The philosophy of irony and sarcasm

characters in ancient Greek comedy
characters in ancient Greek comedy

In Ancient Greek comedy, Eiron was a clever underdog who somehow always managed to get the better of his rival, Alazon, by sheer use of wit. The Socratic dialogues by Plato essentially represent Socrates as the philosophical equivalent of Eiron. And, of course, it is from him that we derive the term “irony,” the Greek root of which means dissimulation, feigned ignorance.

Contrast that with sarcasm. That word also has a Greek root, naturally, which meant “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer.”

Irony and sarcasm are often confused with one another, but they are not the same thing, even in today’s usage. They are, however, not quite distinct either, as sarcasm can (and often does) have a component of irony, though the latter concept clearly encompasses a much larger range of linguistic situations.

I’m interested in the topic for a number of reasons, but chiefly because I need to reconcile — if possible — my profound dislike for sarcastic videos like the one infamously recently tweeted by Richard Dawkins, featuring a feminist who agrees to be raped by an Islamist, because, you know, when Islamists do it is not really rape, with my enjoyment of comedy of the type featured by Jon Stewart, and now Trevor Noah, on The Daily Show. Is there a principled distinction there? Or am I just trying to rationalize my taste, seeking differences where there are none? (Obviously, this is a rhetorical question, which, however, is neither ironic nor sarcastic…)

First things first. Let us begin with a brief examination of each phenomenon in turn.

Irony, Socratic and otherwise

There are, of course, a number of definitions of irony. The OED puts it this way: “A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.” Notice, however, that such mockery is not necessarily the result of human agency. Things can be ironic in a cosmic fashion (the irony of fate), or in a historic one (e.g., the fact that The New York Times used to mock crossword puzzles, back in the 1920s, while it is now the newspaper most widely identified with the concept).

Indeed, a probably partial taxonomy of irony includes: classical (i.e., in the sense used by the ancient Greeks), cosmic (the serendipitous and often contradictory outcomes of fate), dramatic or tragic (from the Greek tragedies to Shakespeare and beyond), “romantic” (related to self-awareness and self-criticism), situational (resulting from a disparity between intended and actual outcome), and verbal (literally a contradiction between intended and stated meanings). And, naturally, there is plenty of overlap and cross-fertilization.

The type of irony that concerns us here is comic in nature, as famously exemplified in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which begins with the author stating that it is well known that men of good fortune are always on the look out for a wife, while it is obviously the opposite that she means: it is women, in her cultural universe, who are after marriage with men of means. Clearly, Austin uses wit to poke fun, and implicitly criticize, certain aspects of her culture — very much like the writers of the Daily Show often do.

But, being a philosopher, I’m also concerned with Socratic irony. It is a matter of dispute exactly what the “Socratic method” consists of. In some dialogues, Socrates himself tells us that he acts as a philosophical “midwife,” simply helping his interlocutors “remember” (or, better, figure out on their own) a given conclusion about whatever subject matter is at hand.

In other cases, however, it is equally clear that his “elenchic” approach aims at convincing others that they really don’t know as much as they think they know (after all, the Oracle at Delphi did declare Socrates the wisest man in Greece, on account that he knew that he didn’t know…).

These cases, at the least some of the times, become clear examples of irony, if not sarcasm. When Socrates pleads with Euthyphro to teach him what the latter knows, since Socrates is so obviously less wise than Euthyphro himself, he is quite clearly making fun of the guy for the benefit of the audience (i.e., of those that heard the dialogue narrated, or read it, later on).

Do the characters in Austen’s novels, and Euthyphro in the homonymous dialogue, deserve the irony? It seems so, because it is directed either at a usually unquestioned — but perfectly questionable — social habit, or at a fool who has potentially dangerous to others delusions of grandeur.

Which brings me to a couple of initial conclusions. First, irony is not always intentional, nor is it always concerned with comedy. Second, when it is both of those things, it is a somewhat gentle form of criticism — of social mores or of individuals — aimed at teaching others and whose targets tend to be deserving of it (either because of their otherwise unquestioned hegemony, or because they are pompous, self-important, and so forth).

Sarcasm, biting and scratching

Let’s begin again with definitions. Here is dictionary.com: “In sarcasm, ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes.”

