No Joke

Irony is not a gateway drug or alibi for racism

A popular fiction has it that Socrates was convicted of his various charges by a slim majority of Athenian judges. Then, when it came to sentencing, the prosecutor proposed death. Socrates instead proposed that he receive free meals for life in the city’s sacred hearth. In response, more judges voted to sentence him to death for his impertinence than had voted to convict him in the first place. Though this isn’t true, it would have been ironic if it were.

Socrates, we might say, died from “irony poisoning.” Not the flesh-and-blood man Socrates, of course — he was probably killed for teaching and befriending deposed tyrants — but the Socrates we know from Plato and Xenophon’s hagiographic renderings, who was apparently sentenced to death by hemlock for using irony to reveal philosophical truths to young Athenian men.

If only the term irony poisoning were used that way, for cases in which poison is dispatched against irony. Instead, the term has emerged in social media parlance to signify that irony, cultivated online, is itself the poison. Mimetic of the process it ostensibly denotes, “irony poisoning” began somewhat as a joke. It’s well summed up, as these things often are, in an Urban Dictionary entry: “Irony poisoning is when one’s worldview/Weltanschauung/reality tunnel is so dominated by irony and detachment-based-comedy that the joke becomes real and you start to do things that are immoral or wrong from a place of deep nihilistic cynicism.” An extreme case of “irony poisoning” turns the online shitposter into the committed violent racist, willing to carry out bloody deeds offline.

The adoption of the term “irony poisoning” lets centrist liberals do what centrist liberals do best: call for civility, earnestness, and Truth as the antidote to violent extremism

Had “irony poisoning” remained imprecise, self-referential Twitter jargon, there would be no reason to take issue with it. But it’s now being used in earnest to describe a real and troubling condition. It has been enthusiastically picked up by publications like the Guardian, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times, which embraced it as a revelatory explanation for the rise and spread of fascist communities online and the offline violence they facilitate. “We are making a plea to scholars, readers and Silicon Valley elites,” the Times journalists wrote, without apparent irony, “take irony poisoning seriously.” And we should, but not for the reasons they adduce. Rather, the term’s adoption reveals the flawed way mainstream liberal analysis wants to see and interpret fascism. It lets centrist liberals do what centrist liberals do best: call for civility, earnestness, and Truth as the antidote to violent extremism.

That’s not to say that the pattern that the “irony poisoning” thesis points to is not gravely real. Online communities awash in euphemistic alt-right neo-Nazi references as well as explicit racial slurs and Hitler memes have produced violent actors in the physical world. Charlottesville was organized as a meat-space meetup of white supremacists who had found each other online and adopted a cartoonish lexicon by which to recognize each other (Pepes, symbols of Odinism and so on) and culminated in white supremacists beating a black man with metal poles, and a neo-Nazi mowing his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one. Lane Davis, a prolific far-right troll on YouTube who called his parents “leftist pedophiles,” was thought to be nothing more than an outrage peddler until he stabbed his dad to death. The New York Times invoked irony poisoning in response to a case involving a German firefighter in a liberal town who bartered online in anti-refugee Facebook propaganda and Hitler jokes. He then attempted to set fire to a refugee group house.

These incidents of physical violence were no doubt stoked by a worldview shaped and encouraged in social media’s dark crevices, where race hate is often expressed and (further) normalized through memes and jokes. That is simply to say that our beliefs and behaviors are shaped and reinforced by the communities of which we are a part, and individual participation reinforces the group subjectivity in turn. Yet the framework of “irony poisoning” becomes dubious when applied as an actual explanation or pathology. By blaming irony as some sort of gateway drug to “real” race hate, it suggests that “real” far-right extremism develops through an extreme ironic detachment from reality and its moral standards. But in fact it is through routine attachment to networks in which white supremacy is an a priori moral norm in need of defense that fascist subjects are formed. Attachment, not detachment, is the problem.

For those of us interested in delivering effective blows to racist, fascistic formation, dismantling this liberal framework matters. I agree, we must take seriously the discursive violence expressed through veiled euphemisms and Pepe memes on Twitter, and the physical violence committed by those who speak that language. And we must take seriously that the flawed liberal response to these horrors is to blame irony.

