Irony and innocence

Rearing children has a way of giving you all sorts of insight into adult issues. Let me juxtapose three recent experiences that, on the surface, have nothing to do with each other, but which taken together illustrate something I’ve been thinking about more and more.

First, I often find that it’s difficult to catechize my two-year-old at the same table with her brothers and sister, because they think she’s cute and hilarious, and she gets terribly distracted when she feels they are laughing at her.

Second, one of my other children recently had the experience – common enough among children, but grim to the one who suffers it – of watching a circle of friends reconfigure such that he or she was no longer in the “inner ring” but landed (due to no fault that I could discern) “on the outs.” It hurt a lot.

Third, I recently had a conversation with a young intellectual friend who said something like this: “For my generation, everything is ironic. We can hardly talk about anything without irony.”

Now how on earth, you ask, doth all this hang together?

Let me begin with a definition of irony. Irony is a form of humor, ridicule, or sarcasm expressed in words that literally signify the opposite of what is intended. So, for instance, I might greet a friend in a torrential downpour by saying, “Lovely day!” with a rueful glance at the skies. Unless my friend is a hopeless literalist, he’ll no doubt catch my meaning.

There are lots of great uses for irony. It can aid detachment from circumstances, people, even ourselves; it can open up new angles and nuances, and help us keep a sense of humor. But when irony goes mainstream in a culture, when it becomes a staple of the communicative diet, when it’s so common that we can no longer distinguish an ironically silly comment about something serious from an ironically serious comment about something silly, then we have reason to worry that irony is both expressive of and contributing to puerility in our thinking. Consider a few observations from the world of the young.

Children have a massive need for approval, for a sense of importance, and there’s no better way to feel liked than to make people laugh. No child wants to be mocked, surely, but most children like to be thought clever and funny, and if they can get a laugh once, they’ll try again and again.

Now think of children you know (or adults, for that matter) who are always trying to be funny. Think how annoying it can be, leading you to ask in exasperation: “Can’t you ever say anything serious?” This is where humor can lead: you’re never sure if anything that’s said can be taken at face value. Sarcasm, ridicule, and irony tend especially toward this: when regardless of subject matter we suspect someone’s making a joke, it’s hard to talk about anything seriously – you must either join in the joke or be made the brunt of it (if you don’t laugh along, you’re taking things far too seriously, which is itself very funny). The result is intellectual shallowness masquerading as a kind of scientific appraisal – we stand apart from things, size them up, coolly patronize them with tongue firmly in cheek. Soon virtually nothing is exempt for the simple reason that, if we exempt something, we risk becoming the butt of the joke. “God rocks” (wink, wink).

If irony slides easily into profanity, it is for that reason deeply political. There is no weapon more potent than irony (“love the haircut, dude”), because no one likes being mocked (perhaps a better word is profaned), and no one likes sensing there’s a deeper meaning known to the inner ring but obscure to oneself. It’s a terribly vulnerable feeling, like being the only one without clothes on.

Social masters of irony keep those around them off balance with inside jokes, layered meanings, knowing half-smiles, and friendliness that may or may not be sincere. You can’t question their motives or actions without immediately being targeted – in Joker’s words, “Why so serious?” It enables them to move in and out of engagements without ever committing or doing any of the other serious work of building a relationship. When everything is ironic, trust is an illusion. And (ironically) all of this can look very modest, humble, and self-deprecating.

Time now to connect these ruminations (following lunch with my young intellectual friend) to recent experience with my children. As a homeschooling dad, I probably haven’t done enough to prepare my kids for the fact that other kids will enjoy inflicting pain on them by means of humor. My kids spend all day talking with adults who take them and their interests seriously; they don’t have much experience with the playground dynamic of making oneself appear big (read: funny) by making others appear and feel very small (read: laughable). It hasn’t occurred to them that kids can’t take anything seriously when they’re with other kids, because that makes you a laughee instead of a laugher, and the quickest wit is king of the hill. In many ways, my kids are still artists caught up in the grandeur, excitement, and wonder of the world; they haven’t learned (yet) the cool detachment, the smirking appraisal, the “science” of the mocker.

I might use their two-year-old sister as an example, though. They see right away what happens to her when they laugh at her cuteness during catechism. Maybe as they watch me help her filter the distractions they will be equipped to deal with some of their own.

There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I think I’ll wait for a future installment.

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