Failing to get irony isn’t the flex you think it is

In Plato’s The Republic, he has his old teacher, Socrates, engage in a series of conversations about how to create a utopian society. The people he’s conversing with (I’m hesitating to call them friends because tbh he comes across as _really_ annoying) offer ways to construct this society, for example, having officials elected from amongst Olympic athletes as they’d have commitment, and sport is an objective measure of who is better at something e.g. the fastest gets to the finish line first.

Ah, says Socrates, so you’re saying that only the fittest and healthiest should make decisions about ruling. To which they answer yes as they have sounder minds. Ah says Socrates, so you also then are saying that the infirm have nothing to offer, to which they make another response, and so on, each one leading them step by step to a more untenable position by using the logical consequences of their positions against them.

This then, is Socratic irony. Showing people the egregious nature of their positions, even though they might not appear so, but while claiming to understand them.

It’s the basis of a lot of humour from the past few thousand years.

Though, not great humour, as it’s pretty annoying.

And as a recent example we have Jimmy Carr. The statement is that when we look at the holocaust, we decry (quite rightly) the death of six million Jewish people. We don’t decry the death of a million Roma and Sinti people. Ah, says Jimmy, that’s because we’re OK with that. The audience laughs.

The laugh – the “joke” – is the shock of recognition that by not including those deaths in with our teaching of the holocaust, the implication of what we’re saying is those deaths are OK. Of course, it’s not. The response isn’t one of enjoyment, it’s not really meant to be funny, it’s that instead of the expectation that the usual declaration of how wrong deaths are, someone is espousing the logical consequence of a prevailing opinion (the Holocaust was the death of six million, not seven, or 14) which actually runs counter to that outrage. We’re being caught out in a double standard.  It’s being suddenly faced with the sudden recognition that something is wrong here

That’s how socratic irony works. The ironist says “you haven’t thought this through, your position is untenable” by stating the untenable.

There are some valid arguments that this still isn’t a great way to convey an antiracist message, though.

One is that there’s the danger it could be taken literally, and that could end up being counter-productive. Never underestimate the range of things you think untenable that other people do think are all too tenable. It’s not really conceivable that a comedian and a TV channel would condone that level of racism, but the endemic anti-Roma sentiment around is horrendously high and people are understandably unnerved by it. It’s also possible for people to not actually understand socratic irony. I’m sure some of the people taking those comments literally genuinely believe that because someone says something, that’s what they mean. There are language issues, literacy issues, the potential to take things out of context. All of which could lead someone to seriously think a racist message is actually being conveyed.

And secondly, the Holocaust. I mean, even if you can tell socratic irony when you hear it, that’s still too horrendous a subject to include in a routine. I follow the Auschwitz memorial twitter feed and sometimes that’s overwhelming, seeing that inhumanity on a daily basis. Hourly. I don’t think I’d laugh for the rest of the evening for thinking about it  if it got mentioned – even though I get the point that Carr is making.

And also, I don’t really want to go to a comedy gig to have society’s shortcomings as far as double-standards with racism addressed. I kind of like stuff about people’s own lives, and their own perspectives. I already get the fact that the Roma and their suffering in the camps is overlooked. It’s personal observations on life I get a kick from hearing about, I don’t need to be woken up about people’s inhumanity to each other when I go out for the evening.

So – suitable subject matter – not really. Racist, literally obviously, but I do suspect the motivations of the people who are taking it literally. What is going on there?