Irony has always fascinated thinkers, artists and frankly, everyone reflecting on the smaller and bigger paradoxes of life. Since the Romantic movement, irony is understood to be more than an “average” trope; it has been framed, variously, as an attitude, a discursive strategy or even the source of freedom. According to Søren Kierkegaard, “[j]ust as philosophy begins with doubt, so also a life that may be called human begins with irony. […] no genuinely human life is possible without irony.”
No wonder that in the political sphere irony is frequently praised as a critical component of our social/cultural/spiritual immune system, and as a core democratic virtue—promoting tolerance in Western democracies facing the challenges of multiculturalism and enabling creative forms of resistance in autocratic regimes.
But surprisingly—and ironically—irony has achieved its most conspicuous success against democratic norms and institutions. As it turned out, irony can not only be playful or liberating, but abusive and oppressive. In the 2010s, irony fueled the emergence of a new right-wing extremism and populism, and redefined political communication.
In his talk, our Hungarian fellow Gergely Tóth examined the main reasons leading to this downtrend, from the traits that make irony a useful tool for extremist propaganda to the irony-amplifying role of social media platforms. The speaker invited his audience to discuss certain questions on the matter, such as the possibility of drawing a line between “good” and “bad” irony and the long-term effects of meme-culture on democracies.
Misha Glenny, IWM Rector, provided commentary for this Fellows Colloquium and moderated the ensuing discussion.