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.
Socratic: It asked whether “angry” is “good” or “bad” and the correct answer is “it depends.”
I have zero confidence in such gimmicks, I am afraid. At least, with regard to telling us anything useful about actual people.
Actually, this thread is all over the map. The interest is now not so much in how employing irony or sarcasm might serve as a means to add dimension and perspective to an exchange or to an observation, but is now broadly concerned with humor and when it crosses into some verboten terrain.
I really don’t have a major objection to either Massimo’s or Dan K’s viewpoints so long as they identify them as personal approaches that are concerned with justifying differing objectives. Both have merit.
Take scatological humor, something that is common in most cultures, both Massimo and Dan K might laugh at such humor and nevertheless still label it as “puerile.” Does it really matter? Do we really need to justify a personal reaction to something that’s elicited a laugh in such cases. The aim here is pretty basic.
On the other hand, some forms of humor aim higher, and there does some sufficient basis for evaluating our own responses in terms of the objectives of the artist/entertainer. This seems part and parcel of what is entailed in establishing personal norms as well as those we espouse as meriting broad acceptance.
To a large extent, the attempts at gaining approval or merit in assessing humor or the entertainer’s attempt at conveying a perspective is self-limiting and self-enforcing. The chips pretty much fall as they will. And it is probably bittersweet to have someone explain that “They just don’t get you.” Back to the drawing board.
This subject gets really complicated because the common position is one-dimensional. The reader or audience expects to be fed what it customarily enjoys eating. But the relationship is more complicated. And that is why in many cases satire is initially misinterpreted as presuming the artist/entertaining is in fact espousing a position as opposed to shocking the reader/audience into evaluating its own suppositions.
Dan, that I’ll agree on. I don’t recall that survey from when I visited Project Implicit, in fact. I recall a series of rapid-response questions about photographs to test for possible racial, gender and age-related bias. The tests — those I mention — are illuminating.
Socratic: I went back and took the flashcard test and found it equally useless, I am afraid. If only peoples’ attitudes were so easily measured and understood in the same manner that we demonstrate optical illusions.
Sorry, no sale, here.
There are fun convos in the comment sections of this blog!
Well, sales can’t be made to people who don’t want to be customers, I guess. I know there are other psychological batteries that measure other unconscious/subconscious beliefs/drives/tendencies.
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I think the disagreement between Dan and Massimo is an interesting one and I think it would be a shame if it was left at ‘we just disagree’ since I think there is probably some nuance that could be agreed to.
Massimo doesn’t want to be labeled a ‘moralizer’ and I’m pretty sure Dan doesn’t want to be characterized as someone frowns upon introspection and self examination in general.
Even with the caveat that one is not advocating for the passing of laws I think it is difficult to make sweeping statements regarding comedy. I personally tend to dislike comedy that ‘punches down’ and I feel the analogy to fast food is probably apt in most cases. I tend to take great care in what i consume but once in a while I need some fast food ( even ingesting pure gu (Glucose) in a marathon race).
On the other-hand if one repeatedly discovers that they are finding funny, content which many others find offensive, it might be a useful exercise to be open to re-examining the source of ones amusement.
Speaking to what one finds distasteful doesn’t necessarily make one a moralizer, and finding humor where another is repelled doesn’t necessarily make one morally lacking.
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It is interesting that you recognize the problems of filtering your own complex personality through a test designed to extract basic personality traits, versus seeing the complexities of different peoples taking offense at different topics being more of a black and white issue.
It is easy to understand that a two dimensional view can only give a limited perspective of a three dimensional reality, but the interesting point is to consider, not the limits, but the potential distortions. For example, Escher’s sketches of waterfalls and stairways going in circles is possible in two dimensions, but not likely to scale to three dimensions. I think this applies to lots of basic belief systems, in that what seems possible from one perspective, fails in a larger context.
Socratic: It could be that it’s not selling, because I’m not buying. Or it might be that it’s not selling, because the idea that one can infer complex intentional states like racial bias or hatred of the handicapped, through flashing images and relying on people to remember where the “bad” column is and where the “good” column is, is beyond ridiculous, bordering on farce.
I vote for the latter.
Ah, I finally got the admittedly mixed pleasure of banning my first reader from the site. Turns it WordPress makes it very easy…
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Oh, please, Peter Tatchell is being “no-platformed” because someone won’t share a stage with him? You mean like Richard Dawkins and William Lane Craig? Or Richard Dawkins and Rebecca Watson?
