Hi everyone, today I'd like to write a short (lol) thread about a topic that comes up again and again in both leftist circles and discourse at large surrounding media. I don't have a definitive argument to put forward, but I hope to encourage discussion and to invite all of you to think critically and make steps towards a clearer understanding of what is often a rather hazy concept. I'll use CWs but be advised I'll be discussing upsetting things throughout.

So, without further ado: irony.

"Irony", when it's not used in the Alanis Morissette way, has two meanings. It is either

1) A local figure of speech, consisting of saying one thing to mean its opposite

2) A generalised attitude characterised by the playful espousal of gestures and ideas without ever fully committing to any of them

While I'll mostly be using "irony" to mean the first definition, the second definition is useful to keep in mind and will come into play over the course of the argument.

What I'm interested in here is irony when it is used in jokes. The first two views I would like to disagree with are the idea that it's always OK, and the idea that it's never OK.

The idea that irony is always OK is usually put forward with the idea that you can say anything as long as it's a joke. This is ridiculous. It implicitly lets the person making the statement decide if what they said is a joke, which implies that anyone can say anything as long as they follow it up with "just joking"


People should be held morally responsible for what they say, which means they can't be given a get-out-of-jail-free card by claiming it's a joke. When you make a joke about something, you're still saying something about that thing. Most of the time what you're saying is utterly inconsequential, but sometimes it isn't. In any case, nothing is ever "just a joke" because every joke is a also a statement.

Then there's the idea that irony is always bad, an idea that I have seen leftists occasionally throw around. This is also ridiculous. In Western culture, the first great ironist was Socrates, who over the course of the Socratic Dialogues, playfully espouses different ideas before dismissing them. Ironic thinking is essential to our continued becoming as people. You can renounce irony but you can't ever be rid of it (how ironic).

So, how can we tell when we're using irony right and when we're using it wrong? This is where it gets complicated, and in order to being to answer this question, we need to start looking into how irony actually functions.

If irony is saying something to mean something else, all ironic statements contain within themselves the possibility that someone might take them literally, miss out on the ironic tone and/or context.

Irony is always exclusionary, because it divides its audience into two groups: those that get it, and those that don't. Even if every human being in the world takes an ironic statement the same way, in order to realise that it's ironic they must first glean the statement's ironic meaning. Before you become the person who gets it, you are always first the person who doesn't get it. Irony always creates a grey area.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

This is how we can come to identify when irony doesn't work. Take this infamous tweet: it couldn't be more obvious that Mullen intends to mean the opposite of what he's saying. But it clearly doesn't work, clearly feels wrong, because by creating ambiguity around the question of whether rape is funny through his use of irony, Mullen is doing something morally unacceptable. Irony doesn't work when it creates grey areas where grey areas do not belong.

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

This doesn't, however, mean that one can never be ironic when discussing heavy and difficult topics. One of the best and most skilful uses of irony in literary history is Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. The speaker of A Modest Proposal argues that in order to alleviate their living conditions, poor families in Ireland ought to sell off their babies to be eaten by wealthy families. Let's spend a moment thinking about how this works.

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

If irony creates two groups, those that get it and those that don't, here are the groups of readers of A Modest Proposal:

- Those that realise Swift doesn't think poor Irish children should die

- Those who think he means it, and disagree

- Those who think he means it, and agree

The reason A Modest Proposal is so well thought out, is that the third group doesn't exist. It's simply too horrifying.

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

So the two things you can take from A Modest Proposal are either: "Swift is right to argue that children shouldn't live like this" or "Swift is wrong to argue that children should live like this". In either case, Swift has successfully convinced you that the situation in Ireland is unacceptable, and that the Anglos are monsters for allowing it to continue.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

Compare this to how Nick Mullen's joke operates: men who believe rape is funny, and men who believe it's a good thing to do are everywhere, and the view is widely perpetuated by our culture.

Irony is frequently used by fascists to create a third group: people who recognise the ironic meaning of the joke, and also realise that this ironic meaning is used to mask the statement's actual sincerity.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

In other words: you can frame your rape apologism as a joke in order to claim that you don't endorse rape, all the while the core of your audience knows that this ironic framing is just a pretence.

