Irony Vs. Rewilding

Humans have a long history of teaching social taboos through jokes irony, sarcasm, and mockery showing us what we do not find as acceptable behavior. Such comic geniuses as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David know this too well, their narcissistic characters always breaking social taboos and looking like assholes. In Farley Mowats “People of the Deer” I recall a moment where he drew a picture of a deer smoking a pipe, to which the intuits laughed hysterically! I think this kind of ridiculousness encapsulates the humor in irony and mockery. It has a kind of innocence to it; it looks silly for a deer to do human things, just as it looks silly for a human to mimic deer things. We laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, whether we see a deer smoking a pipe or Larry David not bringing a gift to Ben Stiller’s birthday party.

After several seasons of mimicking racist stereotypes under the guise of bringing the idiocy of racism to light, Dave Chappelle changed his mind about using this kind of humor. While shooting a sketch he noticed a white man laugh a little too hard at a racist joke and it made him uncomfortable. Dave could tell from the way he laughed that this white guy did not get the joke the way Dave intended. He told TIME magazine that he realized that the irony of his racism didn’t translate, so he quit the show and went on vacation.

It seems that the line between irony and sincerity has a lot to do with context. If I make a joke with my friends, from the perspective of someone living a lifestyle I find abusive, they’ll laugh because they’ll understand the irony; I would never sincerely make those comments. But if I make the same joke to people who actually have the perspective I mock, they won’t get the irony and see the joke as just a joke reinforcing the abusive perspective.

A few years ago I remember hearing Janis Joplin’s ironic song “Mercedes Benz” in a Mercedes Benz television commercial. Oh lord, won’t you buy me an AK47, my friends all have sold out–I must make amends. I can feel Janis rolling over in her grave; an anti-consumerist song used to sell consumption. An ironic adbuster used as an advertisement. Ironic, don’t you think? Change or remove the context of an adbuster and it just looks like an advertisement.

I watched Steve Colbert “roast” the President of the United States for 30 minutes, non-stop. Of course I laughed. But remember, the court jester had permission to insult the King. You have to ask why? If sarcasm, mockery and ironic jokes really threatened those in power, would they allow it? Do jokes motivate you to stop injustice? Does laughter make you want to put an end to racism? Fascism? Civilization?

Most ironic and sarcastic jokes of this ilk appear to me as a kind of psychological Gallows Humor. Gallows humor refers to ironic or sarcastic jokes made by those who face the gallows in order to keep their spirits. People who have no more options to fight back. Gallows humor works as a last resort to hold onto dignity in the face of abuse. Our domestication causes us to see our fate as slaves to civilization inevitable and inescapable, just as the death row inmate will inevitably sit in the electric chair. The civilized have accepted this programmed fate and do not fight it; “We can’t stop our destructive culture from killing the planet, but we don’t have to let it kill our morale.”

While Gallows Humor can have a spiritually liberating quality, in the end, they call it Gallows Humor for a reason; it doesn’t physically liberate you from the noose. It merely makes living with abuse more tolerable. The question becomes, does having a higher level of morale motivate you to fight back, or cause you to remain apathetic and accept your fate?

Think back to the question, “why did the King allow the Jester to insult him?” Sure, you can laugh all you want, vote all you want, petition all you want, protest all you want (as long as you stay in the designated protest area) blog all you want, and say all you want. You can even own a gun or two or three. Only as long as you don’t actually do anything that threatens those in power or the progress of civilization.

If Gallows Humor refers only to the abused, than Executioners Humor refers to ironic or sarcastic jokes made by those who run the gallows in order to distance themselves from the guilt of murder. Executioner’s Humor says, “We refuse to change our cycle of abuse, and we will make jokes to distance ourselves from the guilt we feel when we abuse you.” I can make fun of how much gas my SUV consumes because it distances me from feeling bad about it, and I don’t have to change my life. I can joke about slavery in a foreign country because it makes me feel better about buying clothes from the GAP. I can make a joke about staying inside on a sunny day to watch TV because it will make me feel less guilty about it.

