In his greatest book, Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton made a declaration that might surprise those who are only familiar with his bon mots and witticisms, perhaps through reading books of quotations, and who may have taken to thinking of him as a kind of Catholic Dorothy Parker:
Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying.
In the J.B. Priestly novel Found, Lost, Found (a novella whose contents I have almost entirely forgotten; unfortunately I don't have Chesterton's amazing powers of retention), a rather poker-faced feminist character, upon being told what she suspects is a joke, announces that she has no sense of humour. The protagonist is delighted by this admission, and complains that, since the Victorian era, everybody has felt obliged to have a sense of humour, even when they don't.
Now, I don't really believe anybody is lacking a sense of humour, but I do think our society is in far greater danger of overdosing on facetiousness than of taking things too seriously. I think it was CS Lewis (in fact, I know it was CS Lewis, but somehow it seems more airy and literary to affect uncertainity when quoting) who wrote that every age is most on guard against the sins to which it is least prone. Sex-mad generations live in horror of "repression". Cruel generations fret they are being "sentimental". In the same way, I think our generation lives in horror of solemnity, of being po-faced and earnest, when we could all do with a massive dollop of Miltonian gravitas.
You can't walk into a bookshop today without being greeted by smirking book titles such as The Tao of Pooh or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
I am a big fan of cartoons, and it may seem ridiculous to complain that cartoons are insufficiently solemn, but I really do find that to be the case. Cartoons like The Far Side or Doonesbury can't be bothered with anything as fuddy-duddy as jokes, or satire of everyday foibles-- the humour (often excellent humour) has to be offbeat, quirky, zany. I know because I have gone in search of collections of old-fashioned, straightforward cartoons and I can't find any. I can only find books like The Book of Bunny Suicides (entirely devoted to picturing different ways rabbits could commit suicide). Ever since the time of Monty Python, it seems that even comedy lives in deadly terror of taking itself too seriously.
There is a church (not a Catholic church) in the area where I work which is famous for the quirk slogans it displays on placards to catch the attention of passers-by. One memorable slogan was "CH--CH. What's missing? RU?". Very smart, of course, but surely there are plenty of Biblical quotations that would be more seemly?
Even product names like I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, or business names like fcuk (an acronym for French Connection UK, a fashion designer), seem to partake of this surfeit of facetiousness.
Old-fashioned TV quiz-shows like A Question of Sport or Blockbusters or even the more light-hearted Countdown seem to have been entirely replaced by tongue-in-cheek productions like Have I Got News for You or Never Mind the Buzzcocks. American Presidents perform comedy routines. Serious politicians make a fool of themselves on reality TV.
I think this tendency affects advertising, clothes, politics, philosophy, literary criticism (take a bow, Terry Eagleton), religion, daily interaction-- pretty much every field of contemporary life. In an age without convictions, one conviction that seems to survive is the vital importance of not being earnest. And that is something I think GK Chesterton would have deplored.