What shall we do with irony?

(and the strange case of the man on a boar’s back)

Alanis Morissette wrote a famous song about irony, which demonstrated that she didn’t actually know what irony was. There’s a rather brilliant scene in Archer series, episode 5, where Sterling Archer, who alternates between hyper-informed mentor and pre-literate buffoon, explains the difference between coincidence, irony, metaphor and symbol. When Pam asks “so what’s satire”, he replies “nobody knows”.

Once the preserve of senior school chess clubs and Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, an extreme, sarcastic irony has become one of the dominant forms of discourse on the internet. While business gurus have long lamented that you can’t tell tone of voice on email — which is why it’s so important to be careful and take no offence — posters of blank irony make maximum use of this. On social media and in anonymous comments to articles this may be harmless enough, but what about the ‘blank’ irony of fake news sites?

Fake news sites are in some ways the polar opposites of the Britain First style memes I looked at a few weeks ago in The Format of Falsehood. While these memes attempt to trigger an emotional reposting to reenforce prejudice, the fake news sites such as The Daily Currant, National Report, The Borowitz Report and World News Daily Report impel the reader to either enjoy the joke or be the subject of it.

Articles from these sites are frequently shared by outraged readers on Facebook, such as the claim that missionaries were sending Bibles to Nepal instead of food. Anyone who follows the links back and reads the original article can go onto the ‘about’ pages and confirm that the sites are offering only bogus, ‘entertainment’ content, but this is not clear if you are reading on Facebook.

In one thread, I saw a string of readers posting outraged comments, since they took the story at face value, despite the fact that a persistent user continued to interrupt the thread by pointing out that it was a bogus story from a satirical site.

I personally love TheDailyMash, which is a scurrilous satirical site rather like a free version of Private Eye, but more so. There is perhaps a fine line here, but it is nonetheless a sharply inked one. All the stories on TheDailyMash are funny. They begin with something implausible, though no more implausible than many of the ‘genuine’ news stories reported in the Daily Mail. However, if this piques your interest and you read the actual article, it gets sillier and sillier. No matter how gullible you are, a Daily Mash story will eventually reveal to you that it’s a joke. Unlike the real Daily Mail.

The Daily Mash is, to me, a genuine satirical news site. Like Private Eye and Dilbert, it doesn’t do to read too much of it, lest it tarnish many things that do not deserve it. It has three important qualities which distinguish it. First, the articles are genuinely funny in their own right. As a form of humour, satire needs to justify its existence first of all by being funny, in a sense that at least makes you chuckle, rather than merely despise. Second, the articles reveal themselves to be satirical to a reasonably critical observer. Third, the articles make a cleverer and more insightful point than the thing they are mocking.

While the first two are important, it seems to me that the third is crucial. If the satirist is not as profound as her or his target, the result is mere mockery. It makes a fool of the mocker, and the reader, but says nothing useful about the target.

There is a genuine sense in which the satirist — with Shakespeare’s clowns — says ‘we are all fools’, while the mocker merely says ‘they are fools, but I am not’.

This — in my view — is where the fake news sites go wrong.

One of the fundamental challenges in writing for the internet is that you do not know who is reading. Actually, by writing this article in long-form, on a website, with phrases in it like ‘One of the fundamental challenges…’, I’ve narrowed down my readership considerably.

Even so, there are a lot of things I don’t know about my readers. Do they have English as a first language?  I just ran one of the earlier paragraphs through Google Translate into Dutch and back into English. The result didn’t make a great deal of sense. If you’re reading this using machine translation, the whole thing may have lost you not far from the beginning.

