By this, I don’t mean that irony shouldn’t exist. I don’t mean that satire is useless (it’s incredibly important and often the heart of comedy), and I certainly don’t mean that the intent behind a statement should never be subversive.
What I mean is that irony isn’t a shield for poor behavior. That it shouldn’t be a security blanket or a real treatment for anxiety. And that no actual difference between two otherwise identical things that emerges from one of them is somehow “ironic.”
Generationally, we’ve taken to using irony more and more as a means of escape from what feels like an increasingly inhospitable world.
It’s much easier to hide behind a shell of reflexive irony than to actually confront the often insurmountable problems we encounter growing up. We say “oof” automatically whenever something goes wrong. Our substance abuse problems and our relationship issues become comedy bits. We try to see life through so many layers of irony instead of facing the frightening alternative: Honesty and vulnerability.
Irony separates our actions from their consequences. Man, you’re just doing it for the meme, right? You’re just doing it to flex on people, you know?
This is easy. It’s tempting to take our own lives out of context and thrive in the ironic, disconnecting our actions and the actions of others from their intent. This makes us feel safe. As a generation, we’re aging at once too quickly and too slowly. We’re mired in a desperate need to feel safe, like there’s a “real world” we’re not yet part of and we can fuck around as much as we want for a few more years with no consequences.
But we also yearn for something more, the realness of an adulthood that’s just on the horizon of our late-stage adolescence. When we reach out for it, we realize that we have to give up our safety, shattering the illusion that it ever existed at all. Irony maintains that illusion, letting us feel grown-up without the responsibility or the vulnerability, and its overuse keeps us from really finding truth in the human endeavor.
Irony is easy, but it’s also dangerous. When we deflect culpability by preemptively ensuring that everything we say is taken as ironic, we not only dodge responsibility for our actions but also stop honestly living our lives. We exist in the near future, so anxious that someone might think we have an actual opinion that we build up barricades of irony around everything we do and suffocate the genuine meaning from the human experience.
Irony should be used carefully not only on a personal level but also on a political one. I was recently talking to a friend who described Steve Bannon, the disgraced former advisor to the President, as “unironically a white supremacist.” She was right, of course, but the way she phrased herself confused me. How could someone ironically be a white supremacist? It’s pretty troubling that our society is so suffused with irony that we need to indicate when a person actually believes what they say, especially when what that person says and believes is horrible and inflammatory.
Ironic bigotry and bigotry are exactly the same thing. A racist meme remains a racist meme even if it’s buried under irony, singing along to Juice WRLD’s “All Girls Are The Same” without really being behind the words still spreads their troubling message. And supporting hateful rhetoric and politics because it’d be funny if it succeeded is despicable. It’s incredibly sad that people can feel so disconnected from reality, so brutally nihilistic that they form every opinion from spite and believe whatever politician sounds the goofiest when they’re bass-boosted.
This replacement of reality with irony is a refusal to participate in life because it’d be too scary to actually believe something independently, and I think it reveals a cataclysmic failure on society’s part to adequately prepare people for life in the real world.
Your life is your life, with no caveats, and you’ve been living in the real world since you were born into it. You can try to use irony to escape it, but the fact is that, if you’re reading this, you’re alive. Your actions have consequences and your words have meaning.
I’ve been hyperbolic for this entire article, of course. I think irony can be a helpful mechanism for exposing real problems with the world — ironic bigotry works when its purpose is to actually reveal and criticize that bigotry, rather than simply be bigoted and “ironic.” It’s also helpful and understandable to use irony to deal with what one finds upsetting about the world.
Ideally, irony intensifies reality, to expose by comparison its issues and to allow us to approach our own problems more easily. The trouble arises when irony loses its purpose.
When it acts as plausible deniability for evil, an excuse for shitty behavior, and just another technique by which we refuse to face our problems, irony fails.