Irony and a Genuine Love of Absurdity

“If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.” So opines Christy Wampole, over in the New York Times’ opinion section. This opening suggestion, and the examples that play out through her entire piece, have a weight to them that has taken me awhile to pin down. They ring true, but something else rings false here.

The article traces our tendency to hide from direct praise: if you only give ironic gifts, for instance, you’ve failed to interact with your loved ones in a personal way. This is a problem for many, and reflects our fear of attachment or genuine love; after all, love requires risk. Technology has played a role here, but our tendencies are older than this internet-influenced world. She eventually sums up what she wants to convey:

Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

There’s a lot of good here. I’m a fan of saying what we mean, and meaning what we say. I’m not convinced the ethos of irony is quite so definitive of our age as the author believes, but I like her solution nonetheless. Well, mostly. Moving forward, she suggests:

Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?Listen to your own speech. Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)?

There’s something of a false dichotomy here, I think: I’m not convinced I can only really like things if they are not absurd. Can’t someone enjoy an absurd thing because of its absurdity without it functioning as an ironic love, some sort of deconstruction of its genre or purpose? The speech is a much better question, I think, though even then I suspect someone could intend those sorts of references to carry much more meaning, not unlike allusions in literature (well, not entirely unlike them).

Many action films, for instance, are patently absurd. Look at The Expendables, which really was just this strange sort of inside joke: round up as many action stars from years gone by and from the present as you can, and see what happens. There are moments where you laugh because of the absurdity of it all. I’m not convinced that this makes my enjoyment of the film ironic, because I do think it is genuine. I’ll tell you that The Expendables was a good movie. I may qualify that and say that it is good if you like action movies, but it need not be an ironic “if you like films that poke fun at what films are.”

Perhaps I’m ironic when I watch anything that The Asylum puts out. I admit the films are terrible, even as I genuinely enjoy the experience of watching these films with company that will yell at the screen. I can live with some irony. I happen to enjoy some things that are absolutely absurd (I mean, have you played a Call of Duty game lately?).

But if I can’t genuinely enjoy something that is absurd, because that somehow doesn’t measure up to a genuine enjoyment, then I’m not convinced irony is worth ironing out of our lives.

As I said earlier: I’m not convinced this ethos of irony is as prevalent as the author suggests. There are plenty of millennials who live quite differently than the description provided: many of them are committed to living lives that are profoundly genuine. Many commit themselves to clearly non-ironic causes, whether this be a religious conviction or a strictly humanitarian one. Whether it be Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, ending human trafficking, feeding the homeless, or helping starving children in third world countries, my generation is actively involved in all sorts of behavior that is far from ironic.

Let’s take some steps towards sincerity, but let us never forget absurdity. Let’s enjoy silliness genuinely, and praise God for our senses of humor.

A Sack of Spin

A recent article by Kevin Sack concerns pre-abortion ultrasounds, and whether they might or might-not affect a woman’s decision. But he wrote another article simultaneously–one about how only cold, cruel extremists insist that clinics provide ultrasounds.

Impressive. Sack’s article is composed of subtle, well-crafted infusion of bias, all neatly packaged into what I would think appears to most people as a typical, passably-objective piece of journalism.

But take a closer look at the article. Sack uses rhetorical devices to maintain a dual agenda throughout his article—one on a literal, journalistic level, and another on a persuasive, op-ed level. A careful read can reveal the devices Sack employs. After all, it’s one thing for someone to be a bad writer; but it’s a whole other, and more dangerous thing to be a bad reader.

1. Euphemism, or ‘Positive Expression’, and Dysphemisms, or ‘Sneaky Smack’

A euphemism isn’t always bad. I’m glad we say, ‘I’m going to use the restroom’ instead of a more graphic description of that room’s goings-on. All the same, in an article like Mr. Sack’s, euphemisms are used as a powerful form of rhetorical manipulation.

Here are a few examples:

‘abortion method’? Nope: “method of extraction
‘Young (or small) fetus’? Uh, no: “bean-size fetus”
‘Abortion Supporters’?  Nah: “Abortion rights advocates”

These are some fairly obvious examples of how words can be crafted with that ‘dual agenda’ I mentioned earlier. On a factual level, both ways of speaking—the ‘moderate’ and ‘euphemized’—convey the same information. But the euphemisms motivate substantially different responses by softening and/or abstracting language.

Dysphemisms are the opposite of euphemisms, and Sack’s article is loaded with these as well. Dysphemisms employ words to make something sound a lot worse than it is.

For example, Sack does not say that anti-abortion supporters hope sonograms will convince women to ‘carry their babies to term’ or ‘not have an abortion’. Instead, they are trying to get them to “preserve pregnancies.” As if abortion were so natural that a woman must make extra effort to ‘preserve’ her pregnancy…?

Some dysphemisms verge on also being ad hominem. Sack calls ultrasound advocates ‘anti-abortion strategists’. ‘Strategists’—brilliant choice. Consider the dictionary definition: “a person skilled in planning action or policy, esp. in war or politics.” With a single word, Sack throws the anti-abortion side into freezing cold category connotations of war and politics, perhaps the two worst human inventions in all history.

My favorite dysphemism, though, was when Sack was still talking about the woman ‘Laura’, and why she did not want to look at the ultrasound images. The image, Sack writes, “would only unleash…hormonal emotions.”  Oh, Mr. Sack, don’t you mean they would ‘activate maternal instinct’?