How did you find the article? Via Facebook, Twitter, browsing, or a random internet search? If from a random search, I know even less about you. Do you use Wikipedia? Do you read TVTropes.com? If you’re a naive Wikipedia user, you might be inclined to take a lot of things at face value. On the other hand, if you’re a Wikipedia editor (and anyone can be), you are probably by now highly sceptical of anything which doesn’t come with references and footnotes. TVTropes would make you ‘genre-savvy’, and you may already be bored of this article for not containing enough Easter Eggs to keep you amused (unless, of course, I’ve hidden some Easter Eggs that you haven’t found). If you don’t read TVTropes.com and you don’t know what Easter Eggs are, then the previous sentence must have been completely baffling.

The ironic works for us when we converse with people who share the same set of cultural assumptions and a similar level of linguistic expertise. It’s a game of coding, word-play and hidden meanings — a form of riddling talk that requires a set of keys and clues to be understood: a fun game when the players are equal, but demeaning and even nasty when they are not.

Consider the following cryptic Anglo-Saxon proverb:

“Now it is in the pig’s judgement”, says the man sat on a boar’s back.

Nu hit ys on swines dome cwæþ se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge

This is from the proverbs in the Durham book, probably written down towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, though quite possibly in use long before then. There is a helpful Latin gloss, though, in this case, the meaning was either so obvious to the translator that he didn’t bother to elucidate, or he was baffled too.

Word for word in English — not a proper translation — it would be:

Now (Nu) it (hit) is (ys) on (on) pig’s (swines) judgement (dome) says (cwæþ) the (se) churl (ceorl) sat (sæt) on (on) boar’s (eoferes) back (hricge).

A literal translation would therefore be:

“Now it is in the pig’s judgement”, says the man sat on a boar’s back.

What does it mean?

Surprisingly, as far as I can discover, no-one has so far published a sensible meaning for it. The trick is to recognise that in Old English, a boar is a kind of swine (like Dutch, ‘everzwijn’), unlike in Modern English, where ‘boar’ is different in kind from ‘pig’, the one being wild, the other domesticated. The swine in the first part of the proverb is therefore the same animal that the man is sitting on in the second part, not a different animal, which has confused many translators.

We can now translate it as: “It’s up to the swine to decide”, says the man sat on a boar’s back.

Still confused? The thrust of the proverb is the same as ‘we were only following orders’, or ‘I never knew what I was letting myself in for’. A man who has successfully managed to get onto the back of a wild boar and ride it is, indeed, entirely at the mercy of the swine in terms of where they go, how fast, how soon, and when they stop. Nonetheless, he cannot absolve himself of responsibility for any damage caused, since he made the decision in the beginning to climb onto the boar’s back.

In daily life, we can imagine a young Saxon saying ‘It’s not my fault’, being rebuffed by an older person saying “Of course not, it was the swine’s”.

Within a cultural frame of reference where they both know the proverb, both know what it means, and both know why and how it is applied, this exchange is enough to persuade the youth to stop making excuses and take some responsibility. Without those cultural cues, it is simply baffling.

So it goes with the internet.


Should (ironic) fake news sites be banned?

Whether or not we think they ought to be — a question which presses close to the question of freedom of speech — there is a real sense in which they cannot be. Even if there was an effective mechanism for banning anything on the internet, banning things because they were not demonstrably true would i) involve taking down most of the internet and ii) require an extraordinary burden of proof. It’s barely possible to enforce it on Wikipedia. Going beyond that would be silly.


If that’s not possible, where does it leave us?

There is an international but not universal convention that we can all publish any rubbish we like on the morning of April 1. This must be extraordinarily baffling for people from any culture that does not celebrate the arbitrary April Fool’s Day. Some groups of people don’t share the convention that this stops at 12:00 noon, and, in any case, one would need to be fairly alert to recognise where a story was being published from, and correlate the time zone with that. For that reason, nobody believes anything they read between breakfast on March 31st and somewhere on April 2nd, unless it is utterly mundane. The BBC then generally follows this up with a quiz about stories that sound like they are April Fools, but are actually real.


For the rest of the year, perhaps its time for us all to grow up and stop playing games with ideas of truth, or, at the very least, to leave it to people who really know how to do it. Not everyone can be a satirist.

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