I suffer from irony. I attended a private liberal arts college, I was surrounded by theories, and I learned to be self aware. From the primordial discussions of college dorm rooms sprang forth the rise of ironic humor. Until recently, I didn’t realize how much of a plague it was.
Ironic humor, long a staple of the amorphous hipster scene recently sparked new discussions with the recognition of a new term “hipster racism” or “ironic racism.” Max Read describes the phenomena well in a recent piece on Gawker
Assiduously casual, meant to demonstrate a kind of worldliness or edginess, “hipster racism” acts like a behavioral flannel jacket or a trucker cap, a rejection of perceived upper-middle-class values, still wrapped in enough layers of irony to create a distance from the mythical rednecks or hillbillies it’s thought to be emulating. Whether or not the hipster racist “actually believes” the bullshit he spouts (or thinks it’s some kind of sophisticated satire) is immaterial; it’s a posture, a performance, a middle finger to mom and dad and all the “McCarthyist hijackers” who won’t let Benjamin Leo say “nigger,” or whatever his beef is.
Race isn’t the only topic up for ironic review. Gender roles and misogyny also suffer from the rise of mainstream ironic humor. Take the ever aggressive and competitive world of tech start-ups. Bloomberg Business reports on The Rise of the ‘Brogrammer.” The author, Douglas MacMillan reports on the rise of a fraternity like culture of program hard, play hard, but as MacMillan reports, women are left out of the joke of ‘brogramming.” He quotes Sara Chipps, founder of Girl Develop It, as saying “This brogramming thing would definitely turn off a lot of women from working” at startups, says Chipps. MacMillan continues:
A poster recently displayed at a Stanford University career fair by Klout, a social media analytics company, tried to woo computer science graduates by asking: “Want to bro down and crush code? Klout is hiring.” Says Chipps: “No. I don’t want to bro down. I can’t imagine that a girl would see that and say ‘I totally want to do that, it sounds awesome.’ ” Klout CEO Joe Fernandez says the sign was just a joke and “definitely not meant to be an exclusionary thing,”
So yes, ironic or hipster humor has worked its way across most levels of touchy areas and whether those of us on the left, myself included, like to think of ourselves as open minded, we have to confront the fact that what we think is high minded humor is really just offensive.
At one level, the offensiveness of ironic humor or “hipster racism,” “hipster misogyny,” “hipster homophobia” is basic. As a close friend once asked: “even if you are joking, why did your mind go there first?” A fair point. Why would anyone—even if they’re smart and “self aware” still think make a derogatory joke about women is acceptable. It’s not and shouldn’t be.
So many of those suffering from the plague of ironic humor believe that it is okay to make these jokes because everyone knows that the person making the joke is really self-aware about all of these issues in question. The jokester recognizes the inequity in class, race, gender, and socio-economic backgrounds amongst other issues. To the jokester, making such a joke signifies his/her own self-awareness to others.
While the ironic humor may serve as a signifier to other “self-aware” groups of people, it can all signify callousness, ignorance, and misconception. This is what happens when the ironic jokes goes bad. Trust me, I know because I’ve offended people—unwittingly of course.
At a business lunch, I made an ironic joke about religion. Three important things: I’m Jewish, it was Good Friday, and I felt really comfortable with the group. Apparently, though, self-deprecating Jewish jokes about crucifying the Jesus was not viewed with any eye of irony. No, it was insulting and offensive to at least one member of the lunch, which I discovered much later. In fact, it’s what prompted this essay.
What many of us accustomed to the cloistered walls of liberal arts colleges, readings of Foucault, Barthes, and critical race theory forget, is that we are a minority. Our ironic jokes used as signifiers may attract a few like-minded folks, but it has the potential to offend many people in the process.
Those of us trapped by the tyranny of ironic humor often view religion in the same category as race, gender, and homosexuality—as something we have transcended beyond, something archaic.
Truthfully, I respect religion, and after that lunch on Good Friday, I had a lovely Seder with my family. The point, however, remains that I still rest under the spell of ironic humor. Instead of nothing, I had to say something ironic.
Because we are elitist. Whether we mean to be or not, if you suffer from ironic humor, you use it to indicate “self awareness.” But isn’t that really the same thing as saying, “Look at me, I’m more cultured than you.” Truly self aware people know how to talk less and listen more. Perhaps by just not talking as much those of us striving to move beyond ironic humor, might actually do so.
Ironic humor and our desire to show our self-awareness actually closes ourselves off because it prevents us from considering that we might actually be offensive to friends, loved ones, and business partners. Instead of showing our cultured minds, it reveals callousness for others who fail to conform to our view of the world, which, ironically, is the opposite reaction these types of jokes intend to make.
(After writing this, I stumbled upon the opening of Leo Strauss’s essay concerning Plato’s Republic. I’m not motivated to write a follow-up. Part II will discuss the ethics of Leo Strauss’s take on Irony and how it really is used in leadership as a way to spot the other elite. In addition, it’s the elite, Strauss argued, that should run the country. In other words, mass deception is good if it helps benefit the greater population. )