According to B. Brousfield, “sarcasm is an insincere form of politeness which is used to offend one’s interlocutor.” John Haiman separates sarcasm and irony in this way: “situations may be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic … people may be unintentionally ironic, but sarcasm requires intention. What is essential to sarcasm is that it is overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression.” And for Henry Watson Fowler “the essence of sarcasm is the intention of giving pain by (ironical or other) bitter words.”

Here is an interesting observation from William Brant’s Critique of Sarcastic Reason: “sarcasm is hypothesized to develop as a cognitive and emotional tool that adolescents use in order to test the borders of politeness and truth in conversation.”

There are, however, some illustrious defenders of sarcasm: Dostoyevsky, for instance, argued that sarcasm is “usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”

One last note, not at all intended as sarcastic (or is it?): in 2014, the US Secret Service actually requested bids for software that would identify sarcasm in tweets. Good luck with that.

Irony, sarcasm, and the ethics of humor

It is a well known truism of the ethics of comedy that “good” (in the ethical sense) humor punches up, not down. That is, comedy ought to concern itself with going after the mighty and powerful, not the downtrodden.

Of course, plenty of comedians still rely on ethnic and gender jokes, though the best ones do it in a subtly disarming (because at the least partially self deprecating) fashion, like Louis C.K.

It should go without saying, but at issue here isn’t the legality of even vicious humor, as in the kind of sarcastic satire practiced by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. I happen to think that attacking by way of humor, no matter how bad the aim is, ought to be protected by the law. But that doesn’t make it ethically acceptable, nor does it mean that one shouldn’t criticize it. In the specific case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the little I have seen of the magazine is rather childish and clearly aggressive. It doesn’t enlighten, and it does seem to be aimed at the teenage level mentioned by Brant. But, given the choice between a society with even a single soul like those of the assailants in Paris and one inundated by Charlie Hebdos, I’d unquestionably and unhesitatingly choose the latter.

An additional issue that is not easy to settle is what, exactly, counts as punching “up” or “down.” Taking again about the case of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, one could argue that the cartoonist were punching down on an already beleaguered ethnic minority in France. Then again, one could also say that the target of the sarcasm was actually one of the most powerful and currently (please do note the temporal qualifier) harmful religions in the world. Moreover, when automatic weapons are raised against pencils I think that even an oppressed minority automatically forfeits the moral high ground.

We are left, predictably, with a complex landscape, were no hard and fast rule can be drawn, or simple demarcation criterion be followed. That’s the realm where wisdom comes in for people who wish to practice it. When we laugh at an ironic remark, or a sarcastic cartoon, it is left to each of us to pause and reflect on whether laughter was the appropriate response to the situation, given all we know of the individuals and cultures involved. It’s a call that requires us to summon our inner Socrates, and that makes us a better person every time we do it.

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137 thoughts on “The philosophy of irony and sarcasm

  1. Disagreeable me is right about the accent of the “Islamist”, Imran Ibn Mansur, who it seems, is a real person.
    The take-off is not very good though. Since the video under much discussion here is neither funny or satirical it might be umpired ‘out of bounds’ for this thread on the basis of ‘category errors’? Whatever… . I think that is a boundary is best marked in different terms, Massimo has done it well I think, leaving a role for ‘judgement’.

    In my own attempt to judge and in true skeptical style I took the trouble to look at what Imran Ibn Mansur actually said. Most of his ‘community’ were very secular when I lived among them as a matter of fact: though subject to constant racist attacks, which I saw at first hand.

    Imran Ibn Mansur expresses what he says in, what I assume, are ‘Koranic’ terms: in terms of ‘covenants’, implicit and explicit, but he unequivocally condemns the Paris attacks, rape, murder and so on; in quite passionate terms too.

    I listened to ten minutes each of two videos. I can’t spend all day listening to them as I have no interest in the details of Islamic apologetics. Does he say different elsewhere, I am happy to be corrected?

    Mansur elsewhere condemns Isis sharply too and has come under threat for that I understand.

    So the satire is not only mis-directed but racist, not because of accents, but because Mansur’s own words are irrelevant, discounted totally and he becomes just a generic vehicle, a proxy Muslim for the sneering of the Cartoonist. Is mimicking an accent racist? Well ‘it depends’… You have to use judgement.
    Analogous points apply to the red haired woman. It confirms what many take to be the generic sneering style of the video; whatever the intent of the maker really was.

    There is a video of Imran Ibn Mansur hectoring Laurence Krauss on youtube too. Underneath it are a string of racist comments; “Muslim scum” and of the “get back to where you come from” variety.