If “no press is bad press” than even making fun of abusive behaviors promotes them regardless of context, whether gallows or executioner’s humor. This looks like a paradox to me; by joking about them, we promote them and by not discussing them, we allow them to continue. Perhaps we just shouldn’t joke about some things? If ironic gallows humor only works to distance ourselves from pain, than sincerely examining our situation moves us closer to the pain. Perhaps we need to acknowledge the pain in order to truly figure out what to do next? Though I know that when I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t move past depression.

I can’t help but think of my generation of sarcastic cynics, mavens of irony and worshipers of novelty; I have a huge rare LP collection, I can go on for hours about obscure B-movies from the 60’s and I have a mullet and wear a trucker hat even though I don’t live in the country. After seeing our parents generation beaten and broken and manipulated into submission after trying so desperately to change the world, it makes perfect sense that my generation would look as broken and shattered and distant from reality. The far out hippies of yore gave birth to the cynical hipsters of today. When we can’t stop devouring the world, who wants to look at the world we live in? Who wants to acknowledge the pain? We have given up. We have no hope for change, nor urge to create it. Why should we? Instead of tearing down civilization, we make ironic jokes about our predicament, further inculcating our apathetic lives. We believe our only fate lies at the gallows of civilization.

This doesn’t mean that we have to throw away irony! It means that we need to examine how and why we use humor. I don’t think that this kind of satire doesn’t imply pacifism, but that we encourage our pacifist culture by using irony. We can use it to destroy our pacifism as well.

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11 Comments on “Irony Vs. Rewilding”

  1. Sadly, there’s also the fact that it seems that many people just don’t get things like satire. They don’t understand its purpose, the fact that it’s insulting through imitation. I think this is especially true in America, considering our Puritanical roots. Hence why Seth MacFarlane was able to show interviews of people calling his show racist and sexist during the 100th episode of Family Guy.

    I was a teenager when Family Guy first came on, and I remember some of my stupid friends laughing at what a racist this guy must be. When I finally watched an episode, I said to myself, “Oh, it’s satire!”

  2. Great article. Gallows & Executioners humour explained alot to me.
    Fuck. I feel pathetic. I think my family and friends are pathetic sometimes. They laugh. They ignore what is going on. They say to me “Don’t be so serious”.

    I gave away my TV and haven’t watched TV in 6 months. They think I am crazy. Well it is a small step in the right direction in the road to drop kicking civilization into the rubbish dump that it is.

    Also I wonder why Larry David hasn’t tried to make a major political satire type film or does he think what’s the point….the world is just too absurd….so I will stick to the absurd.

    Nice one. Thanks

  3. Americans don’t get irony very well, either. Satire’s at least sometimes based in irony–and what I’m referring to is another name for sarcasm. You have to lay it on pretty thick before Americans figure out it’s irony and sometimes even then they don’t get it. Contrast with the British, who are masters of irony and deadpan humor. Americans pretty much need everything spoonfed to ’em, on average, with several dozen nyuk-nyuks and get-its thrown in for good measure.

    Which is completely not the point of the post, I’m just sayin’.

    But I think Scout groks why, for instance, members of certain activist groups don’t find certain jokes funny. For instance, sexist jokes. Feminists in particular get pilloried for not finding sexist jokes funny, and women who don’t want the F label suck up to men by laughing, but in the end, people find sexist jokes funny because they think they can’t eradicate sexism, and that’s pretty sad.

  4. Very interesting article. This is something I never really thought about in this way. And I tend to think about EVERYTHING, even to my own detriment.

    Great thoughts, Scout.

    Personally, I find it hard to say how humor affects resistance/motivation. I think in a way it can make bad ideas look especially stupid, and brings them to proactive light in a way that everybody can relate to. In another sense, like you said, humor that is used to justify or nullify abuse or regrettable behavior can have a negative effect. I can see both these realms when I experience humor, sometimes it brings things to light in a good way, sometimes it fosters a cynical defeatist attitude, either way it can be funny, but I think people should be mindful of the larger effect they have on culture. Especially when cynicism and apathy prevents positive change.

