Our college chaplain used to preach often against sarcasm. This always baffled me, and made me assume that the poor fellow, though clearly holy, was a little bit clueless. After all, a stroll through the nearby woods would show him that the students in his care were engaging in much worse sins than a little snarkiness!
Now I think two things: (a) of course he knew what was going on in the woods; and (b) he was onto something. Sarcasm is the younger, rather juvenile sister of irony. Irony is wonderful as a literary vehicle -- but as a lifestyle, it's deadly. A habitually ironic point of view trains us to see the world at a distance, to never approach our consciences directly.
A habit of irony creeps up on us. Take, for instance, the guy who watches a comedy TV show that ironically features scantily-clad young women parading around. This recurring feature is a big joke: the audience would never actually watch a show which was so gauche as to actually feature scantily-clad young women parading around! That's for rednecks! This show, however, is poking fun at that kind of show; it's a send-up, a spoof, a clever commentary on the kind of yahoos who will sit and watch that kind of thing. And a sophisticated guy will show how above it he is, by sitting and watching that kind of thing -- wearing, he imagines, an armor made of irony.
We imagine that our behavior is extremely adult -- that our sophistication and understanding shield us from any culpability. But what's the difference between that and this conversation I recently had with my three-year-old?
Me: Irene, please don't scream!
Irene: But it was just a pretend scream.
Yep, she honestly thought it was fine to shriek as loud as she wanted, as long as it was just a pretend scream -- never mind that it made my ears hurt just as much as the "real" kind.
Pride tells us that we're clever enough, or virtuous enough, to wade into any sort of cesspool and come out clean -- and it's not only sophisticated libertines who fall for this sort of self-delusion. A few months ago, a traditionalist Catholic blog posted an extensive gallery of photos of young women cavorting with golden youths during World Youth Day, both sexes showing veritable acres of skin. The point of the post? To expose the shameful offenses against modesty that some Catholics tolerate! They were so horrified at the revolting immodesty on display that they posted more and more pictures as the week wore on. It was a very popular post.
A habit of ironic detachment doesn't only allow you to hurt other people -- it often turns you into a victim, whether you realize it or not. Once we accept the idea that intention matters more than actual experience, we perceive sincerity where none exists. Take, for instance, young women who are outraged over sexist laws banning public toplessness in women, but not in men. To protest, some women went topless; and to show their -- um, concern and distress over this patriarchal inequity -- several men joined the protest. Boy, do those guys hate sexism, right?
Or here is a self-styled feminist who argues that sadistic porn can be empowering to women because it cleverly subverts the paradigm of power and control.
They play right into the hands of the people who want to use them. They imagine that it makes some difference that they participating voluntarily -- that their convoluted intentions have some power in the face of forces older than Adam.
Where's the harm in all of this? So a few people don't know their own hearts well -- so a few people fall into sin and trouble because of pride and self-delusion. Sucks to be them, but it's their problem, right?
No. I believe that the generations about to reach adulthood have become so saturated in irony -- they have become so accustomed to treating their intentions as if they're entirely independent of their actual actions -- that literally anything is permissible. Think about it: if what you do has no intrinsic ethical value -- if all that matters is what you intend -- then what sort of behavior could you possibly condemn?
Recently we heard that a pair of ethicist were batting around the idea of post-natal abortion. They said that it may very well be ethical to kill a healthy, viable newborn child because no harm would come to the child. Why? Because harm only occurs when the recipient of harm knows he is being injured. It is, they said, "not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense”.
Even the tedpidly pro-life will recoil from this hellish absurdity. But it's the entirely logical conclusion of the notion that we can live in two worlds simultaneously -- the world of intention and the world of action -- and that the two need not have anything to do with each other. Any time we introduce distance between ourselves and our actions, we take the first steps toward Hell.
So let us beware of habitual irony. If we're of an ironic or sarcastic turn of mind (hello!), let's make a point of exercising utter sincerity and frankness from time to time, even if it makes us feel foolish or dull. The Father of Lies stands ready to spot a harmless rift and widen it into an eternal chasm.