Give Irony a Chance

A recent NYT or-ed piece by Christy Wampole entitled “How to Live Without Irony” has been making the rounds online.1  The piece is a lament for the millennial generation’s fixation on irony:

The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. […] He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.

I feel like a piece like this crops up every year or so, and the consistent factor in all these articles is that the author feels left out of a culture that he/she does not belong to.  This article feels about as accurate as those that came out of 9/11 declaring that irony was “dead.”  If anything, the hipsters I have known have been excessively earnest people … the only way you might think otherwise is if you were extrapolating their entire person from their clothes, facial hair, and twitter feeds.  Lady Gaga may wear a meat dress, but she also gives speeches about bullying.  Those same smirking “harlequins” were the ones who started the Occupy movement.

More importantly, I disagree with the premise that earnestness is inherently superior to irony.  Since when has the ability to laugh — especially at oneself — been a bad thing?2  The author points to 4 year-old children and animals as exemplars of earnest behavior.  From where I stand, those are not necessarily things for adults to aspire to.  To celebrate humanity is to celebrate the ways we are different from animals — irony is one of the ways we can do that.

Sure, there’s a possible danger to too much detachment.  And, as I’ve discussed before, it can be used to hurt people.  But none of these things are unique to one generation.


  1. You know it’s popular when my father emails it to me.
  2. Re-reading Something Wicked This Way Comes this October (something I do every year), I was struck anew by the simple idea that evil is powerless in the face of smile.