Honestly, why are people so precious these days?
Anyway, I remember when Peter Tatchell no-platformed the gay movement by going into the closet for the Bermondsey by-election. He complained bitterly that the Gay Liberals outed him and then made outing a part of his own practice later.
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Yes, I have heard Dawah Man on a number of occasions over the years. I don’t think he sounds at all like Bernard Bresslaw 🙂
Ah the irony of a liberal point of view. Wanting a truly egalitarian society, just not at the level so much of it prefers to operate.
It would be hypocrisy, if it were not so naively genuine.
There is a legitimate argument for conservatism in there somewhere.
Nature is a bitch.
I wonder what exactly “being howled down” involves. It doesn’t sound so very bad to me. I have been called a retard or a neo nazi, been told I must be sorry that Saddam Hussien is dead. I have even been told that I must regard Richard Dawkins as my very own personal Jesus (the cruellest cut of all).
So what does the “howling down” involve? Presumably those doing the howling are safely out of earshot.
And this “social opprobrium”. As one who has never been able to achieve any sort of social acceptance, nor to care greatly about the matter, it is difficult for me to appreciate it how awful this must be, being socially approbriated by some people somewhere.
I am thinking of the feminist poet Joolz Denby who revels in the appelation “social justice warrior” and who speaks out against those who promote rape culture and also strongly condemns the culture of a subsection of the British Bangladeshi community which gives rise to the child grooming behaviour. She gets sneered at for being a social justice warrior and she gets accused of racism for calling out that subsection of the Bangladeshi community.
She doesn’t seem to care. She keeps on talking about it and raising awareness and funds.
So when I criticise people for using Muslim rape jokes, I don’t expect people to curl up into a ball and start whimpering any more than I do this when I get criticism. They can listen, or not listen, agree or not agree as they wish. I will still say it.
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I have only been on twitter for about 4 years, so I never experienced the “magical glade” period that Stephen Fry speaks of, when there were no trolls on it. It must have been quite an achievement because everywhere else on the internet has been infested with trolls since the mid 90’s, to my recollection.
I have always thought of “being on the internet” and “being subjected to abuse” to being terms pretty close to synonymous. I have never been particularly thick skinned – it has often hurt. But I have never thought of it as a reason not to speak out. Quite the opposite in fact. So when people say that you cannot condemn ISIS without saying that ISIS are not typical of Islam or that Islam is a religion of peace, why not? What happens when you say this? People say hurtful things about you?
I have been saying for quite some time that Islam is obviously not a religion of peace – it is a religion which sets out conditions for war quite clearly and which has constant exhortations to fight in the way of Allah. Largely people have agreed with me. I have also been criticised, for saying this, but so what? I neither want a safe space nor a magic glade.
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That would depend on the criticism, wouldn’t it?
If one were to do a satire of Republicans as inbred Deliverance style rednecks then certainly I would say it was counter productive.
If you were to identify this satire as being in solidarity with Clinton or Sanders, I think that you would lose them votes.
So, yes, the same principle applies.
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From the devil’s dictionary; Peace; A period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
Tacitus; They make a desert and call it peace.
It would be interesting to analyze the actual strategies and structures of the various religions, rather then their cover stories.
For instance the primary split in Christianity is between Catholicism and Protestantism, while the primary split in Islam is between Sunni and Shiite.
It would seem the Christian split is similar to the split between Judaism and Christianity(the history being a little more complicated), in that it was an effort to rejuvenate an older, stagnated/corrupted system. The whole God the Father, God the Son thing. While the split in Islam goes to its very beginning, as to whether legitimacy was hereditary(Shiite), or institutional(Sunni)
These might give some insight as to how they function politically.
Now Catholicism did try to bury that recycling theme under a bunch of stuff about how the trinity is God the body, the soul and the spirit, or some such combination, given it is supposed to be an immortal church, but it’s hard to deny the essential generational theme. While Islam didn’t have any reason to question its inherent infallibility, given it was so successful, politically and militarily. (As the Greeks would say; Those whom the gods wish to destroy, first they make lucky.)
The fact is that some form of political authoritarianism is implicit in the concept of monotheism. Consider that the two ancient systems of pluralistic government, Democracy in Greece/Athens and The Republic in Rome, were established in poly/pantheistic societies, while modern Democracy only came to the fore during the Age of Enlightenment and a strong principle of separation of church and state is required to maintain the peace. Thus the argument that distinct monotheistic religions can co-exist within the same nation-state, even though they are explicitly autocratic. (Keeping in mind that “The divine right of kings” is a Christian belief, most recently expressed by GW Bush as to why he was prez.<God's will.)