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  2. Hi Tudor Eynon,

    Since the video under much discussion here is neither funny or satirical …

    Its intent is certainly satirical. Whether or not it is “funny” is of course a matter of judgement.

    So the satire is not only mis-directed but racist … he becomes just a generic vehicle, a proxy Muslim for …

    It is not a “proxy Muslim”, it is a proxy Islamist. Islamism is different from Islam, and attacking either Islamism or Islam (which are idea systems) is different from attacking Muslims (who are people).

    Even despite all of that, I see no way in which the video is attacking the *race* of the people being satirised, as opposed to their ideas.

    It is ridiculous to try to outlaw criticism of Islamism by calling it “racist”. We need to be able to criticise idea systems that are influential in the world. Participation in the Islamic religion across the world does *not* map at all well to any “biological race” or genetic factors.

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  3. Massimo, you took the words right out of my mouth. Art is not explicitly moral, but it often has a moral dimension. And, getting back to the main idea, I would say the same of humor, (maybe using “sometimes” instead of “often”) and I venture you would too.

    I think all human activities which take up a fair sized chunk of human lifestyle could be similarly described.

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  4. Coel

    Regarding the BBC, not true; used to be true one time maybe, not now; they are very wary of Goverment and compliant with its agenda.

    I am sure they are guilty of being ‘politically correct’ as well of course; again they tend to go along with the Goverment agenda of giving air time to self-appointed spokespeople for ‘Communities’ that the UK Government and the spokepersons themselves delineate: under religious criteria usually.

    During the lead up to the Second Iraq war they allowed Government people to bully them into silence on a whole range of matters. In one unsuccesful attempt that did end up on air, I watched Jeremy Paxman stand up to Alasdair Campbell. I can’t find the clip again sorry. Very few journalists could have mangaged to do what Paxman did. Again it is hard to judge what is NOT seen. It covers some large territory?

    Massimo

    I try to keep comments brief and on topic, I couldn’t quite do it now twice, sorry.

    Also typos mashed one sentence in the previous post if anybody cares. It was written in too much haste. To whit “…I think there is a boundary best marked in different terms, Massimo has done it well I think..” is what I meant. Since the other stuff I say, if I am right, makes the video even more clearly crass, I felt I was justified in raising the points.

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  5. Massimo,

    “We are left, predictably, with a complex landscape, were no hard and fast rule can be drawn, or simple demarcation criterion be followed”

    I agree. Comedy in its many forms covers a huge field, some areas slide towards childishness, some towards garbage, and some things seem to fall deep into an area I’m calling vile — like the Islamist/Feminist video.

    I also feel the same about a lot of what Charlie Hebdo has published, one of the worse examples I’ve seen is the caricature of a pregnant woman, who’s was raped and escaped Boko Haram, arriving as a refugee in France and shouting : ‘all I care about is getting a government social insurance cheque’.

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  6. Coel,

    “You are presumably aware that the *intent* of that cover was to satirise right-wing attitudes towards immigrants?”

    No, and I don’t think that is the case. I’d expect the cartoon would have at least included a caricature of a ‘right wing’ person.

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  7. Coel,

    “It is not a “proxy Muslim”, it is a proxy Islamist. Islamism is different from Islam, and attacking either Islamism or Islam (which are idea systems) is different from attacking Muslims (who are people)”

    In this case I find your justifications and analysis contradictory. Islamist are people too. Muslim’s are followers of Islam, and as such they are Islamists, and Muslims vary from the non-practicing to the practicing, and the practicing vary from the light traditionalist to more fundamentalists, and they all vary in what aspects they follow and to what degree, and that may include political aspects which vary greatly too. And some Islamists (in other words some Muslims) act to varying degrees in extremist or radical fashion, some believe in militarization to various degrees some not, and some support political coercion, some violence, some not. Of course I’m not going to argue the specifics, or use dictionary definitions as they vary a lot especially in cases like these, but I’m just trying to paint a picture on how the use of vague language or tendentious terms to call-out a group is not productive and often backfires to the point were average Muslims can get beaten up, because in the aggressors mind Muslims have all become violent political extremists.

    So what I’m saying is that Islamist is not a shorthand for Islamic militants, extremists, or radicals, and when referring to negative sides of organized belief, or groups like ISIS, if one says things like ‘some Islamists” or “Islamic extremists” one clearly avoids painting Muslims as all the same. And its more polite and scientifically accurate too.

