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Sep 18, 2021

Facebook is, well, Facebook. There’s a certain element of absurdity to it and that’s just part of the package. Logging in to this establishment and expecting the best of the human mind is like walking into a Burger King and expecting filet mignon on fine china. Nothing wrong with Burger King if that’s what you’re after. But there’s a definite ripe diaper tucked in the ball pit of this free-for-all discursive play area. I’m talking about the “laugh react”—one of six other animated emojis users can affix to any post or comment in place of the traditional thumbs-up “like.”

Eulogizing the “laugh react,” one blogger wrote that “this must be the [emoji] that is the least likely to be used for what it was intended,” and estimated that “not even one percent of the people who use it are actually laughing when they click on it.”

Instead, this button has become the opiate of frustrated mockers, used mainly to signal that they find someone else’s opinion so ridiculous as to be unworthy of an articulate response. “Scornful laughter,” they are saying, “is all you deserve.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with laughter if something is genuinely ridiculous—even laughter at other people’s expense. When former vice president Dan Quayle misspelled “potato” with an e in front of a room full of elementary schoolers, it was truly ridiculous, and the nation was right to laugh. The mirth that followed on late-night comedy shows was as much with Quayle as at him. And honest members of both parties knew that everybody has bad days, and if cameras followed all of us around 24/7, they would inevitably capture similar gaffes. We may even feel a visceral sympathy (“cringe”) when watching such moments, knowing all too well how it feels to find our fallibility dangling out and to be shown up by kids.

But I’m persuaded the kind of laughter signified by the Facebook emoji is typically something quite different. There’s usually no sympathy involved, nor is there any of the kind of back-slapping consolation we offer each other naturally after public bloopers. The animation of a laughing face is itself a kind of formality or fiction. No one is actually laughing, except in the most perfunctory and aspirated way—the kind of noise a surprised goat would make.

Real laughter serves a purpose. It brings joy or at least genuine pleasure. It brightens the mood and brings people together. It lightens the burden of life and reminds us that we are, after all, just humans. But the kind of weaponized mockery most people first experience in a locker room or cafeteria, but which nowadays has found fertile soil in social media, does none of these things. And though the facial contortions it produces may resemble a smile, they could hardly have less in common with one.

C. S. Lewis referred to this attitude as “flippancy.” Among the causes of human laughter he describes in “The Screwtape Letters,” including joy, fun, and the joke proper, flippancy is the cause that most interests the devils.

“In the first place,” writes Screwtape, “[Flippancy] is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it;

but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.”

If prologued, concludes the senior tempter, “the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy [God] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy. It deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

In this type of laughter or un-laughter we can hear the scoffer of Psalm 1, who from his seat hurls flippancy at the blessed man for not walking in the counsel of the wicked, or standing in the way of sinners. We can hear the bitter snort of Sarah, who greeted the news of her coming pregnancy with scorn and unbelief. We may even be able to hear the jeers of the Sanhedrin as they order their blindfolded prisoner to prophesy who struck Him.

Laughter is certain a gift from God. There are few things that add richness to life like it. What else can make a crowd come to life on a Friday night or illuminate a sitting room like a good joke? What else can keep fans coming back to a TV show again and again, long after they’ve memorized the best lines? Even bawdy humor, notes Screwtape, contributes little to the cause of Hell, especially if the point is the laughter and not the lust. And when good people laugh at the expense of others, they tend quickly to moderate their mirth and remind each other of grace. Recall Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew comparing his uncle to vermin in a private game of “Yes and No” before wishing him a merry Christmas whether he wants it or not. The line is fine, but it is there. And when you’ve crossed deeply into flippancy, you’ll be the first one to know it. As Lewis notes, it doesn’t feel good, and it’s very lonely.

I hope this week’s conversation on Upstream with Babylon Bee editor-in-chief Kyle Mann helped illuminate godly forms of humor. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite things about the Bee as a satire site is how often its sting is aimed back at Christians. It’s healthy to laugh at ourselves. It reminds us that we’re only human, and has a way of keeping that deadliest sin of spiritual pride at bay. Neither Kyle nor I think the Bee has been totally successful in every story at using humor for good, nor at avoiding flippancy. But I do believe their work has sanctified our collective laughter a bit, and sweetened the bitter regions of social media. At the very least, their clever headlines are chance to reclaim that laugh react for, you know, actual laughter.