The New York Times recently published an article called “How to Live without Irony“.
The (slightly cranky) piece diagnoses hipster culture as the malaise of spoiled and superficial Millennials. They (as a Millennial I should say ‘we’) can commit to nothing. We are meticulous planners of our image. We use irony to deflect anything that might betray genuine emotion or seriousness.
Ironic living, writes the author, “is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise.”
Unfortunately, the author suggests Millennials should fix themselves by using fewer inside jokes and having less eccentric wardrobes.
She just doesn’t get it.
Why do we get all our news from Jon Stewart and the Onion? Because the real world appears so absurd that it’s often hard to tell the difference between a farce and the evening news. Why not choose late-night comedy instead? It’s a lot less tragic.
Even if we don’t understand all the gory details, Millennials are aware that American society is not healthy.
We jail more people than anywhere else in the world, mostly for a War on Drugs that Millennials do not believe in. Our leaders regularly lie to us (the truth hurts), and people who actually tell the truth are punished by those in power.
We can’t find jobs (and we can find even fewer that are meaningful or offer upward mobility). We can see investment bankers floating down on golden parachutes (paid by us) while we’re paying off our gargantuan student debts (or more likely, not being able to pay them).
An honest look at the future Millennials face makes NPR ask, “Are Millennials the ‘Screwed Generation“?
It’s hard to be sunny. “What happened to the future?” venture capitalist Peter Thiel asks, “We wanted flying cars and instead we got 140 characters.” No wonder we have an insatiable appetite for stories about dystopias. Forget big dreams, let’s update our Facebooks instead.
Besides, living without irony is scary. It means committing to some vision of the world and exposing yourself and your emotions to others. Where will that get us, when so many of the people on top seem to thrive on dishonesty?
Politicians, business people, even sports coaches — where are all the high-profile cases of integrity that we can aspire to? Why be the lone voice of earnestness when cynicism pays?
Our institutions make it even harder. We’ve spent most of our short lives in schools with walls plastered with inspirational posters telling us to ‘Live your dream!’ and ‘Reach for the stars!’, but (ironically) we were too busy pretending to learn while cramming for standardized tests to read them. It’s not like we had a choice.
Why don’t we believe in anything anymore? Why not, damn the torpedoes!, struggle for some sacred ideal?
Because everything is too big, too impersonal, and we can tell the game is rigged. This has been the implicit lesson of most of our schools, politics, and much of our economy for our entire young lives.
We started RSE to fight this cynicism. To help connect people who do not revere authority, but challenge it by creating things that are better. Who get it done. Who are not afraid to live openly with who they are, and who do not hide from their voice of conscience when things get tough. Irony is a powerful weapon, but it’s not a way to live.
If the future is dark, then we shouldn’t hide from it. We should make the creative rebellion against today’s cynicism a lifestyle; to find, in the depths of our winter, that there lay within us an invincible summer.
It would be terrible if irony vanished tomorrow. We need it to fight back. Irony deflates the pretensions and lies of those who otherwise would prey on our youthful naiveté. We ought to use it to make a laughing stock of those who are doing humanity harm.
But we need to stop using irony to hide from uncomfortable truths.
So instead of living with grave seriousness, let’s just live honestly. A world without irony would be lacking in honesty, and a lot less fun. Because believing in the future and facing absurdity every single day takes courage — and a healthy appreciation for the ironic.