So what is truly ironic here, is that the ancients had a better theology for a pluralistic society, than the One God of the modern world, or even its negation on simplistic arguments of actual scientific observability, rather than philosophic considerations of political function.
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Ans yes, self identifying SJW feminist Joolz Denby criticises Islam as a whole (along with Christianity). So it seems strange when people tell me that they can’t criticise Islam because SJW feminists.
Dan: I vote for “you’re not buying.” And, per your dialogue with Massimo, and parallel, I can either let go … or not let go. I think enough about Project Implicit that not only have I mentioned it on social media, I’ve worked it into a newspaper column at my day job.
I only know Eddie Murphy from a series of relentlessly banal films, although I have heard that he once was funny. I will have to check Delirious out.
Although I have probably missed the boat there. If you know someone first as a stodgy establishment figure then their edgier past doesn’t quite ring true, like hearing your father say “motherfucker”
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“there is a large literature on the social and moral impact of art to back me up.”
I can’t quite discern if you would accept the position that art is for moral improvement. Clarify? It would be my conviction that though art may improve morally or improve our mental health, that is entirely incidental. It is like noting that Keat’s Grecian urn can carry water.
On Tipper Gore/Victorian progressives, yes I acknowledge that you are not favoring any legal or social leverage to prevent people from doing this and that is a major disanalogy. To that extent my examples were ill-chosen (though I am not sure I can do better now). But that was never the analogy I meant to draw. Gore and progressives were not merely wrong in thinking they had a right to coerce the activities of others, they were even wrong that there was anything wrong with dance-halls and Doctor Who. It was just a scape-goat for fears about declining morals. So it is, I contend, with comedy today.
“I honestly don’t care whether the audience finds it unflattering”
Well this is quite an important point. If you don’t leave room for the audience as autonomous, active participants in art you are going to end with a very restrictive view of what we should watch. If you find little Jimmy Norton threatening how are you going to view King Lear and A Clockwork Orange? They attack moral virtue much more directly. Should we eschew them because they make us worse and not better?
“the point of joking about X is to make fun of, and therefore take less seriously, X”
Forgive me if I seem blunt, but that is just a whopping mistake. Any interpretation of Shakespeare, Brecht, Kafka or Chekov on which they were attempting to take X less seriously by joking about it is lost at sea, indeed joking about it was a way of throwing the desperate seriousness of it into stark relief (come to think about it I would say the same for Louis CK or Doug Stanhope).
On banning, may it bring you unalloyed pleasure, I am sure you will use it judiciously.
My refrain here has been the autonomy of the audience. This is to say that the audience can clearly entertain what they hear but reject it. But they can also allow themselves to be molded by it and become greater and greater ***oles as I have seen many of my cohort do by gobbling down oodles of Mahr and Stewart. But on my account, given the autonomy of the audience, they really only have themselves to blame.
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(As a side note, cheers Massimo for banning gravatars of naked people with their pets!)
Here is my own non moral (rather than immoral) way of looking at the question of unkind humor:
As a highly social creature, evolution seems to have provided us with strong “theory of mind” sensations — or punishment/reward given our perceptions of how we are viewed. For example, evolution seems to have found it useful to dissuade us from accepting a social station of “weakness.” So given our various theory of mind sensations, how might we effectively judge “put down” humor?
From a “real” rather than “moral” position, as well as from “total utilitarianism,” one great difficulty seems to be the mandate for perfect subjectivity. (There are no “objective goods,” I think, though this search does continue.)
Scenario 1). You enjoy some extremely unkind humor, but share this with no one, and it also doesn’t influence you to harm anyone whatsoever.
Answer 1). For that specific moment, you are better off. If you come to regret it later, then it would be bad for you for that moment (which would actually reference a separate subject). The event’s good/bad effect over time, however, would concern your associated aggregate happiness over a given period.
Scenario 2). This time the experience does influence you to harm others.
Answer 2). Your associated welfare will remain defined by your aggregate happiness over a given period, and the same will be true for the welfare of a specified society. So the event could potentially be good for you, but bad for your society. How good/bad? This would be represented by the aggregate happiness that a given subject experiences over a given period of time.
