Friday, August 28, 2015

The Sad Death of Irony

Show me someone who has never offended anyone and I'll show you someone who has never said anything amusing or important.

Human beings are not robots and occasionally we will get it wrong and say things which will be misunderstood. The people who do this least are generally the ones who have least in common with most members of the human race.

But the frightening thing about the age we are living is that one badly tasteless joke can completely wreck the life of the person responsible. As Jon Ronson, author of "So you've been publicly shamed" pointed out, when a mob forms on social media to condemn something, there is a “disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.”

He gives an example: two men were talking quietly at a tech conference and one made a silly and offensive joke. A woman who was sitting in front of them took offence, took a photo of them and tweeted it with a critical reference to the joke..

There was a twitter storm and the person who had made the tasteless joke, a father of three, lost his job. When this came out, there was another twitter storm, this time against the person who had made the tweets complaining about the joke, and she too lost her job.

Neither party, incidentally, had ever called for the other to be sacked, but it happened anyway.

A major cause of problems when people get themselves into trouble is that some individuals seem to have trouble recognising irony - when you say something which is the opposite of what you mean, often to ridicule a position you disagree with via reduction ad absurdum - and a huge amount of offense-taking occurs when something which was meant as irony is taken literally.

It is probably just as well that Twitter did not exist when Dean Jonathan Swift anonymously published the most extreme work of irony of all time, "A Modest Proposal" in 1729. As it is not for the squeamish I will not repeat what it said (follow the link if you don't know and want to.)

I am sure people would have found out who wrote it and do not think the twitter mob which formed would have been satisfied with calling for him to be sacked as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. In that era he might have been in serious danger of being hanged, drawn and quartered!

Actually Swift did experience the 18th century equivalent of a twitter storm after some of his satirical work and it didn't stop him from writing, though it greatly affected his prospects for preferment and caused difficulty getting some of his work published - including "Gulliver's Travels"  for which he is now best remembered. But Swift was one of a kind: W. B. Yeats poetically translated the latin Epitaph Swift wrote for himself into English as:
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.


One who did dare to imitate Swift was Larry Niven, who in

"Another modest proposal: the roentgen standard"

suggests using coins made from radioactive nuclear by-products to replace fiat money. This would have such useful advantages as that "Foreign Aid could be delivered by ICBM."

This might be the only form of international aid which UKIP and Tony Blair would both approve of.

(Yes, that WAS a joke.)

I have been reading an article in "Commentary" called The Timothy Hunt Witch Hunt, which should be required reading for everyone, whatever they might think of the rights and wrongs of this issue because it illustrates how easy it is for someone with even a highly distinguished career to destroy it in five minutes. And how much care you should take before assuming that all the allegations against anyone who becomes the victim of a social media firestorm are true.

If we carry on like this, irony as a means of expression will become unknown. Which would be a shame. But not as much of a shame as the fact that people have had their lives wrecked for comments for which the punishment is utterly disproportionate.

POSTSCRIPT

You couldn't make it up. Within minutes of posting this, I noticed that earlier today Yasmin Alibhai-Brown had tweeted that "For Toffs missing hunting let them shoot migrants."

You can take this both ways - yes this was irony but I saw it in a re-tweet asking if we could petition the BBC never to let "this bigot" anywhere near a radio or TV studio ever again.

Then again, I think the person who made that re-tweet was being ironic too ...

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