Anyone trained in literary criticism is familiar with the concept of irony. Irony is one of those figures of speech that has not remained confined to academia but that has moved into the arena of daily life. In the contemporary western world irony is to be found anywhere and everywhere from poems, to novels; from adverts, to films; from casual conversation, to public debates. These are ‘witty times’ and both producers and consumers of culture are sophisticated individuals that produce and consume witty texts. Despite all this sometimes irony does not work at all, or simply misfires. The reason for this has to do with a fundamental premise of irony as figure of speech: in order for irony to work, the addressee –consumer– of the message needs to know what is the real thinking and intentions of the speaker –producer. If that is not the case, it will never work.
Irony is also double-edged for one precise reason: it can be used as a means to say otherwise unspeakable things; by the same token, one can say anything under the pretence that it was said ‘tongue-in-cheek’, and that if somebody feels insulted it is their problem for being utterly unsophisticated or uptight and not getting the joke.
I am writing about all this because today I was involved in a Twitter discussion triggered by an article, ”Paléo de merde”, published in l’Auditoire, the newspaper of students of both the University of Lausanne and the EPFL. This newspaper –which I never read, therefore don’t know– published an ‘anonymous letter’ in their section Le chien méchant. A colleague of mine –who does not know or read the newspaper either– was enraged and showed it to myself and others in the department. We were all appalled. Of course it was too big to be taken literally, and yet if you are not familiar with the newspaper there is no way of knowing it is meant to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’. The text is a long sexist, misogynist, racist, homophobic, and classist diatribe accompanied by this photo-collage:
I got –still are– very angry and vented my fury through Twitter. Firstly, since I do not know the newspaper, I didn’t know that their Chien méchant section was not to be taken literally therefore I complained about the fact they published the supposed reader’s letter anonymously. A twitter user and l’Auditoire replied to one of my Tweets saying that of course the article was meant to be read au second degré –Heu stupid me! But such an explanation does not make things any better.
Apparently the newspaper’s editorial board thought it was funny to refer to Belgian singer Stromae as ‘le Jacques Brel négro-belge qui s’habille comme un vioque‘ and to Elton John as ‘le vieux pédé obèse qui joue du piano’. To add insult to injury in the short acknowledgements segment in the newspaper’s cover page they thank somebody for lending them the software that helped them ‘negrify’ Stromae (see photo above). I am sorry but tongue-in-cheek or not this is not funny at all and is utterly insulting. What if I decided to send this to Stromae? He does not know the context of the Chien méchant article, but as a mestizo man born and raised in Europe I am sure he well knows what racism is. Will he find this pathetic article funny and ‘tongue-in-cheek’? Chances are he won’t!
This is a shocking example of how in today’s postmodern world people can say the most denigrating things about anybody and justify themselves through hyperbole and irony, and then dismiss criticism by means of diminishing the critics as unsophisticated dupes.
I would like to end this by making a clear statement: a text is not less homophobic, sexist, racist and/or classist because it is meant as a joke or as an ironic/witty form of criticism. I think that l’Auditoire‘s writing and publication of “Paléo de merde” and its subsequent justifications are both well beyond the pale.