The irony poisoning pathology belongs in the pantheon of bad explanations for the rise of fascism, which insist that a public is somehow unwittingly tricked into it: the idea that young, disaffected, white male social media users believe themselves to simply be playing a communal game of out-trolling each other but are in fact duped into a true fascistic frenzy. We see this framework play out in Jason Wilson’s piece on the phenomenon in the Guardian, in which he notes that seasoned neo-Nazis lure new recruits in with memes and racist jokes.

The media has picked up on contemporary white supremacist irony as if all previous iterations of fascism were somehow devoid of it. It’s perhaps calming to think that previous fascist constellations were transparent regimes of explicit race hate, easy to name and oppose. Nazi hats had skulls on them, for god’s sake, as British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb skewer in a sketch in which one Nazi asks another, “Hans, are we the baddies?” But historic fascist movements often bartered in irony and euphemism. Mussolini’s Black Shirts took up the slogan “Me Ne Frego,” which basically translates to “I don’t give a fuck” — a seeming cry of nihilistic detachment. But in context, the phrase meant “I don’t give a fuck if I die fighting for fascism.” The ironic expression was one of extreme attachment and sincere commitment, which makes individual nihilism possible. And as Malcolm Harris pointed out at in an interview with Elaine Parsons, author of Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan in Reconstruction, the Reconstruction Klan also weaponized “goofiness and so-called irony.” “All the Klannish affectations and accoutrements that seem so ridiculous today — the alliterative K’s, the costumes, the Magic: The Gathering titles like ‘Grand Wizard’ and ‘Exalted Cyclops’ — were ridiculous, and self-consciously so,” wrote Harris. “One of the functions of humor for the Klan, Parsons says, was to mark their transgressions as acceptable.” The funny white ghost costumes didn’t distract the American public into regarding Klan violence and the destruction of black life as acceptable and even desirable; rather it made it appear as normal and natural as laughter. The appeal to irony was not a trick, but an attempt to assert an already existing racist community, to invoke belonging and exclusion of the other.

We can’t just “decide” our way out of domination and oppression through a renewed commitment to earnestness

In Germany in 1933, Wilhelm Reich, in analyzing how a society chooses fascism, rejected the all-too-easy notion of the duped masses. He insisted that we take seriously the fact that people, en masse, genuinely desired fascism. Ignorant masses weren’t manipulated into an authoritarian system they do not actually want. A Freudian acolyte, Reich posited a repressive hypothesis to account for fascist desire: The collective fascist subject was the result of societal sexual repression. His diagnosis was biologically essentialist and now appears wildly outdated, but his insistence on taking fascistic desire seriously remains all too lacking in today’s commentary on the rise of the far right.

This approach was further developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to account for fascist desire formation as a productive force rather than a by-product of repression. “No, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism,” they wrote. Deleuze and Guattari focused on micro-fascisms — quotidian, repressive operations of politics and power organized under capitalism and modernity. The individualized and detached self, the over-codings of family unit normativity, the authoritarian tendency of careerism and competition, the desire for hierarchy and power, the police — all among paranoiac sites of micro-fascism. These stem from the practices of authoritarianism and domination and exploitation that form us, reflecting how we are coded to desire the domination and oppression of the nameable “other,” and none of us are free of them. We can’t just “decide” our way out of them through a renewed commitment to earnestness.

But not everyone becomes a neo-Nazi. That requires a nurturing and constant reaffirmation of that fascistic desire to oppress and live in an oppressive world. And to be sure, that pernicious affirmation of white supremacy is not in short supply. Long before the birth of the internet, Deleuze and Guattari stressed interactive, habitual way that fascist desire is determined: “Desire is never an undifferentiated instinctual energy, but itself results from a highly developed, engineered setup rich in interactions.” Fascist subject formation relies on habit, and collective habit at that; social media platforms are an “engineered setup” that accommodate and incentivize these routines. Social media is literally designed to offer metrics of affirmation, which are easily adapted to incubating fascist desire.