Another tip: also look for overarching euphemisms/dysphemisms. Sack maintains a subtle consistency in his references to pro-abortion and anti-abortion supporters. Pro-abortion supporters are ‘who’s’: they are personified groups or individuals. Anti-abortion, on the other hand, is referenced as ‘groups, which’ or the aforementioned ‘strategists’.

Be aware of euphemisms and dysphemisms. Receiving information is good, but don’t fall for the word play.

2. Ambiguity, That-Sometimes-Interesting-Thing

Take a look at the following sentence:

Because human features may barely be detectable during much of the first trimester, when 9 of 10 abortions are performed, some women find viewing the images reassuring.
Sack impresses me. That’s a golden amorphous sentence—I bet that nearly all readers finish it thinking, ‘Oh, first-trimester fetuses are just blobs and seeing them has no effect on women.’ And yet, Mr. Sack doesn’t make that claim–at least, not concretely. Instead, his statements are couched by terms like ‘may barely’ or ‘some’.

Ambiguity is not only is what is written, but largely also in what is not written. For example, Mr. Sack never directly comments on what type or quality of ultrasounds women are given in abortion clinics.

His article only contains two vague indications: the first occurs in the opening paragraph, which portrays a woman named Laura, about to have an abortion, staring “away from the grainy image on the screen.” Okay, so we know they are ‘grainy’. The second comes from a post-abortive woman named Tiesha, who Mr. Sack quotes as saying, “It [the 8-week old fetus] just looked like a little egg, and I couldn’t see arms or legs or a face.”

No wonder Mr. Sack chose to be ambiguous in the ‘human features’ sentence. Look up high-quality, 4-D ultrasound images 8-week old fetuses. I highly doubt Tiesha saw what you see in those images—a fetal image from the best ultrasound technology wouldn’t be confused with a ‘little egg’.

3. Emotional Appeal, aka ‘Feel Good—Agree with Me’

‘Appeal to emotion’ is a powerful tool, but it also happens to be a logical fallacy. The fallacy runs something like this: A is associated with B. B is associated with positive (or negative) emotions. Therefore, A is a good (or bad) thing.

Take Sack’s following sentence: “But a number of women at the Birmingham clinic, which was the site of a fatal bombing in 1998, said they simply did not want to subject themselves to images that might haunt them.” The bombing of the Birmingham clinic has nothing to do with the ultrasound discussion. However, all sorts of negative emotions towards anti-abortion supporters are wrapped up in any mention of anti-abortion violence. Likely, those emotional connotations will transfer onto the also anti-abortion, ultrasound advocates, even though the two aren’t actually  connected at all.

Sack also embeds a lot of emotional quotations into his article, particularly at the beginning and end. The article closes with an interviewee concluding that ultrasounds are “emotional torture.”

This recalls an earlier statement, made by the National Abortion Federation’s president. Laws, she says, that require ultrasound images be available to women who choose to view them “don’t respect women’s ability to make informed choices.”

Funny, that. I never knew that providing information was disrespecting someone’s ability to use information. Thank you for enlightening me, Ms. Saporta!

4. Appeal to Authority, Their Word is my Communiqué

A writer need resources and authorities when he/she writes an article, particularly a news article. But choosing those authorities has a huge impact on the spin of the piece. Are they objective? Are they knowledgeable? Do cited statistics come from credible sources?

Sack uses at least two authorities that seems to be fallacious: first, people who are either unknowledgeable or highly biased, and secondly, questionable statistics.

Let’s look at Sack’ interviewee list:
Laura: 36-year old post-abortive woman
Tiesha: 27-year-old post-abortive woman
Carmen: 28-year-old post-abortive woman
Diane Derzis: abortion clinic owner
Vicki Saporta: president of the National Abortion Federation
Linda Meek: director of Reproductive Services abortion clinic in Tulsa
Carrie Earll: spokeswoman from Focus on the Family
For an article concerning abortion law and the boundaries of informed medical consent, Sack’s article has a startling lack of interviews with lawmakers or non-abortionist physicians. Also, the only voice on the pro-life side comes from Focus on the Family—undeniably, an organization with a pre-existing reputation among secular media, no matter or just or unjust that reputation may be.

Six of Sack’s seven interviews were with already pro-abortion advocates—once a reader notices that, the slant of the article begins to be recognizable. Another way to  reveal bias is to look at the source and type of cited statistics.

Sack writes:

In one of the few studies of the issue — there have been none in the United States — two abortion clinics in British Columbia found that 73 percent of patients wanted to see an image if offered the chance. Eighty-four percent of the 254 women who viewed sonograms said it did not make the experience more difficult, and none reversed her decision.
I was unable to find the source of this ‘study’. Where is Sack getting this information? And since when are two Canadian abortion clinics an adequate sample size or representation of all American abortion clinics?

Later in the article, Sack takes the report of an abortion clinic owner as an authority concerning ultrasound’s effectiveness or lack thereof. Again, Sack cites illegitimate statistical authority and inadequate sample size/representation.

Conclusion: Read Defensively

I know that here at Evangelical Outpost we often talk about ‘reading charitably’. And that’s true and good. All the same, reading a modern news piece on sensitive topics like abortion, health care, euthanasia, religion and other similar topics calls for a different method of reading than does reading other types of literature. Sack’s article could compel a blithe reader into, at best, opinion with strength unwarranted by the evidence and, at worst, pure uninformed belief. Read well, read defensively and seek out truth–it remains unmovable beneath any spin.