Experiments in Ontological Relativism

and Other Brain Farts

On Hipster Irony, -isms, and Sea Monsters

Posted by Jason on December 14, 2009

In her review of Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, Jaymee Goh made a wonderful, precise summary of a trend that has been bothering me very much lately:

“Modern humour apparently requires some jaded, cynical worldview in which we are to say something we know is an -ism in order to show how in touch we are with the bad, horrible world. But you know what? Knowing something is racist, and saying it while knowing it’s racist doesn’t make it any less racist. Or sexist. Or ableist. It’s still an -ism, no matter how you wrap it.”

Context is an amazing tool, to be sure. It can entirely change the meaning of a word, a phrase, an entire text. But context is a funny thing: it can be easily missed, and it can be changed. And I think the ironic hipster “oh-I’m-being-offensive-but-not-really-because-I-know-I-am-and-see-how-enlightened-I’m-being-by-acknowledging-it?” is on the verge of falling afoul of both.

When you just assume that people are going to understand your intention, you’re already in dangerous territory. The fact that you’re being ironic doesn’t make the content of what you’re saying any less reprehensible. And everyone will hear the content, but not everyone will see the smirk or see the eye roll that goes with it. Some of them may see it and not get what it means. Others may not care, and just think you’re openly validating their own secret prejudices.

As an example, take the controversy a few years ago over the rapper Eminem. (Disclaimer: I’m not a rap fan, I didn’t really follow the situation closely, and only know the story in broad strokes. If I get the details wrong, just bear with me for the sake of illustration.) Eminem quickly rose to fame/infamy for spewing vile, racist, sexist, violent, and generally appalling lyrics. His defense was that it was all just something akin to satire, that he didn’t really believe those things, he was just being “funny.” But how was the audience supposed to know that? Was it that these things were so over the top that no one could possibly really believe them? Obviously, that wasn’t true, as legions of fans took his hate-fueled rap as validation that their own feelings were normal and okay.

One of the things I find continually amazing and inspiring about human language is that it is always changing. Over time, meanings of words change, phrases come to mean different things, even whole languages evolve into new ones. Contexts, as well as things like tone of voice and body language, can very quickly come to mean the exact opposite of what they meant only a generation ago. Sometimes, it doesn’t take even that long. Have you ever had a friend who latches onto a word or phrase because they think it’s funny or ironic? I once knew a guy who liked to make fun of people who used the word “gay” as a derogatory term (an effort which, in theory, I support). His way of mocking them was to ironically call everything “the gay:” “That’s so the gay.” “This ice cream is really the gay.” “Did you see that totally the gay TV show last night?” After a pretty short while, I had to tell him he wasn’t being ironic anymore. He was just being a jerk. The irony was no longer ironic, and all that was left was him spewing the very same ideas that he wanted to mock.

I’ve said before that I think ideas are contagious. These “oh-I’m-so-ironic” statements just serve to keep in circulation the very attitudes that the speakers supposedly find contemptuous. Now, I’m not saying that we should keep these ideas in the closet, tucked away out of sight. No, I’m saying that we need to make damn sure that whenever they do come out, we’re very, very clear that they are not acceptable. Not with an eye roll, but with more words. Don’t just assume that your audience is getting the message that you’re being over the top; make sure they know you don’t agree with whatever statement or term you’re using for illustration. Otherwise, no matter what your intentions, you’re just part of the problem.

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One Response to “On Hipster Irony, -isms, and Sea Monsters”

  1. Jha said

    Well said, Jason! And even the context excuse is so easily abused. “Well, you just had to see it in context,” they say, as if taking the quote out of context and throwing it around makes it all better.

    THe thing about satire (which is different from parody) is that satire exists to mock the powerful. Parody may well exist to mock merely for the same of mocking, but when it comes at the expense of marginalized groups, how amusing is it then?

    Glad you enjoyed the review!

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