Today we seem highly concerned about the “moralities” of various issues. While I’m not complaining, I would still hope for us to also gain an interest in the “realities” of good/bad. If existence can be positive/negative for various subjects, shouldn’t modern academia try to develop theory from which to describe how this effectively functions? Shouldn’t psychologists, for example, require such theory in order to better comprehend human psychology? For those who agree, I certainly thank you. For those who object, would you please help me understand?
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It involves, for example, campaigns of people wanting you to be disinvited from conferences if you re-tweet such a video. This is a clear attempt to police what sort of things can be said in mainstream society.
What happens is that the mainstream media would then avoid using you, and would instead turn to people who would indeed parrot the “nothing to do with Islam” and “religion of peace” lines.
There’s been at least one instance of the BBC filming an interview between an Islamic spokesman and a critic, where the Islamic spokesman took exception to what the critic said, and refused to continue the interview unless it was edited out. The BBC then appeased him, and edited the piece to his request, while giving no indication that it had done so.
If it had been a politician who had acted like what — of *any* party — the BBC instead have done its best to embarrass that person by broadcasting everything, and snippets would have been on the news bulletins to highlight it.
Sure. The strategy of “if X speaks then I’ll have nothing to do with your event” is an attempt at pressuring organizers into no-platforming. Whether it succeeds is a different matter.
Well no, refusing a one-to-one debate with X is rather different from boycotting an event because X is among the speakers.
I do agree with you and think it references back to a point I keep trying to make. That good and bad are an elemental binary, like the intellectual yes and no and mechanical on and off. So that as a black and white distinction, it is the basic tool we use construct our own particular subjective views, then coalesce and consolidate them into larger social mores, but still understand this is a bottom up and subjective process, rather than trying to insist the top down frame is some sort of absolutist, unquestionable governing structure.
As well as that when we treat it as such, does provide some benefits, but also results in long term detriment, as people become zombies to this framework and lose a personal sense of judgement.
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> Well no, refusing a one-to-one debate with X is rather different from boycotting an event because X is among the speakers.
You mean, like Richard Dawkins did to Rebecca Watson (reportedly)?
The key word there is “reportedly”, and given the antics of the Cult of Anti-Dawkins on various SJW blogs, I wouldn’t trust such a report. So, no comment.
But, on a general point, no, I wouldn’t approve of RD saying that he wouldn’t attend a conference if Watson were a speaker.
BTW, Coel, this is the incident I am referring to.
Possibly why this has never really been focused on, is that throughout history, people have lived a more analog style of life, where there was that larger polarity of good and bad and all the detail tended to be buried by specific, social contrasts.
So that now we have the digital revolution, the premise of this being an elemental dichotomy, out of which the larger issues are constructed, might be more broadly understandable, with the premise of how computers work, as the analogy.
“I can’t quite discern if you would accept the position that art is for moral improvement.”
I don’t think art is *for* moral improvement. I am only saying that often, not always, art has an ethical dimension (positive or negative, as Socratic was pointing out).
Cooking is certainly not for moral improvement, and yet what one eats does have moral consequences, in terms of treatment of animals, treatment of workers within the industry, environmental impact, etc.
“Gore and progressives were not merely wrong in thinking they had a right to coerce the activities of others, they were even wrong that there was anything wrong with dance-halls and Doctor Who.”
Sure, but just because one group pointed to the wrong target for ethical considerations doesn’t mean that no art, comedy, etc. has moral dimensions.
“If you don’t leave room for the audience as autonomous, active participants in art you are going to end with a very restrictive view of what we should watch”
I didn’t explain myself correctly. I didn’t mean the audience should be denied autonomy of judgment (not sure how that would be done anyway). I meant I don’t care if some people get offended because I think certain kinds of comedy are unethical.
“Forgive me if I seem blunt, but that is just a whopping mistake. Any interpretation of Shakespeare, Brecht, Kafka or Chekov on which they were attempting to take X less seriously by joking about it is lost at sea”
Sorry, didn’t mean that either, obviously I need more coffee in the morning before answering comments! I meant to say that *when* comedy is meant to poke fun at X that is because the comedian wants you to take X less seriously. It’s the reasons the monks in The Name of the Rose got killed: they were transcribing the lost Aristotle book on comedy, and the killer thought that once you start making fun of everything, god included, then everything is diminished and respect goes out the window.
“On banning, may it bring you unalloyed pleasure, I am sure you will use it judiciously.”
I will certainly use it with restraint and best judgment. WP makes it possible to reverse such decisions at any time in the future, too, which is handy.
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