  5. US this is an explanatory and enlightening writing and as someone who gets by with this sort of humour, I appreciate the aid in understanding.

    I’ve never been able to explain this to people. I end up just wishing they would listen to Lou Reed or the Talking Heads or something because that does a better job.

  6. i was thinking about this issue while i had access to cable last week and was watching the daily show and colbert for a few days in a row. both are funny but i think they both often serve to desensitize one to absurdity and atrocity in government or culture with a daily dose of cheap laughs. then, other times i’m sure they inspire action. one thing is for sure. people like yourself, who are deeply invested in important causes, and are fighting uphill battles, wouldn’t stay healthy long if they didn’t sometimes laugh instead of cry. so go rent kingpin.

  7. Thanks for the great article. You explained why I don’t like The Simpsons. (Which never won me any popularity contests growing up.)
    Also, Truffaut said more or less that anything put on screen is automatically glamorized. So then, Kubrick’s Path of Glory (a strong anti-war film) actually in the end glamorizes war. And it’s not even satirical. By this token the extended title of Dr. Strangelove is appropriate: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, it makes you laugh so you don’t care anymore about nuclear war.

  8. Hmm, thank you so much, Scout. I had never before thought about how portraying the reality of civilized entrapment as “ironic” (prompting us to accept entrapment as a condition of the human “story”) distances ourselves from real problems and keeps us from doing anything about them.

    I will fully admit that I have fallen into many of the traps that you have outlined here. I have always held a special place in my heart for ironic commentary, feeling that it encourages resistance to abuses of power — and that it serves as the “last bastion” of creative tools to champion social awareness. (What a dismal view of the future that implies – last bastion!) My sentiments in favor of irony, by and large, still exist as a holdover from my pre-rewilding days, and I suspect now that they have served me extremely poorly in my efforts to rewild. After reading your words I plan to spend some time in the near future carefully examining the end result of ironic humor, as empirically experienced.

    Has my sense of irony truly acted as an accomplice to civilization, authorizing and instructing me to “tuck away” horrific problems after getting in a good chuckle or moving through an indignant outburst? Does irony, in the end, merely layer on another image of civilization’s mirrored human ego in an unending hall of reflections?

    Food for thought. Let’s see how well I can keep my focus on resistance as long as I remain living in the oh-so-agreeable (does that mean servile?) city of Seattle.

  9. I’ve been going back and forth in my brain over the value of irony. I think you may have misinterpreted what happened when Colbert lampooned the president; if you’ll recall, Bush wasn’t smiling at all. Actually, he looked pretty pissed. This was back when the Colbert Report was brand-new and conservatives loved it because they didn’t get that Stephen was making fun of them. It was his address to the president that made them realize that they were the butt of his joke. You’ll notice they never invited him back again.

    I also want to mention (and full disclosure, I’m a big Daily Show/Colbert Report fan) that more of our generation get our news from these sarcasm-drenched late night programs than from actual news sources, and there’s also never been more enthusiasm about voting among young people since the late 60’s. If these shows just made us too jaded and cynical to do anything, why is there higher voter turnout among the Daily Show’s demographic than ever before? And it’s not just Obamamania, though that does play a role – young voter turnout has been rising steadily since 2004.

    On the other hand, I do recognize that irony and sarcasm are potent weapons when you want to shame someone into following the status quo. But the thing is, that’s actually a very tribal way of bringing people into line. The civilized way is through brute force.

    I certainly agree with you that too much irony distances us from our real feelings. The thing is, it protects you from judgment – or at least it feels like it does. If you don’t really like anything, you’ll never be criticized for liking something “wrong.” And the more people sarcastically criticize each other, the more we all use sarcasm as protective wrapping around our real feelings, and the more distanced we get.

    The good news is, popular humor seems to be moving away from irony and towards sheer absurdism. The quirky twee aesthetic seems to be on the rise, and in a way, that aesthetic values wonder, of a sort. It emphasizes a genuine appreciation of the little things in life we generally overlook. Maybe that’ll save us from irony. 😉