Seriousness needs to be pursued and protected. It cannot be magicked into life by august committees, as each crisis unfolds in our public life. It ultimately comes down to our own individual choices and priorities.
This is quite an interesting article and ties in quite neatly with some recent conversations I’ve had about the “Age of Irony”. I don’t think this is confined to our public life (where Prime Ministers feel the need to comment on ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘X Factor’ in order to have the right image) but is woven through our whole society. Being ‘serious’ is not seen as a desirable quality. Being “too serious” is a big turn-off. It’s all about being ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ and ‘not taking yourself too seriously’, which often doesn’t seem to mean being able to laugh at yourself and your foibles but being able to discuss reality tv in great detail.
When I look around me it seems that there is a common fear of being serious and/or sincere. Entire relationships are conducted under the guise of ‘an irony that scorched everything it touched’ (as Coupland brilliantly put it) and people perform a personality for each other, contorting to make things easy for each other. Don’t break the spell, don’t undermine the performance and whatever you do, don’t be ‘serious’. It’s a superficiality which seems to pervasively overwhelm and flatten all social interactions so that absolutely everything becomes merely another way of illustrating the character. This will, counterintuitively, sometimes involve brief ostentatious and insincere touching on ‘serious’ matters as one character seeks to demonstrate that, hey, they can chat about BIG ISSUES as well as ‘The Only Way is Essex’. In the Age of Irony this is what counts as a ‘well-rounded individual’. It struck me in several of the responses I saw to Amy Winehouse’s death where people took time out from their rigid jollity to suddenly develop a very public concern for perceived ‘serious’ events that were happening in the world. This interest appeared to develop for no other reason than to berate others for earnestly responding to Winehouse’s death. This was a betrayal of the performance. ‘Hey, if you’re going to be serious, I can be more serious than you!’
Much of this thinking stems from my sitting in a bar and suddenly being aware of a very earnest discussion that was happening next to me. It was completely jarring for me to hear two people quietly chatting in public about various things with seeming disregard as to how others would perceive them or their subject matter. Some of what I heard wasn’t far off the author’s example of “I would be able to discuss human rights in Uzbekistan in the pub without being laughed at” and it struck me that so many of us have become used to a self-enforced censorship where we wouldn’t dare venture to be so earnest in general company, at least not without serially undermining what we were saying with humourous nods to the character such discussions would be perceived to ‘belong’ to. In short, it was jarring to hear two people having an exchange where each seemed genuinely interested in what the other had to say and weren’t just using each other to validate a self-image.
Politics on a personal level has been warped by this too. It fascinates me that we are all eager to be seen to have opinions but as soon as you draw links between what someone says/does and their political beliefs, this is frequently seen as going ‘too far’ and being ‘too serious’. Politics is seen as some completely separate and intensely private realm which must only be ventured into carefully and with mutual consent. Believing that someone’s political beliefs are an integral part of their personality is seen as pompous and while we will happily argue with each other about whether we like Cheryl Cole, we will keep clear of anything that could be perceived as ‘political’. Then, despite this unspoken agreement, we will attack anyone who presents a discussion of pop culture devoid of social or political context as being in any sense ‘lightweight’ as being a ‘snob’ (and there is a clear link to be made between this and the ‘Golden Snitch’ argument I made here).
Perhaps this has all come across as rambling nonsense. It’s something I’m still very much thinking through and the conversations I’ve had about it in the past week have been enormously stimulating (and perhaps those very conversations completely destroy my argument?!). If you feel you have any thoughts to contribute, please do!