If the land of confusion does exist, more likely than not it reserves a special place for the concept of serious. It’s common to hear people state their desire to be taken seriously – in life, in the workplace, in their social circles generally. It’s especially evident when people feel they are not being taken seriously, their lack of gravitas a concern when it can all too easily affect their promotion prospects, for example (see this recent article on the topic in the Financial Times).
At the same time as people express the desire to gain or achieve gravitas, it is also commonplace to hear people profess not to take themselves too seriously. No-one wants to be viewed as pompous, precious or pretentious (which in itself should serve as an indication of the level of self-deception out there); this is true, but it also suggests a level of unease in the company of seriousness. For logic surely dictates that, if you really want to be taken seriously, you must already take yourself very seriously indeed to desire others to do the same.
Dirty Looks is no stranger to relational contradictions, but this not-so-merry dance around seriousness is right up there with the best/worst of them. Its existence might be the work of a semi-conscious sleight of hand, acting to steady the fragile balance between desire and constraint. It’s more likely the case that people are embarrassed to admit to this desire – scared of the shame and humiliation winging their way when their grab at gravitas goes horribly wrong.
To anyone who knows their classical civilisation, all this modern trouble with seriousness would appear to be very odd indeed. Gravitas, for example, was one of the key Roman virtues – its bundle of characteristics like seriousnesss, dignity and importance publicly sought after. Placed alongside other much-sought after virtues such as Pietas (duty, loyalty), Dignitas (reputation, standing, worth) and Virtus (valor, courage), it becomes evident that the need to be taken seriously was just one part of an emotional publicness in an age when it was difficult to take refuge behind ambiguity and privateness.
The case could be made that this refuge is all too readily to hand in modern times; the case could also be made that today the classical virtues have to (publicly) fend for themselves in the company of vices such as shame, embarrassment and humiliation. Who can blame us for fearing the serious when the contest between virtue and vice can go either way?