British Lecturer: Suppose a student comes in late to class the fifth day in a row and I say to her, “Early again are we?” What have I really said?
Class of British Adults Attending Beginning Philosophy Lectures: She’s arrived late again.
Lecturer: Right, my meaning is not the literal interpretation of the actual words, but is dependent on [certain factors]. You know perfectly well what I mean if you are an English-speaking person.
Man in the Class, Interjecting (this one’s a quote): Isn’t it cultural? If you said that in America they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.
(End of re-creation.)
What? The lecturer responds, saying some stuff about cultural conventions that come into play when people communicate ideas, then comments that although it is supposed that Americans don’t use irony, she’s sure that sometimes they do, though she can’t think of an instance (she characterized Jon Stewart as being sarcastic, not ironic; I assume her distinction has to do with degrees of subtlety/dryness and possibly context, but considering the obviousness of the “late student” example she gave, an explanation would have been nice).
I tried to shrug this off because, really, who cares, right? Well, I guess I care, as that was a few days ago and it’s still gnawing at me. It wasn’t just that the (smug, “I’ve got you now teacher” sounding) adult student was ignorant, it was that the (smart and seasoned) lecturer herself didn’t have a proper response to the stereotype. Maybe she hasn’t been to the U.S. or had any American friends, or maybe she was just too tired to address the issue after over an hour of having to field the constant attempts from her students to challenge just about every other thing she said.
I’ve run into this kind of thinking before, by the way. I once met some young British men in Paris when I was in my mid-20s who were hilarious afficionados and practicioners of sarcasm, just as many of my back-home American friends were at the time (in fact, neither of these guys were ever as complex in their practice as my American friend whom I once heard being elaborately sarcastic while sleep-talking). My new British friends were happily surpised to discover, very much contrary to their expectations, that Americans not only understood sarcasm, but could engage in it. (Incidentally, one of them asked me, “But isn’t it true that Americans don’t understand sarcasm?” The word “irony” never came up.)
The best (well, my favorite anyway) argument I’ve heard for American irony/sarcasm comes from a British man I blogged about recently, Stephen Fry, in one of his Blessay/Podgrams:
“Incidentally, forgive a detour here, but if there is one misapprehension about Americans that annoys me more than any other, it is the lofty claim, usually made by the most dim-witted and wit-free Britons, that America is an – ho-ho – “irony free zone”. Let it be established here, this day, that no one, on pain of being designated fifty types of watery twat, ever dare repeat that feeble, ignorant, self-satisfied canard ever ever again. Americans are no more irony illiterate than Britons or anyone else and the repeated assertion (and it is no more than an assertion not a demonstrable provable fact) is no more than a pathetic symbol of a certain kind of Briton’s flabby need to convince themselves of their sophisticated superiority over the average American. Now, don’t feel bad about the fact that you, dear listener/reader have, at some point in the past been guilty of repeating and transmitting this feeble myth, we all have. It’s lazy, easy and gives us a warm glow. My war on the lie begins now, and is not retrospective, so you need not feel ashamed. Only promise never to repeat it. Actually, even if you think it’s true, have the grace to recognise that such a clunking, tedious, oft-repeated cliché is so dull and well-worn that it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, it’s just plain tedious and only bar-stool bores and dull-witted gibbons would ever think it worth trotting out. Besides, it is ugly, graceless and rude.”
Thank you, Stephen, for saying this in terms that the Briton can relate to (does “watery twat” mean what I think it does??).
Finally, I’m reminded now of something I read some years ago (only a few months after the abovementioned Parisian trip, in fact) in a book called Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, in which Whitehead (a British philosopher who died in 1947) is quoted as saying:
“Irony, I would say, signifies the state of mind of people or of an age which has lost faith. They conceal their loss, or even flaunt it by laughter. You seldom get irony except from people who have been somehow more or less cleaned out.”
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