Out of all the questions I receive from readers, the most common one is, “Can you please stop writing columns?” These readers, of course, are being ironic.
It’s perhaps the best word that sums up our generation, other than “disappointing.” But what exactly is irony? And how does one go about being ironic? These can be difficult questions for many students, despite the prevalence of irony in modern-day art, media, literature and liberals.
Understanding irony is essential to making friends, dominating conversations, being elitist, wooing potential mates, insulting people, watching reality TV and a whole lot of other activities that we students practice. It has revolutionized the field of sociology and probably lots of other fields, too. In short, as the saying goes, if you don’t know irony then you don’t know a zebra from a horse that has stripes spray-painted on it.
The good news is that irony is not too difficult to learn. One of the key skills is saying one thing and meaning another. This is termed verbal irony and it’s practically indispensible when it comes to being funny and interesting.
For instance, imagine you’ve just finished a romantic candlelit dinner and your date says, “I had a wonderful time.” Should you simply say, “Me too”? If you wish to be unremarkable and boring, go ahead. But a better idea would be to say, “Me too, and you look really beautiful in low lighting such as that provided by these candles.” You’re saying your date is beautiful but you actually mean your date is ugly, which is flirty and fun, because you don’t really mean that. Otherwise you wouldn’t be dating, obviously. You’re being ironic. Get it?
Another form of irony is situational irony, which occurs when there is a disparity between what is expected and what actually happens. A famous case of situational irony occurred in the American Civil War, when Union Army general John Sedgwick chastised his troops for flinching during a shootout. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!” he declared. Well, you know what happened next: the damn Confederates somehow managed to shoot the Union elephant, even though it was hiding behind a tree.
No, I’m sorry. They actually shot Sedgwick below the eye and killed him. This was quite unexpected and ironic, and the Union soldiers all had a good laugh. Now, obviously you can’t do situational irony like you can verbal irony, but you can recognize it. The trick is always pointing it out when it occurs, which makes you seem awfully intelligent. For example, if you are taking a class on religion and the topic of sexual abuse by religious officials comes up in discussion, you can chuckle and say, “Oh, the irony! Situational, of course. Who would have thought?” Many of your fellow students, not to mention your GSI, will be impressed with your knowledge of the specific type of irony.
Perhaps the most amusing form of irony you can try is feigned ignorance, or Socratic irony. Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Socrates would pretend to be stupid during discussions to draw out the illogic in his opponent’s argument. Tragically, as you will remember, he eventually went too far and ate poison hemlock on purpose to prove god-knows-what, but his contributions to irony are still revered today. Basically, you act rather dumb to tease, amuse, anger or expose the prejudices of a fellow human being before getting punched in the mouth.
Here is a hypothetical conversation between two students, with Ned employing Socratic irony:
Ethel: “Republicans are taking over the House, Ned!”
Ned: “What? When? Do we have enough food?”
Ethel: “The House of Representatives, Ned.”
Ned: “Oh! With guns?”
Ethel: “I hate you, Ned.”
(Note how Ned makes Ethel express her deep-seated, irrational hatred.)
Oh no; I’m almost out of room and I’ve completely forgotten about postmodernism. Okay, real quick: irony and postmodernism go hand in hand and it’s important to use the term “postmodern” in as many conversations as you can, usually with the structure, “In our postmodern society, however, I think the concept of X is Y, don’t you?” Y is almost always something negative. For instance, if someone were to ask you about art, you would say, “I think in our postmodern society, the concept of art is rather artificial, don’t you?”
Anyway, I hope this article cleared up most people’s questions about irony. At this point in our country’s history, we all need a solid grasp of it, and while there are those who say that irony is, in essence, cynical, profound negativity that rejects objective morality and causes the death of sincerity, remember that they are probably just being ironic.
Will Grundler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.