Christy Wampole, an assistant professor at Princeton, wrote this piece on the dangers of today’s ethos of irony, about which my mom and I just had a lively discussion over Sunday breakfast. Irony, we concluded, does have its uses as an artistic or literary device, but when wielded in daily life, it can only do damage.
“The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism,” Ms. Wampole writes. “The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise…This ironic ethos can lead to a vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche.”
To counter-act this trend, she suggests, for a start, “saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values.”
Her words strike a deep chord. My dad always told us, “Let your yes be a yes, and your no be a no,” which meant that we needed to stand by our decisions, and that promises, once made, were expected to be kept.
My mom also had strong views on sincerity. She took every opportunity to make it clear that the worst thing you could do to her was tell her a lie. For me, this meant owning up when I dropped the handset of our new-fangled cordless phone and broke it, and when I mistakenly plugged the TV into a high-voltage socket and blew the TV up. It also meant being honest about where I was going, with whom, and what we would be doing there. Because in the end, her anger at our wrongdoing was nothing compared to her wrath when she found out that we had lied about it.
Looking back, I realize something else: we all got our share of tongue-lashings from our parents, but one thing they never inflicted on us was sarcasm. Although we siblings love verbal sparring and could have a field day being sarcastic towards each other, it’s rarely our weapon of choice—I suppose because we instinctively know that it’s rude, hurtful, and demeaning.
Both teachers, my parents frowned on vacuity and vapidity. Although my dad was a very funny guy and liked to hear his kids laughing, as soon as he sensed we were getting too hysterically silly, he’d say, “Ok, that’s enough now. Don’t be frivolous.” When I reached high school and got sucked into the breathless, sickly sweet world of teen romance novels, both Mom and Pops were understandably dismayed. To their credit, they never took a book out of my hands, but they did their best to steer me towards real literature. And in my defense, I did read The Lord of the Rings, Little Women, and Wuthering Heights with more lasting enjoyment than I did the annals of Sweet Valley High.
My parents never let us simply scratch the surface of an experience. Whenever we watched a movie, went on a trip, or tried something new, they asked us questions. What had we seen, heard, tasted? More important, what did we think? Did we like it or hate it, and why? Often my dad asked us to write essays about our experiences, especially at the end of a trip. I’m not going to lie (haha)—more often than not, we rolled our eyes at these interrogations and academic exercises, feeling they sucked the fun out of everything. But now, as an adult, surprise surprise—I ask myself those very same questions. In fact I fill journals and craft blog posts with the answers, and I’m trying to make a living out of writing about experience.
I think this is one of those cases where it’s permissible to appreciate the irony. As with so many life lessons, I’m appreciating only now the greater significance of what I thought were just annoying and incovenient parental idiosyncrasies. They were trying to raise us to become sincere, straightforward men and women of substance.
Thanks to their efforts, and those of other like-minded parents, perhaps some of us will turn out better equipped to rise to the challenge of being counter-cultural in this age of irony.