Irony doesn’t always have the intended effect.
Lest you were looking for another popular word or phrase that I might disdainfully write about, this week’s going to be slightly different. Last week in my column I mentioned my distaste for irony as a viable tool against repression. In fact, if you didn’t read it—and I don’t know why you wouldn’t—I called irony the “pee-stained shadow of true subversion.” This raised a couple of questions from readers and also got me thinking about this topic over the weekend. I began to write a lengthy reply to one commenter who opined that irony is not without its political gunpowder and so we should not discard it entirely. However, given the breadth of this debate, I realized that an explanation might be better placed in a larger space, which you are hopefully about to read.
In short, should irony be a valued if not deftly deployed retort when any of us reach back and take aim at the nasty targets patriarchy makes of certain people? (I’ll use patriarchy as my target here because, well, you’re reading The Good Men Project, so I assume this is an agreeable target for everyone.) To be clear, I’m not going to delve into a pedestrian linguistic lecture today because, one, that’s not my point and, two, I can think of plenty other ways to publicly embarrass myself.
While I will agree that irony can be a fun tool when digesting political vomitus upchucked by people that may not share the same belief system as you, as a means to continue discourse or even challenge minds, irony is a weak if not wasteful attempt at subversion.
In truth, I’d question whether most people can properly identify irony these days because it’s become such an overused and misunderstood trope in our culture. I feel like ever since Alanis Morissette wrote a song about “ironic” things that are not even remotely ironic people have been tumbling down the tunnel of confusion ever since. Because irony or even would-be irony is so pervasive, enough that one can never be completely certain if that painting of an outhouse hanging in the bathroom is or isn’t ironic, it has been rendered useless as an act of subversion.
Irony is goofy. Simple as that. It’s a goofy way to acknowledge that you’re in on the joke and to include others in your own humor. Understandable outrage ensued after Todd Akin made a shocking and unscientific statement about “legitimate rape” earlier this year, and so many people took to irony as a means to cope with and diminish the damage of his statement. It’s as if there exists a correlation between level of reprehension and mileage of jokes, and so Akin’s statement is a good example. Perhaps if you’re a cafe owner you could have ordered the back-of-house to prep up a nice seasonal Sunday brunch item named “Legitimate Crepes.” I’m a little disappointed that not a single wine vendor—at least the few that I’ve seen recently—didn’t make a single attempt to pitch their Cabernet by touting their “legitimate grapes.” To come full circle, I’m also surprised that nobody seemed to have bandied around the fact that Todd Akin is a Legitimate Jackanapes.
Humor, like irony, not only helps make the world a little more digestible for yourself but also acts as a flare gun to find those that might already agree with you. You hear any jokes like those above and you laugh because you immediately understand what those little winks at political horror mean. We’ve taken something reprehensible and turned it into a spectacle. We’re all sitting around the same campfire laughing together because none of us believe in a man who says women’s bodies have some arcane biological function that will automatically “shut down” a pregnancy—but only if she’s legitimately raped.
You see, this is well and fun but that’s all irony is. You recognize something detestable and attempt to neuter its potency by making humor of it. There is nothing wrong with that, but the efficacy of irony as far as actually confronting the Todd Akin-ites in hopes of changing their mind is nil.
Having that inside joke does little for outsiders, the ones whose minds we’d like to change or at least get to reconsider the barbaric ideals they subscribe to. Irony is insulated because it’s a type of protest that is only going to be understood by other people who already have the message down cold.
My biggest complaint with irony is how contrived it is whenever somebody tries to use it. It hardly ever works when it’s intentional. If it does work, it’s likely due to the recycling of old, established humor. Irony works best when it happens naturally. Ironically—!!!—irony almost never happens naturally because it’s so forced these days. Everybody thinks it’s the best way to present humor and so it almost never happens unexpectedly.
Irony is also ineffective as a form of subversion because there is an unavoidable insouciance that follows any intentional irony. It’s a lazy protest. Ironically naming your brunch dish “Legitimate Crepes” might be funny but it’s not subversive. Naming your band Pussy Riot and staging a protest that causes a stir around the world, thus requiring NPR reporters to have to say the word “pussy” repeatedly on the air, that’s goddamn subversion (to say nothing of the fact that Pussy Riot’s signature performance attire is the balaclava, another subversive statement in of itself).
Even the American Pope of Irony, Stephen Colbert, has limits of efficacy in spite of the unprecedented lengths he has taken irony as a political mechanism. I laugh when I watch Stephen Colbert because we’re already on the same team. That’s why it’s fun to watch: we’re both in on the joke he’s making of the luminaries of conservative idiocy.
Colbert is effusive and histrionic in all the right ways, but is he actually effective at subverting the politics he so brilliantly mocks? It depends on the time and place, but then again, perhaps that’s not the point of his brand of comedy. Perhaps it is less of an elixir and more of a salve. However, his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner makes a case for his irony being subversive.
Ultimately, irony is a form of humor and humor can be deadly effective as political subversion. However, humor, and especially political humor, is a performance and as such it must be performed with skill in order to persuade or subvert. One of my favorite books, Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” is a remarkable satire that critiques Stalinism yet it remains notable today because it was pulled off with impeccable skill (not to mention because of the delay in publication since Bulgakov wasn’t all that eager to punch his own ticket to the gulag). Regrettably, it’s not just anybody that can pull off that kind of critique.
Don’t get me wrong, many times irony and humor are some of the anchors in life that continue to make this a world worth living in whenever everything else feels abjectly hopeless. I’m not against any of it and, by all means, continue to employ and enjoy any and all humorous devices to keep your head above water.
If you can, though, if you really, really can, try not to punctuate a serious protest by being ironic. At least, don’t do it and expect to be taken seriously because, as methods of subversion go, it’s relatively ineffective. To borrow a description from Marcy Rose Chvasta, irony can become “carnivalesque” and will thus, to borrow a phrase from the Prince of Denmark, lose the name of action.
Irony can be funny and it may be one of the few ways in which we can make a very disagreeable world more palatable, but don’t automatically assume that your irony also doubles as subversion. If you’re unsure, ask yourself if you’re making a risk in your political statement or behavior: if you are, then it’s possible what you’re doing is an act of subversion; if not, you’re probably making a personal Facebook status update.
Image credit: georgeparrilla/Flickr