The alt-right euphemistic symbols of racism are meant to confuse outsiders and affirm insiders who can feel a sense of belonging by being in the know. They are not attempts to trick the otherwise unsusceptible into racist thinking. Making racist jokes and references are among the habits that sustain and grow neo-fascist online communities, but it’s not the “irony” in them that affords a sense of permission and ushers someone toward white supremacist violence; it is the community that fosters such speech. The ability for angry, entitled people to find each other and support each other’s racial animosities, to speak freely and spread their message without negative consequences provides the conditions for far-right extremism to flourish, not the ambiguities of ironic discourse.

The suggestion that young social media users could somehow stumble into these online communities, believing them to be populated by ironic and nihilistic jokesters as opposed to “real” racists does not add up. Participation presumes understanding what Wittgenstein called a “form of life,” the necessary background context by which interactions and expressions are made possible. In these communities, emboldened white supremacy is the form of life, and participating in them presumes that understanding. Participants can’t be “poisoned” by what they already know.

Consider the “OK” hand sign adopted by the alt-right, Proud Boys, Identity Evropa and their fellow neo-Nazi travelers. The use of the hand sign began as a hoax on a 4chan alt-right discussion board. “Operation O-KKK” was announced “to convince people on Twitter that the ‘OK’ hand sign has been co-opted by neo-Nazis.” The same “meme magic” — to borrow shitposter parlance — was used to “trick” liberals and leftists into believing that milk was a white power symbol. Members of the alt-right swarmed actor Shia LaBeouf’s He Will Not Divide Us video-stream installation in New York, chugging cartons of milk. But there is nothing magical or alchemical in giving objects and words new significance through use. That just how meaning works. And it works even faster through social media’s metabolism, which establishes popular phrases and new references several times a day at minimum.

The ironic expression was one of extreme attachment and sincere commitment, which makes individual nihilism possible

Buzzfeed’s Joe Bernstein, who first reported on the fight over the “OK” sign, wrote, “Where it gets really fuzzy … is trying to determine when and if these symbols cross over from ironic usage.” But it’s pretty clear that the “ironic” usage was poisoned with real racism from the moment groups defined by their white supremacy decide to collectively communicate and represent themselves with it. It’s not that irony poisoned the symbol or anyone using it; it’s the fact that neo-fascists used it to signal each other and develop the habit together, strengthening group subjectivity. Outside the language game of racism, it’s still just means “OK.” Inside, it betokens emboldened white supremacist fascism and bonds that sustain it. Those who claimed to be no more than pranksters were not drawing “us vs. them” lines arbitrarily; their targets were, from the jump, “libtards” and “social justice warriors” who dared care about misogyny and white supremacy.

Not every alt-right shitposter is going to take up physical violence against immigrants and non-white people. But the ones who do were not led to violence by a morality-blurring world of white supremacist humor but a consensus reality built around racism as a given, which is then nurtured, collectively and algorithmically.

If desiring fascism is not something that happens out of reason, we cannot break it with reason alone — this is the liberal mistake that manifests as calls to debate fascists in order to reveal the flaws in their thinking, as if fascist desire was simply something that dissolves into dust when faced with a counterargument or exposed for what it is.

Having a platform is what allows fascist communities to nurture fascist desire in participants. Thus anti-fascists seek to disrupt far-right rallies, deny opportunities to fascist speakers, and expose and shutter those online fascist communities to create unpleasant, if not intolerable, consequences for those indulging or exploring fascist desire. The point is to break the fascist habit by denying the spaces where it is fostered.

It would suit liberal and conservative disavowals of antifa tactics if irony poisoning were really the problem at hand. Condemning irony is the same as insisting that sunlight is the best disinfectant for fascism. As Vicky Osterweil noted in this publication, “feckless liberals abdicate power in the hopes that it will somehow ‘reveal’ the true nature of fascism — think of Democrats relying on Trump to finally demonstrate his unfitness to rule rather than organizing an actual opposition — fascism consolidates representations of that unfitness as opportunities to demonstrate loyalty and belonging.” Behind the so-called irony of Pepe and Kek, there is no pure discursive sphere to be revealed, where fascism and race hate have no place to hide. I suppose there’s some irony — a tired, well worn irony — in the media suggesting that the problem with racist fascism under Trump is that it’s all too obscure.

Natasha Lennard is a British-born, Brooklyn-based writer, focusing on how power functions, and how it is challenged. She writes for publications including the Nation, the Intercept, Fusion and the New York Times philosophy blog, the Stone.