This, I think, is what leads people to disavow irony entirely. Because irony always creates ambiguities, always makes the reader hold in their mind one thing and its opposite, it looks like it undermines the very concept of moral certainty.

However, I don't think that irony undoes morality permanently. Quite the opposite. When we read A Modest Proposal, we go on a journey. First we think through its literal meaning, then we consider its ironic meaning (the opposite of what it says), and finally we arrive at our own conclusion, which in this case, is to disagree with the literal meaning.

Irony is dialectical.

So when you're writing an ironic joke and trying to figure out whether it's going to work, try to think of meaning not as something fixed, but as a journey. Think of the different places, the different things you are inviting your reader to consider, think of where they are going to land, and of how obvious this landing point is.

The simplest way of thinking through this is to use Goethe's three questions:

- What are you trying to do? i. e. What is your intended meaning?

- How well are you doing it? i. e. Is this intended meaning sufficiently clear?

- Was it worth doing? i. e. Is the conclusion you want your reader to arrive at worth the journey you're taking them on?

And... that's gonna be my conclusion. Thank you so much for reading, and please share your thoughts and criticisms with me!

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@garfiald not knowing who that person is, it wouldn't have been obvious to me that he meant the opposite either 😬

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@garfiald not to be a downer but are you sure the third group doesn't exist? I've seen some dehumanizing shit

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@davestridsr This is a good point, and has given me pause. I think that framing the suffering of the poor as the death of children strips away the way poor people are dehumanised quite effectively. It seems to me that when you've reached the point where you think a child's death is justified by where that child was born, you're not really worth taking into account as a potential audience. But it's worth keeping in mind

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@garfiald @davestridsr as Tomi Lahren’s comments on Thanksgiving have shown, the third group definitely exists _and_ has outsized political clout.

They’re not usually as easy to spot, but mark one in that column every time someone responds to concrete data about suffering with abstract talk about ideals that ultimately advocates for the status quo, especially if the status quo is violence.

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@millenomi @garfiald @davestridsr

I think the Tomi Lahren crowd exists and has outsidzed clout too, but in Swift's day maybe not. They didn't have an instant communications medium that allowed shitty people to egg each other on to greater conceptual atrocities in real-time. So the truly awful Lahren-esque sorts would have been a lot less extreme and a lot more isolated.

Now working poor children to death, that was a different thing.

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@garfiald this is the part i don't get. obviously some will understand the irony and argue that, because poor families aren't selling their children, the situation in Ireland is acceptable, right?

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@toilet But when Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, Irish families were literally seeing their children starve to death. They didn't sell their children off because the chose not to, but they really weren't far off from being able to do it

@garfiald ok Garf, you win, I give up. I **will** listen to the song 'Ironic' and not complain about the lyrics. You didn't need to make a whole thread just to get me to listen to the damn song....

@CornishRepublicanArmy confession: i havent heard a single alanis morissette song, including ironic. i had to look up the lyrics to make sure she does get the meaning of "irony" wrong

@garfiald what, it's like one of the most classic 90s pop songs of all time. how did you not know it?

@garfiald we're the same age.... I just mean like, growing up in the 2000s you must have heard it a bunch, even in Frog-land

@CornishRepublicanArmy not consciously. if i heard it again i wouldnt be like "oh thats alanis morissette" best you could hope for is id vaguely recognise it

I've always thought that they were ironic from the lens of a young person. What's unexpected is fundamentally linked to life experience and what you've learned from those experiences.

@garfiald one criticism: neurodivergent people are not always going to "get" the irony. they're not going to go on that "journey" and arrive at the same place.

another criticism: psychologically, repetition only *strengthens* belief in something, **even if you are actually refuting it!** clarity of communication is only one factor of being understood; you need to take into account / correct for humans' psychological biases. being sincere and bringing up unfamiliar information is most effective.

@trwnh All instances of meaning-making have the potential to fail according to a wide range of factors. No meaning is ever "fully accessible" for fairly obvious reasons, it is our responsibility to be mindful of the situations in which we intervene, which includes modifying our forms of expression to suit the needs of our interlocutors. In other words, no technique or attitude should be condemned solely on the basis that it is potentially exclusionary, all means of signification are.

