Irony, “Alternative Facts,” and “Fake News”

John Senior
Wake Forest University School of Divinity

9 May 2017

For Reinhold Niebuhr, irony is a condition of public discourse. The ironic signals the presence of what he called group “egotism” – the tendency of human groups to assert their self-interest, often to the exclusion or detriment of other group interests.  Groups, Niebuhr famously held, whether they be nations, races, corporations, etc., are virtually incapable of reflexive critique; groups cannot step outside of themselves to critically assess their own desires, drives, motivations, and interests.  Instead, groups pursue their interests relentlessly.

Groups often represent self-interest as universal value,
and may even genuinely mistake the former for the latter. 

Indeed, irony involves an element of obliviousness to, as Niebuhr says in The Irony of American History, “incongruities” that appear to be “apparently fortuitous” but “are discovered, on closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous.”  Hence, Niebuhr critiqued the ways that American leaders, advancing U.S. national interests, belied their pretense of defending the cause of freedom and democracy the world over. The distance between what groups claim as universal value, on the one hand, and the contradictory behaviors that belie these claims, on the other, creates the conditions for irony.

The ironic for Niebuhr is like a scent that puts public intellectuals onto the trail of critical analysis and constructive response. Under normal conditions, irony implies a degree of “unconscious” awareness of the “incongruities” between thought, word, and deed. But what if public leaders intentionally introduce incongruities into public speech, leadership, and policy? What if, as seems to be the case now, intentional incongruity becomes the norm of democratic public space? In that case, our public discourse becomes both hyper- and hypo-ironical, both too ironical and not ironical enough. On the one hand, when “alternative facts” set the terms of public discourse, public space is awash in irony, thus no public speech can be taken seriously. On the other hand, and at the same time, the constant impugning of careful description and critical analysis of what’s going on as “fake news” collapses the ironic distance between the ideological representation and complex description. “Fake news,” in other words, undermines the critical purchase of irony.

Niebuhr famously wrote that, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” The human capacity for justice, particularly when it comes to the dynamics of group agency and group “egotism,” hinges on the capacity to detect and respond to irony in public space. Niebuhr would say that it’s not clear that democracy is possible when irony isn’t functioning properly. I fear that we’ll soon have an opportunity to test that hypothesis.

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