    From the 2015 Associated press stylebook:

    “Islamist : An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists. Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.”

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  8. I think it’s really problematic to talk in broad terms about moral dimensions/values, as opposed to aesthetic dimensions/values, when it comes to certain human activities that are presented or represented as being art or artistic. In other words, though wryly stated, I don’t necessarily subscribe to the Stewart’s rule regarding obscenity/pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Is Stewart’s brain wired in such a way that it perceives some universal dimension that others cannot? I think not.

    By way of contrast, consider Frost’s evaluation of free verse as analogous to “playing tennis without nets.” This viewpoint is meant to address a questions of aesthetic considerations, not ethical ones.

    It becomes a question of what approach one might *first* take in assessing the merits of some product that attempts to deliver *a message* by employing aspects that one associates with some “artistic” devices. And. “Oh, how clever!” or “Oh, how callous!” don’t suffice in my opinion except to satisfy the producer’s desire to draw attention to himself and to generate confusion as opposed to insight.

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  9. Coel,
    You are missing my point I think. I appreciate the disctinctions you make, I agree with all of them to the extent I understand the terminology you use and take as transparent.
    Genetics is not the basis of racism, irrational prejudice is, skin color matters as does language, sometimes, as does accent, sometimes, as does religion, sometimes.

    if you want to use a ‘proxy’, better use one who says what you are critizing not the exact opposite. Has nobody looked at this guy’s videos? I thought that was the first move of a Skeptic? That is what Joe Nickell taught me. I stand to be corrected too, I only looked at about twenty minutes plus the one where he hectors Laurence Krauss.

    Again; I nowhere imply or say that Islam is not to be criticized. I have posted Prophet cartoons and Charlie Hebdo ones myself. I abjure the term “Islamophobia” along with other obfuscating ones like “Islamist”, “Islamism” and so on. I am no saint I assure you either. I have said plenty I regret and that others have remarked on regarding religion and much more besides.

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  10. Marc Levesque,
    Thanks, I have supported this particular Hebdo Cartoon on Coel’s lines. I think it is open to that interpretation BUT, you have made me think, possibly reconsider.

    It can also be read this way. “Muslims are rapists, Muslims are welfare scroungers”. I am inclined to say that is NOT the reading intended by the Cartoonist: that is maybe not good enough though I am coming to think? Partly because of this OP and comments from you and others.

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  11. Thomas? Is it?

    On aesthetics, the old Latin “De gustibus non disputandum” has never fallen by the wayside. I think both aesthetics and ethics can be pretty broad at times.

    On Stewart’s bon mot, it in some ways is a demarcation problem, is it not? Demarcation problems can still be stated less fuzzily, though.

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  12. Socratic, we probably don’t have a major disagreement here, except one of tactics. Most people acknowledge de degustibus at some point or another. The question is whether one might first attend to aesthetic considerations and thereby preclude even the need to entertain ethical considerations or whether consideration of one inherently entails consideration of the other without acknowledging some inadvertent confabulation of the two.

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  13. This is more like it …

    If Dawkins has not tweeted this yet he should.

    Written in haste and anger, it is perhaps not musically up to scratch (in fact there seems to be an inadvertant … um..homage in there), but definitely a good example of humour for a cause.

    It was premiered on prime time commercial TV and immediately helped the crowdfund project to send Ballarat child abuse survivors to Rome to watch Cardinal Pell as he gives evidence via video link to a Royal Commission.

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  14. With the Tatchell thing, no. Sorry. It is just entirely ridiculous. Being given a major platform is not being no-platformed. It is being platformed. Otherwise we are in new speak territory.

    Certainly the specific criticisms made about him are unfair. One should not refuse to share a platform with him for those reasons.

    One should refuse to share a platform with him because he is a ridiculous old fraud who sold out the gay community for a safe seat, (which he went ahead and lost anyway) and then lied about it later to make himself seem the hero.

    Nobody is obligated to share a platform with anyone.

    Being no-platformed has obviously become a status symbol and Tatchell must have felt left out.

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  15. Thomas, I’m with you, including what gets “approached first” … on humor, as well as the arts, since puns, while NOT the lowest form of humor, are still the highest form of wit. Jokes can be addressed as both bad jokes on style and on ethics.

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