation down, and indeed since ‘hatred’, whatever that even means, is more and more viewed as a criminal matter, the word is used to not so subtly threaten people like me who will not shut up about the subject with being ‘shut up’ in a more radical and sinister sense of the phrase.
It is the same with abortion, where any effort to have a serious conversation about the beginning of human life and when exactly it should be legally protected is shut down by the magic phrase ‘War on women! War on women!’ It is all very solemn – who wants to be a hateful misogynist, after all? And it is completely and utterly insincere, since the purpose is not to have a serious conversation, but to bully, intimidate, threaten, and so end any possibility of conversation.
Not too much has changed in the past century, except that maybe it’s gotten a little harder to be funny about some of these things, since the stakes have gotten a bit high and the human costs have gotten a bit devastating. But then, as now, solemnity is used to block sincerity, and this situation is indeed the opposite of funny, and it will not do.