The Inadequacy of Irony: Why Ridicule and Protest Don’t Mix Well

 

If you are one of the people at Emerson who have followed the fight in Wisconsin over this year’s budget (all 10 of us), you may have noticed the attention paid to the protest signs by TV news and blogs in the form of top 10 lists, photo galleries, and highlight reels.

While there were thousands of signs raised in Madison during the last two months, a common theme among them has begun to stick out to me, one that has been played to caricaturish proportions in the 2000s. Media outlets have focused on ironic protesters, and although irony is not new to politics by any means, its overuse has rendered it increasingly ineffective.

There are two incarnations of protest-irony. The first draws deeply from the well of absurdist postmodernism and tends to serve, at most, as a commentary on protest itself.

For example: At last year’s Tea Party rally on the Common, several students paraded a banner that read “Coalition of Green Gay Loggers For Jesus.”  I had my laugh about it, but the truth is, this kind of irony-politik is useless for promoting legislation or other political ideas, as it makes no attempt to engage in discourse whatsoever. The banner could just as easily have been at a pro-choice rally in Nashua because it has nothing to do with the specific issue. It is better described as meme-driven facsimile of dissent best suited for 4chan than anything meant for the real world.

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The second type of protest-irony, however, does have some place in the real world – if it were wholly useless, it could not have so deeply colored public demonstrations over the last decade. This ironic arena encompasses everything from casual sarcasm (from Wisconsin: “What Do I Know, I’m Just A TEACHER?”) to the classic pop culture reference (from Emerson, among other places: “God Hates Mudkips”) and tends to give, at least, the appearance of intended participation in political discourse.

The trouble with this second type is that it can only sort of participate. At best, it is limited to, as David Foster Wallace once noted, a “diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem.” It is this limitation which has eroded this tool’s sharp incisors down to nubs, rendering it ineffective.

While irony — and its most popular offshoot, sarcasm — is a wonderful tool of mockery and (sometimes) criticism, it plays a one-sided game.  The only reason an ironists find success is that by positioning themselves in the critical seat of power, they are able to undercut their target’s point-of-view by mocking it, making it seem foolhardy.  While this may be a good way to make the awkward kid leave you alone at recess, it has no place in protest, much less the lawmaking process. Irony doesn’t mesh well with sincerity; On the contrary, it feeds off of the sincerity of others in order to make its point.

One might argue that the deployment of irony is merely a rhetorical tool that at worst, it has a neutral effect. But think: What quicker way is there to alienate those with different points of view than by making fun of their ideas? Or their character, even?  The wink-and-nudge game may work in literature as dramatic irony, and since the 80s has found a comfy home in advertising (read: every Geico commercial ever), but in the realm of governance one is not concerned with a good story or cheap auto insurance. One is concerned with the creation of law, which is as single-entendre as one can get.

On protest, the effects of irony, a situational abstraction, are not especially easy to see in the real world. Cries that irony’s lovechild with casual conversation, ‘snark,’ are a cancer to constructive discourse seem too eschatological to me. I do not believe that irony has, or likely will, undermine the effectiveness of all protest in America; That being said, I do believe that irony has, and will continue to, undermine the effectiveness of enough protest in America to be of concern. Combined with a real push for definitive legislative or electoral change, irony can function in the body politik as a method of expressing disenchantment and frustration.  Alone, it’s as good as streaking at an Abstinence Only rally — one may get laughs, but in the end, your philosophical opponents will only become more entrenched.

So while the would-be Oscar Wildes of Wisconsin continue to quip through their budget woes, it’s important to consider how we can stop insulting ‘Them’ in order to make a point.  The next time you go to protest or a rally for a political candidate (November 2012’s right around the corner!), ask yourself: “Is the way I’m presenting my cause constructive, or am I just pissing at the other side with my tongue couched firmly in my cheek?”