On Irony & Idealism

I got called ‘overly earnest’ a little while ago. This was by someone who reads my blog. Now, this post is not about me getting defensive at all, because I don’t think being earnest and sincere is anything to be ashamed of. Yet this comment interested me, because it brought to the forefront some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, about the way we talk (or don’t talk) to each other. About the dominant style or mode of my own generation. And I guess I’d call this mode ‘irony’. It’s not a very complex form of irony though, it’s often rather simplistic. Irony used to have so many different functions and meanings, one of them being to critique and to think. Today, it seems to have become co-opted into a general, boring and rather useless idea of ‘cool’.

Sometimes, this ‘cool’ is referred to as ‘hipster’. And yep, we’ve all seen those clone-like ‘individuals’, with the same glasses, same haircuts, same t-shirts, and same jeans, using the same ironic ‘humour’ to engage with the world. Hey, want to be sexist or racist but still look ‘cool’? Just use irony (your fans will love you and bow at your feet)! I hate to break it to them, but irony doesn’t cancel out being an idiot. Simply adding slick ironic humour is not a free get out of jail card.

But there’s something more going on here – an inherent mistrust of idealism; not a naive idealism, but a responsible, adult one. We’re assuming that saying what you mean, and caring passionately about what you mean, is a character flaw and a dangerous way to engage with the world that leaves you open to derision or criticism. But what’s so wrong with ‘criticism’? What’s wrong with actually being made to think about your own position? And what’s wrong with being, dare I say it, earnest?

I think we’re in danger of wallowing in some self-congratulatory ironic wankery. When I read through magazines that many of my friends like and read the dominant writing mode among my generation of writers is ironic. Same thing online. But it’s not just prevalent in niche or ‘hipster’ publications, it is now mainstream. And to me, idolising this mode of ‘coolness’, whether it be ‘mainstream’ or ‘hipster’ (to be honest, I see little difference between the mainstream and the ‘alternative’ these days though), is a cop out. I really don’t care how funny some of these writers are, I want to actually hear them say something they mean – even if their sincerity isn’t funny or ‘cool’, even if it requires me to think and learn rather than let a difficult subject slide off my back in easy, comfortable, and unthinking humour.

So when I read this article on Meanjin, I was relieved to hear someone articulate exactly what I’ve been thinking. And since Gabrielle Carey said it so well, I’d like to finish with her own words:

It is daunting because declaring any deeply-held belief is almost certain to expose you to some level of satirical scorn. When irony is the default tone, being sincere is not only difficult, it’s risky. If you appear earnest or as though you might be ‘taking yourself too seriously’, you will immediately make yourself a target for ironic ridicule and in an age of satire and cynicism, the worst social gaffe is to appear naïve, credulous or gullible.

Irony is not just an abstract concept. When it becomes the dominant cultural tone, it affects the way we relate to each other in very real and concrete ways because we live in a culture of correction—where we constantly see only what we believe needs ‘fixing’—rather than in a culture of forgiveness and acceptance. God knows how corny that sounds; how easy to send up, to parody, to ironize. This is the great risk of trying to say what you mean: you leave yourself wide open. Unprotected. It would be so much easier if I was speaking in double-entendres. Then I could pretend that whatever interpretation my reader might make wasn’t really the one I intended. ‘There is no safer posture of self-protection than ironic remove,’ notes writer Richard Powers. But if our self-protection has become so secure that it now resembles the bars of a cage, I would suggest that it is time for a new and different cry of freedom.

I’d prefer to be ‘unprotected’; sure, there’s risk involved in that position, but there’s also greater freedom and less bullshit.