Misunderstanding Irony and Satire Leads to New Culture

People argue a lot over the meaning of the word “irony.” It is one of the key words or terms to describe a great portion of my generation, and yet we seem very lost as to its meaning. Some would say that the combination of the overwhelming importance of understanding the meaning and the widespread disagreement as to its meaning might constitute a sort of irony. I won’t attempt a perfect definition here, but I will point out that irony, as a device, often requires a (sharp) contrast between metamessage and message (or prima facie message or face message).

Irony requires bouncing or reflecting something off of a current idea, more, or status quo. If the audience does not recognize the original idea that is the subject of the irony or satire, the audience may think the ironic image is the actual image, either embracing or hating it while missing the point being made about the intended subject of irony. Interpretation, readership, authorship, and communication theories bear on this.

But who would miss commonly known social mores and ideas or fail to notice references that are core currency of cultural thought, much less fail to completely grasp the subject before them that is the present component of the irony? Children and adolescents are prime candidates for being just such misinterpreters, and are also all the more likely to mimic and adopt what they perceive as the outlook, view, approach, conception, interpretation, etc. that is being “promoted.” I recall when The Colbert Report was new to television: many conservative teens blogged about their new hero. They failed to grasp the satire and irony at work (at least initially).  This is one way a culture can evolve: older generations reference notions that are well known to them but not the younger generation, using advanced or complex mechanisms unfamiliar to the younger generation, and a misunderstanding or misinterpretation is adopted.

This can also hold back social progress. Suppose I make satirical or ironic comments about racism or patriarchy. I may be seeking to undermine the authority of these ideas or institutions, but an audience without the same background as myself might misunderstand my statements by taking them at a literal face-value and interpret them as promotions of what I seek to undermine. In this case, those who share my actual sentiments might denounce me as their opposition as my arguments against a thing are seen as arguments in favor of it.

Artists (poets, writers, painters, film makers, critics, etc.) often use tools beyond the on-the-face-message to emphasize their points.  Audiences often neglect to examine the less obvious parts of a text presented to them -the overall structure, the timing, what is absent- and consider how those impact the surface of the text’s message. We don’t miss some non-essential, fun, bonus feature when we don’t critically examine a text- sometimes, we read the text backwards and upside down and take exactly the opposite meaning away. Perhaps that doesn’t always have to be bad, but it’s worth being aware of it when it happens.

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