The trouble with irony

Dan has what I think is the best take on the American Atheists “Slaves, Obey Your Masters” billboard. Personally, I had no trouble “getting” the billboard; the intended meaning was totally transparent to me. But I think Dan is correct when he says:

If you’re not part of the teeny tiny fraction of Americans who is not only an atheist but who is also saturated in atheist memes and argument strategies, your first assumption is going to be Holy Shit! Some racist fringe group has bought a billboard to justify slavery by twisting a Bible verse!!

You’re not going to think, hmmm, let me pull over to the side of the road so I can puzzle out the fine print on the billboard and consider its ironic message and how it might show me that my epistemology is inconsistent and that my religion is wicked.

This reminded me of this post by The Coquette (nee Coke Talk) on a completely unrelated pro-condoms ad campaign featuring models in their underwear with little Google maps-esque notes saying “X number of people were here.” Coquette wrote, “The implicit message in this ad campaign is that private parts are not private, but rather public.”

Now I don’t think that’s the intended message. I think the point was the point of the ads was the contrast between what they showed and what we all know reality is really like. Real people don’t come with digital tags noting who they’ve slept with, ergo if you sleep with someone you’re not in a committed relationship with, don’t make assumptions, use a fucking condom. But that that was the intended message requires some work to figure out, and on reflection I think the fact that not everyone will be able to figure it out is a problem for the ad campaign.

These are recent examples, but these aren’t new thoughts for me. I adore the prose of Hume and Russell, and it’s probably influenced my writing style a bit, but I’ve long been wary of going too far imitating their heavy use of irony. I feel terribly square coming out against irony, but as someone who cares a lot about writing clearly, I think there’s a problem here: irony flatters the intelligence of some of your readers at the expense of the understanding of other readers.

It’s tempting to think this shouldn’t be too much of a worry, that of course if you do irony right everyone will get it. But we tend to over-estimate how clearly we write; to really reach your real target audience, you may have to aim your explanations several levels below them.

Avoiding irony has some costs. In particular, there’s a lot to be said for it when writing to a hostile audience. Part of the reason David Hume’s writings are so thick with irony is that some of his views would have gotten him killed had he presented them in a straightforward manner.

Furthermore, according to Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, there are also studies that have found evidence that irony can make a speaker seem, “less angry, less critical, and more in control” (p. 379). Maybe this is why so many people make the mistake of thinking that what Harris and Dawkins do is “new” atheism, when Hume and Russell said similar things before them. However, I suspect Harris and Dawkins get a payoff from their straightforwardness in the form of being able to reach a wider audience.

On the other hand, I wonder how best to offset the costs of being extremely blunt. Maybe just by being very careful about explaining why you’re saying the (to some shocking) things you’re saying? Anyway, that’s my thought on writing for the day.

Slavery abolition and animal rights: the biggest problem
The dangers of generalization: an apology
Why I’ve decided to start deleting jerky comments more often
Tim Minchin: “I don’t know how to say that nicely, but…”
  • Matthew

    Very interesting. I hadn’t thought about irony this way (or much at all critically speaking). I think irony will always have the effect of targeting/narrowing one’s audience since there will inevitably be those who get it and those who don’t.

    The more subtle the irony the narrower the audience, which would suggest that billboards which are presumably aimed broadly should include only gross or obvious irony. Clearly this one is not only too suble in it’s irony, it is also tone deaf socially and (as PZ points out) atrocious graphically.

    • Chris Hallquist

      A related point is that bumper-sticker slogans get a lot of flack, but it’s possible–and important–to use pithy statements for the good. See “We have to fossils, we win.”

      • Matthew

        A bit OT but my favorite bumper sticker so far is, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

  • life is like a pitbull with lipstick ॐ

    «“As apologies go, this one was horrible. [Brian Fields] apologized for the fact that others supposedly misunderstood what the billboard said, and in the process completely ignored the fact that many African-Americans found the billboard itself offensive. Obviously, the concerns of African-Americans are absolutely secondary to this groups desire to fight the year of the bible. The fact that driving by the billboard may have been triggering, or that the billboard amounted to gross appropriation — pales in comparison to the seriousness of the atheist agenda. No matter how worthy you believe your cause is, invoking an experience outside of your own personal background amounts to appropriation. It cheapens events like slavery and turns it into a cheap talking point.”»

  • life is like a pitbull with lipstick ॐ
  • jamessweet

    I think there’s a side issue here, in addition to the clear communication issue you are addressing: If you are a white person (or in the case of American Atheists, a group that happens to be majority white), you need to be really careful about employing irony in regards to issues of race. The same goes from feminist issues, LGBT issues, etc. In fact, it’s often a good idea to just not do it at all when addressing issues like that.