The sad death of Irony

* Remember when we used to joke at the expense of our cousins over the Pond that "The Americans don't do irony" ?

* Remember when someone who put an argument really badly ran the risk of getting disowned by the side of the debate they were trying to support, or receiving unwelcome congratulations from the side they disagreed with, because their argument was taken for irony?

* Remember that once apon a time, brilliant satirists like Jonathan Swift could parody a view they disagreed with by writing essays like "A Modest Proposal" in the knowledge that everyone who read the article would know perfectly well that the actual message was the exact opposite of what it appeared to be saying.

Well, it now seems that Britain doesn't "do irony" either.

The process has been going on for a while. Shortly after I left Bristol University, there was an attempt by the extreme left to take action against that University's TRG society - yes that's right, not the old FCS hardliners but the "wets" - over two or three cartoons copied from a certain national humour magazine. The person who brought the complaint presented the cartoons as promoting certain violent actions which it should have been obvious to anyone capable of winning a place at University that the cartoons concerned were actually ridiculing the mindset which might lead to anything close to those actions.

(I suppose those who wrote the magazine should be grateful that the idiot responsible didn't have the imagination to get them into much more serious trouble by reporting them to the magazine for copyright infringement but there you go.)

It has always been the case that no responsible person should ever use irony where there is a material danger that some idiot taking the comment literally might use it to justfy some crime or evil act, and no wise person should use irony where there is a significant possibility that a reasonable person might take the comments literally.

However, the judgement of what makes for a material risk, and of what a reasonable person might take literally, appears to have shifted.

So that now, if there is any possiblity at all that an ironic comment might amount to incitement to violence if some cretin takes it seriously, or if there is the least chance that it might amount to a career-destroying gaffe if someone on the other side of the argument pretends to take it literally, nobody in the public eye can risk deploying irony as an argument.

Which means that between political correctness, risk aversion, and an almost universal willingness to put the worst possible construction on what anybody says, irony has been put off-limits as a tactic in intellectual debate.

Two recent events have inspired this line of thought.

The first was an item in the small print of the court judgement and press reports of the Oldham East and Saddleworth case is that Phil Woolas may yet end up on the wrong end of a libel case, not from his Lib/Dem opponent, but from the publisher of a Muslim magazine which the Phil Woolas campaign team produced at the election court in an unsuccessful attempt to justify their allegation that death threats had been made against him.

The judgement noted that the reference to death threats in the magazine concerned did not mention Phil Woolas, and it appeared to the justices that the publisher could equally be making an ironic joke about the possiblity that he might be on the receiving end of death threats himself. That publisher has subsequently said that this is indeed what he was doing, and he is apparently threatening to sue Phil Woolas for falsely accusing him of making death threats.

Another case of disastrous misunderstood irony followed what appear to have been some extraordinaryg comments on a BBC programme by "Independent" journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

The feed to her Nicky Campbell interview is no longer running, but it was widely reported in the press that Ms Alibhai-Brown had said that those Western politicians who supported the Iraq war had no right to criticise human rights violations in Iraq or China.

I agree, as I am sure all decent people agree, with the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, when he said in response to a request for a debate on stoning in Iran which followed her statement that

"Stoning to death is a barbarous form of punishment which the Government, and I am sure every honourable member of this House, deplores."

I don't support the death penalty, but if I did I still would not condone stoning as a means of executing even someone convicted of murder after a fair trial and on the most unimpeachable evidence. That would be bad enough, but stoning someone to death on the grounds that they have been accused of adultery on very dodgy evidence is a truly appalling thing to do.

There is a lady in Iran who has been sentenced to that fate, of which she is still in danger, and it is very possible if the rest of the world had not protested about it, the sentence might by now have been implemented.

Both Sir George Young's comment, and mine above, about stoning being wrong amount to implicit or explicit criticism of human rights in Iran, and therefore by her own logic Yasmin Alibhai-Brown appears to be saying that we have no right to make those comments.

Because I believe in free speech within the law, I consider that we do have the right to make those comments: equally, Ms Alibhai-Brown has the right to lawful expression of her opinions, and those who think she is wrong should have the right to lawful expression of their opinions.


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