The last laugh

by Janie B. Cheaney
Posted on Monday, February 18, 2013, at 11:33 am

Reading through Proverbs, I’m struck by the many references to “scoffers” and their shortcomings: “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain” (14:6), “does not like to be reproved” (15:12), and “set[s] a city aflame” (29:8). “Strife,” “quarreling,” and “abuse” follow a mocker, only when he leaves the room is there hope for peace (22:10). Years ago my husband decided not to listen to Rush Limbaugh anymore because Rush fit the proverbial description of a scoffer. I believe there was a lot of wisdom in that decision (though I still listen to Rush occasionally).

Scoffing isn’t new, or Solomon would not have had so much to say about it. But the internet age provides so much more opportunity: Every time a political or religious or entertainment figure does or says something a little out of the ordinary (such as take a sip of water during an important speech), the snarks have a field day. Here, for example, are tweets from various liberal “comedians” and pundits following the Pope’s announcement of his resignation:

@piersmorgan: “The Queen’s a year older than The Pope. Can’t see her ever resigning because she’s tired. #indefatigability1infallibility0”

@jamiekilstein: “Pope aborted by church.”

@THEmikewhite: “BREAKING: Pope Benedict XVI to resign after revealing imaginary ‘relationship’ with dead Christ, could fall as low as 3rd round in NFL draft.”

@stasia40: “So for the 1st time in 600 years, @God fires a pope. Couldn’t pick a better man to fire. Markets up?  #hitleryouth”

@JenzlWashington: “Hey, @Pontifex: why don’t you die like every guy before you.”

Those are the nicer ones. A similar snarkfest broke out in response to an article about President Bush’s reading list (which is longer than President Obama’s): mostly variations on the theme of My Pet Goat and comic books and “Sure he had plenty of time to read when Cheney was running-everything.” None of these comments are particularly clever or funny, nor (I think) are they intended to provoke belly laughs. The desired response is the savage chortle or snarling hoot that’s only a step removed (if that far) from fury.

I admire an elegant put-down as much as the next guy—there’s no better way to check pretentions, and we all need to be checked from time to time. When put-downs become the substance of political discourse, though, something is awry. It’s no accident that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have become the chief source of news for young people: Their style of ridicule was the height of humor in high school, where just about everybody aspired to be a master of sarcasm. Ridicule has its place, but shouldn’t be our lens for viewing world events. It’s too easy, and it flatters people into thinking they understand more than they do.

Mocking leads to contempt, and contempt to anger: “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (Proverbs 29:9). Notice the fool rages and laughs—not one or the other. Both forestall productive conversation. With apologies to T.S. Eliot, is this the way the world will end? Not with bang, but a snicker.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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