@trwnh The point about repetition is perfectly valid, if one's objective is to argue a flatly truthful case, or to educate within a certain context. Irony is a figure of style which, most of the time, occurs when one is using language for more artistic or frivolous purposes, or as a rhetorical flourish to aid persuasion. I agree that, as a systematic means of educating people or spreading ideas, it is ill-suited.

@garfiald my point about repetition is more along the lines of how ironic statements are still statements. i'm saying that for irony to work, it has to be novel. it cannot simply use existing statements, for it risks being taken at face value, *consciously or not.*

corollary: "how propaganda works" -- the mere expression of the thought reifies it, no matter how artistic or frivolous it may be. "you are not immune to propaganda"

@garfiald to hearken back to your example of why A Modest Proposal can be seen as good satire: no one was making the assertion that poor children should be eaten. not only was it absurd, it was completely novel. there was no exisiting social analogue to compare it to, no party who might seriously espouse such a position. there was no repetition or reification of an existing line of thought.


*Reading this years later...*
I always thought you were just a very good shitposter, but turns out you're smart

@lastprincess oh thank you so much, that's so kind of you to say!

@garfiald this thread just federated to my instance from way back in the stone age of 2018

@garfiald ! ! ! both the literal levels and ironic levels of a text do Work (noun)!

@garfiald People can also tell what the object of a given irony is. If it's being engaged for dishonest purposes and to hide evil, it deserves to be attacked.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@garfiald this seems, and only because the brain patterns feel the same at this point, somehow related to the question of intent and whether intent matters? Like incompetence vs villainy. Because so many people lately seem to claim "I didn't know" or "I thought it would do x" as a defense and at some point it doesn't matter, but I feel like I'm spending more time than I want to discerning between them.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@Jewbacchus Intent is directly related to the question! definitely not a strange thing to bring up, it's a very big part of questions surrounding the morality of media

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@garfiald in general i've gotten to a point where i don't care if someone was really incompetent or just feigning it, out of kindness to myself i have had to simplify the heuristic to judging on just the results when harm is done, bc otherwise every bad person gets an out.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@Jewbacchus 100% agree. The meaning of a statement is constituted by the person who hears the statement, not the person who speaks it. Intent doesn't matter, but the way you communicate your intent does matter

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

Some people purposefully exploit the ambiguity in irony to say what they really think in a climate that would never accept what they really think. On Twitter where left positions were taboo you can see why irony was such a useful tool. However reactionary irony has a lot of danger of moving the needle the other way.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

It's much harder to effectively use reactionary irony to move the needle left when extremists already are trying to use it to move the needle right.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

Most reactionary ironic positions you can take to disgust someone with a right wing view is already being made by people with a right wing view. Also a modest proposal worked because the climate was sincere enough to receive it. A joke needs a straight man.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@garfiald seriously top notch thread

@the_gayest_doggo thank you so much! thanks for reading i'm so glad you liked it!

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@garfiald south park is maybe the cultural institution most responsible for this and they will never face any consequences or account because they're able to deny it with "muh free speech"

re: Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@garfiald You worded it better than I ever could have. I have been trying to explain this concept to people for so long and they just don't seem to get it.

Horrible rape joke by horrible man 

@garfiald "Ha ha, just serious"

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@garfiald Meanwhile, modern "satire" is just openly stating what conservatives actually want

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@garfiald The third existed back then, and had a lot of power and they got what they wanted. The famine was not stopped by swifts ironic work.

Malthus and his type were the third category for example.

Ireland lost 25% of its population and many historians now think the famine was an engineered genocide. The only thing that stopped it from happening a second time was organized labor strikes and boycotts.

Irony may be natural, but its not particularly *useful* for changing your reality.

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@hypnotransgirl I understand your point but that stands as more of an objection to art in general than to irony specifically. In any case, the third position does not exist *in relation to the text*, because the text presents the suffering of Irish people in a way which contrasts with rather than repeats the modes of justification for the genocide. Which is another way of saying that no partisan of the genocide endorsed that text.

Bad things happening to children; poverty (A Modest Proposal) 

@garfiald dont get me wrong i do not object to art, and swifts work is important as art. A lot of the nobility understood it as satire, had a good laugh and kept killing the irish. Ironic indeed.

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