Originally Published in Farrago Edition Five (2022)
Content Warning: mentions of racism, discussion of misogyny, sexual harassment, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, mass violence
I don't know about you, but my darkest moments--what haunts me when I lay shivering in the clutches of regret and cringe at night-are most often born from misinterpretation in social situations. Worst of all is misinterpreting humour: laughing when you aren't supposed to, or, God forbid, not laughing when you should be, instead taking an obvious joke at face value. Shameful. Almost unspeakable. It bears an embarrassing misunderstanding of social cues for all to see, point and laugh at, and... okay, maybe it's not always that serious. But at the moment, misunderstanding humour really does make you feel "other". That's what makes ironic humour--shrouded in layers of necessary outside knowledge, implicit commentary, and its fusion of mockery and sincerity-such a powerful shield against criticism. The threat of social punishment that rings with the words "dude, it's just satire..." often sends people scurrying off to wallow in shame before they can even think to question the validity of that statement as a defence.
Sarcasm! Saying the opposite of what you mean for comedic effect. The most basic form of irony that we know and boomers, especially, love. "I'm sorry, I didn't realise you're an expert on my life and how to live it," jeers a Minion™ in a classic Facebook meme, deep fried and crispy at the edges from fifteen different Instagram filters having been applied to it over the years. "Please continue while I take notes." But the minion's wry smile, raised eyebrow and expectant hands-on-hips suggests it might not actually be sincere.
A few layers past plain irony, however, is post-irony, where earnest and ironic intents become worryingly inextricable. A dissertation by Caitlin Brown from the University of Michigan offers the term "meta-disparagement humour", described as "jokes that explicitly target a minority while implicitly ridiculing those who would laugh at the joke at face value". But subscribers of this kind of humour run the risk of becoming earnest actors in perpetuating the ideologies it parodies
Meta-disparagement humor became a fixed feature in comedy following Obama's inauguration in the states, within a month of which "perceptions of racial discrimination decreased by ten per cent". An episode of 30 Rock illustrates its line of thought when black character
Tracy Jordan claims that Obama "brought old school racism back", prompting another to clarify, "So you're saying racism is back because white people no longer feel sorry for us?"
Today's social media landscape, teeming with liberal identity discourse and progressive movements for feminism like #MeToo, seems to have had similar effects regarding misogyny.
The Depp v. Heard trial was excessively celebrated online for the public recognition that, in contrast to patriarchal ideas of men being impervious to emotion and women being helpless victims, men can be abused, and women abusers. Indeed, that sounds like a long stride toward dismantling the patriarchy, but it also ushered in the return of 2012-variety misogynistic memes in force. Remember what scrolling through social media was like at the height of the case?
Finger guns pointed at the camera, cool-guy aviators on, Johnny Depp's smirking face sandwiched between Impact font reading: "JOHNNY DEPP / THE FIRST MAN TO EVER WIN AN ARGUMENT WITH A WOMAN!"
A doctored screenshot of a tweet by OnlyFans itself, accompanied by a suggestive picture of Amber Heard @ing her to tell her "It's time" (for her to make an account).
I saw household names in YouTube commentary dismiss Depp's text messages about "fucking Amber Heard's burnt corpse" as mere "edgy jokes"-normal and harmless jokes, even, its context of a trial surrounding domestic abuse notwithstanding.
But they're not harmless, are they?
Again, jokes that toe the line of bigotry provide cover for earnest proponents of it since they could then "plausibly" deny their bigotry. Farrah Khan, director of Consent Comes First at Toronto Metropolitan University, said of the case and its reception online: "jokes become ideas... the idea that you can demean, police, persecute and punish people. Then it becomes harassment, threats, and verbal abuse. Then it can also if people think that's okay... lead to other things like sexual assault, physical violence and murder."
You don't have to take Khan's word for it, though--take it from an online extremist. When asked the best way of spreading their ideology, the anonymous owner of E;R, an antisemitic YouTube channel, responded: "pretend to joke about it until the punchline really lands."
One thinks of Pewdiepie's infamous flirtation with the alt-right and his slew of scandals circa 2016-2019--most notable was his having spent money for people to hold up anti-Semitic signs--and how it came to a head with the 2019 Christchurch shooter pledging allegiance to him before killing 51 at two mosques. Obviously, the shooting wasn't Pewdiepie's fault. But this was a visible cause-and-effect of "ironic" shock humour attracting genuine proponents of the bigotry that Pewdiepie apparently sought out only to satirise.
After all, the common diagnosis his defensive fans offer is that Pewdiepie's "edgy" persona was totally unserious, "meta", even. The real joke was simply on anyone who hadn't figured out the supposedly high-concept irony of it all-anyone who wasn't "in on it".
Being in on something--be it a particular brand of edgy "satire" or, for example, the anti-corporation spirit of the "subscribe to Pewdiepie" slogan (as the Christchurch shooter, who uttered the phrase before firing, was)-has become a way of signalling that you're internet-savy, that you're not just a passive consumer of an "overly sensitive" internet, and that, ultimately, you're smarter than the naive public. Ironic shock humour flatters its users into the continued touting of dog whistles signalling membership in the inside club.
If that sounds a lot like alt-right "red-pilling"-their term for radicalisation--that's because it's the same thing. Both blossomed foremost as an ironic mocking of the social media spectacle, and then the mocking of the "earnestness and moral self-flattery" (as Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, calls it) of Tumblr-brand teenaged activists, militant and drunk with the power that an increasingly liberal internet culture has given them of "cancelling" people.
As our collective capacity for sincerity has been further dulled by "doomscrolling", it's increasingly easy to view ourselves as helpless spectators to a world gone mad. As a result, lazy cynicism has become the mark of an educated, enlightened, "truth-seeing" worldview. Displays of strong conviction and sincere belief seemingly bare a vulnerability to emotional rhetoric, an inability to think critically, and a susceptibility to being... perish the thought... cringe.
But this writer thinks a return to sincerity is the only way out of the dangerous comedic landscape we've created for ourselves. Nagle said of the best treatment for irony-wielding online extremists: "journalists should be saying, 'I don't want to talk about Pepe memes and hand signs.' We should force them to talk about what they really stand for."
Reader, dare to back away from the insecure, self-watching, measured distance of ironic cringe culture. Dare to see yourself not as a spectator but a participant in our culture; to entertain single-entendre principles; to resist cynicism's false promise of intellectual superiority.