The Age of Irony

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Irony drains on me.  I never thought I would reach a point in my life in which insincerity of opinion and behavior would characterize so many of other people’s interaction with me and those around me.  There was a point on the internet in which irony was a tool of comedy and lambasting mainstream culture.  Recently, it’s felt more like a cave to which the cowardly hateful can retreat when confronted on their malice.

At some point within the anonymous hangouts of the web a strange conflation of genuinely held and ironically postured beliefs seems to have occurred, and now the rest of us are left to deal with individuals who don’t seem to know where the line between joke and cruelty lies.  I remember laughing at forum posts whose outrageous arguments were too hyperbolic to be taken seriously.  Taboo was broken almost flauntingly online, but there was almost always an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek.  When the mask slipped, there were caring humans underneath.  Outcasts who, in their own strange ways, had built a community which was detestable to anyone who didn’t understand the irony.

The irony and the exaggeration isn’t funny when its serious.  It isn’t funny anymore when there is a considerable number of people who actually believe the horrible garbage that shows up in these communities.  It becomes a game of sorting who is being serious, who is being half-serious, and who is being honest with malignant views.  There is an exhausting parade of opportunists profiting off of the ambiguity of online discourse at the moment, whether it is political writers grossly simplifying decades-old internet memes into symbols of hate (which then empowers those who do actually use them as a symbol of hate,) or YouTube pundits covering their psychopathic, prejudiced hatred under the veneer of opposing political correctness.

Every year it becomes harder and harder to communicate why anonymity and anonymous spaces are important because the list grows ever longer of anonymous spaces being used not only for horrific acts, but as echo chambers of heartlessness.  The kicker is that they are important, incredibly so.  Anonymity provides space for the criticism of oppressors, the expression of repressed humanity, and the discussion of ideas freely.  In a time when the owners of social networks commanding unprecedented user data are mobilizing for presidential campaigns, anonymous spaces are more important than ever.

What happens, though, when those spaces have been infiltrated effectively by the very people who ultimately oppose them?  What happens when the humans who invisibly sit behind the digital masks become convinced that racism, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, are no longer to be mocked but to be supported?  The irony blurs it all.  People who go there to laugh at what seems to be exaggerated, ironic impressions of terrible people find themselves alongside true believers in things like ethnic cleansing and bashing.  Some of those who started as parodies slowly start to buy into the ideologies they once mocked, or worse, they breach anonymity and realize money can be made off of such views.  Once their income is tied to whetting the bloodlust of the hateful, it becomes nearly impossible for them to escape.

In thinking on this I find myself coming away with more questions than answers:  Why has the sense of desperation seemingly increased across the political board, when certain groups demonstrably suffer considerably more severe oppression?  How did a market for hatred and bigotry arise?  If there ever was any empathy on the web, where the hell did it go?

I am more than tired by the seemingly ceaseless tug of war between irony and paranoia online.  If you suspect everyone online of insincerity and hatred, you incriminate those who really have meant no harm, but, at the same time, there is so great a number of terrible people hiding under the protection of ironic hyperbole that meaningful dialogue is almost impossible anyway.

There was a great example of the tug-of-war flying around Twitter a few weeks ago:  A high school or college-aged guy sent a meme to a bunch of people in an airport through their unsecured “airdrop” folders on a public network.  The meme image was a simple drawing that has been used for years with no tie to hateful meaning.  Recently, though, due to a few notable subcultures using the meme image alongside hateful images or editing the image to contain hateful imagery, mainstream news designated the meme image as a symbol of hate.  There was no indication that the guy who sent the meme image was using it for any hateful purpose, but nonetheless one of the recipients tracked him down, photographed him, and shared his pictures on her very large social media account, branding him as a racist, bigot, and coward.

How can a rational person sort through such a situation with any coherence?  There was nothing to say the guy was being racist, but it is undeniably true that the meme image has become popular with racist groups.  Nonetheless, is humiliation by social media mob a fitting “punishment” for someone who may have only been playing a simple, harmless prank, or is such an action simply giving valuable ammunition to hate groups’ propaganda machines?

It’s a goddamn mess.  My only hope is that, as a whole, the users of the internet will realize that the insincerity-paranoia feedback loop leads to a maddening vortex of continual overreaction, else we’re all in for a terribly frustrating ride.

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