In 2012, Christy Wampole wrote an article in the opinion pages of the New York Times declaring that millennials were hiding from themselves. Slamming a culture of hipster irony, Wampole was trying to get skinny-jeaned whippersnappers to step out from behind our pizza tattoos and give our true feelings the sincerity they deserved. Naturally, my first thought at the time was "BORING! While we're at it, why don't we hike up those baggy pants, start showing some respect for our elders and join the campaign to reelect President Eisenhower?"
But two years later, something happened that I didn't expect: I became sympathetic to Ms. Wampole's point of view.
I found that she was right to say that living without a sincere sense of identity is terrible. During the few years after the editorial was published, I started to feel exhausted by a constant demand for sarcasm, began to wish desperately to express an opinion that didn't come in the form of a joke.
What I didn't understand was that "irony" doesn't have to actually be ironic -- it can be a way of discovering your identity rather than avoiding it. As I matured, so did the way I thought about sincerity. After all this time pretending to like Taylor Swift, I was hiding the fact that I, like many others, actually liked Taylor Swift. It turns out that irony is a really convenient way of allowing yourself to like things that normally wouldn't be cool to like. It liberates you from taking you or your peers too seriously, frees you from the hypercritical environment that has defined every other hipster culture.
It makes sense that irony would be an effective method of self-expression, given its prominent role in the arts. As Oscar Wilde put it, "all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling," meaning that the act of high expression actually means disguising those feelings we hope to express. It's for this reason that students have to learn the meanings of about a thousand different kinds of irony when studying the arts. The creative mind has a flexible notion of the distinction between speech and reality.
Another thing I learned is that subversive speech has been essential in the historical development of political philosophy. Irony is associated with esotericism, a political means of avoiding persecution by hiding dangerous convictions behind socially acceptable language (i.e. "Socratic irony"). Granted, no one's going to sentence millennials to death by hemlock for being really into Baywatch, but that doesn't mean there's no legitimate reason in today's day and age to be less than forthcoming about how we truly feel.
Take, for example, the constant media consumption for which my generation is so commonly criticized. Young people have always been the target of relentless advertising campaigns, and now that ads are more ubiquitous than ever, we're more subject to manipulation than anyone before us. Companies are struggling to adapt to not only social media, but the defensive cynicism for which it is partially responsible.
Besides, it's altogether ignorant to say this cynicism translates directly into apathy. This is the generation that handed President Obama his election. It has also facilitated a sharp increase in political awareness of gender issues that some would call feminism's fourth wave. The way young people use the Internet to share music has democratized a broken industry. Looking at a few irritating hipsters and giving up on irony is easy, but it's more than a little reductive.
And that's my real problem with these criticisms: they reduce a serious question of cultural expression into a silly caricature. In an attempt to heighten the stakes, Ms. Wampole argued that our ironic culture has led to a vacuum that could be filled by "something hazardous" like a fundamentalist dictator, as if Weimar Germany had been dominated by teenagers carrying German Spirits and portable gramophones. "People who move things in the political landscape," she says, "are never ironists" -- as if there were never a Plato, a Jonathan Swift or a Benjamin Franklin.
Two years ago, I accepted this kind of rhetoric as a natural consequence of ironic speech; after all, irony's intention is to make its meaning understandable to only a few. But in the years since, I've realized that Wampole is right in saying that we need sincerity to be politically active. In that spirit, here's something that I truly mean:
Subversive dishonesty is an essential tool in daily life, whether in the name of satire, philosophy, art or simply discovering who you are. However indirect, irony is a route to the self, one that can sidestep the obstacles posed by society and state. We are often told that being disingenuous is cowardly, an exercise in avoidance. As true as that may seem, the most straightforward arguments are often the most deceptive.
Or not, haha. Whatever.