Are your children burdensome? Wish they weren’t such a strain on your finances, sex life, and independence? Are you struggling to eat because your kids take up all your time and resources? There’s a simple solution—sell their body parts to greedy millionaires!! Your babies will thank you for saving them from a lifetime of trouble!

This is a short summary of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 publication “A Modest Proposal,” a satire that shredded British callousness toward the starving Irish. (And you thought it was a public service announcement from Planned Parenthood!) But wait until you hear the punchline. In the middle of a sarcastic riff suggesting that the impoverished Irish sell their children as food to heartless, wealthy Brits in order to relieve their financial burden, Swift points out that his brilliant plan has the added benefit of preventing mothers from aborting their infants because they can’t afford to feed them. At least they will be born before we kill them! No one would be so heartless as to slaughter them before birth, he wrote. But some people just can’t take a joke.

Satire and Irony, Tropes and Memes

“A Modest Proposal” is required reading for most high school students today because it’s an excellent example of satire, the literary genre that, by deriding folly and vice, tries to persuade the reader to take action. Satire often uses sarcasm and ridicule, but it also relies on irony.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Irony is the trope in which the meaning of something is opposite to its usual sense. A “trope” is any expression of figurative language, that is, using a word to mean something other than what it means literally (the four “master” tropes are irony, metonymy, synecdoche, and metaphor). Irony can be expressed through any mode, such as speech, gesture, or clothing (think of how hipsters dress and you’ll understand this). However, rhetorician Hayden White argued that irony expressed through the mode of literature can specifically be termed as satire. This claim implies that not all irony is satirical, but all satire is ironic, conveying the opposite of its face value.

Few of us today know what a trope is, but we do know something about memes—which are similar to tropes—and how to use them. By “meme” I mean not just a little image with a caption, but any slogan, image, headline, or combination thereof that captures an idea succinctly enough to be communicated (or “copied” as meant by the original Greek word mimema) to many people rapidly.

Memes function similarly to tropes in that they convey more than their face value. But because of its succinct character, a meme typically conveys an overt and simplified point, usually via appeal to the viewer’s emotions. Therefore a meme tends to oversimplify the reality it represents, like a flat photocopy of a three-dimensional object. It is like an ink-stamp on your skin: it deposits a single, thin layer of color that doesn’t go deep and doesn’t stay long.

The power of memes to persuade the viewer makes them a highly inviting medium for the satirist. Think of all the satirical news headlines that exist. These headlines are excellent examples of memes, as they present opinions in clever, brief phrases that stir the emotions quickly.

In the contemporary world, such memes can reproduce like hares through social media, which are excellent at rapidly communicating abbreviated ideas. Through social media a person can take in, digest, and store many memes in mere seconds. Regrettably, social media’s realization of the full potential of memes has amplified our culture’s less admirable traits, in particular its excessive use of ironic satire.

Irony and Insincerity

In 2012, Princeton professor Christy Wampole wrote a famous essay published by the New York Times describing the pervasiveness of irony in American culture. She detailed how we live so completely entrenched in irony that we hardly know how to be sincere any more. Memes are especially responsible for this state of affairs. She explains how an ad can propagate irony, and the same thing could be said of many memes, especially satirical ones: “Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful.” Good satire is intended to stir action. But in a culture inundated with impressions of irony, satire mostly just stirs up muck. Satire may be the literary genre for irony, but memes are a far stretch from literature, and in them the bite of satire is not tempered by skillful prose.

First, ironic memes do not motivate action or transformation. Memes are not arguments, and sending one you like to political opponents is unlikely to convert them. They are rhetorical exclamations emphasizing sensation more than logic or fact, and shared with a particular audience whose response is anticipated. Memes are insular, intended for and propagated within a particular group. Satirical memes are especially polarizing because they reinforce already held opinions through humor that is bitter and caustic. Why bitter? How could it not be when, I repeat, it “pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful”? White distinguished satire among literary modes by describing it as the mode of recording history in which humanity is captive to harsh reality. Today’s ironic living signifies cynicism, defeat, and apathy. It is a manifestation of cultural impotence: we don’t act sincerely; we don’t speak truthfully; our laughter is devoid of joy. (Which is why it makes sense that White would associate irony with Foucault’s historical epoch of postmodernism). Satirical memes don’t motivate change, but reproduce cynical attitudes.

Second, pervasive irony eventually displaces sincerity and even overshadows reality. Wampole states that a person entrenched in irony is often characterized by false nostalgia: wearing clothes, listening to music, or taking up a cause from “times he never lived in.” Such a stance presumes a perverted perspective on history.

All of our modern, meme-driven satire also has the effect of oversimplifying history and complex issues. Author Marilynne Robinson chastises academe and modern education for failing in particular to explain American history in the proper context of world history: “Nostalgia, reaction, and denial, all of which assume a meaningful sense of the past, are potent energies in any civilization at any time,” she writes. “To be sane and manageable they ought to have a more solid base than unconstrained fantasy, or prejudice or malice or tendentiousness. This is as much to say that truth should be adhered to.”

The abuse of irony in particular has the potential to undermine truthfulness, both in our understanding of history and in our perspective of present reality. As in the case of George Orwell’s “doublespeak,” when embellishment through irony―or the related trope hyperbole―becomes a habit, the speaker will eventually confuse the embellishment with the truth. Moreover, if you habitually exaggerate or frequently say the opposite of what you really think or feel, other people will adjust their semantic receivers to automatically translate what you say into reality.

Recall the boy who always cried wolf when there was really just a squirrel rustling branches in the woods. If he later waxed poetic and described his crush on a village girl as love as deep the ocean floor, would she be impressed? Not only would the girl ignore his plea, rendering the hyperbole useless, but supposing the boy did mean it “sincerely,” his inability to use tropes appropriately has forced her to change definitions of words subconsciously. Now “enormous” means “average,” and “love” means “kinda think you’re cute,” and “sincere” means “I felt like I knew that I meant it!” The excessive use of figurative language deflates its own ability to make meaning or effect change, and thereby renders it culturally impotent. And if the listener is not grounded in sound morals, and lacks a realistic understanding of history, he may accept a superficial impression (like a meme) at face value, rather than see the complex reality behind it.

We have reached a point of diminishing returns on the use of irony in satire. What was ironic in 1729 is reality in 2019, and no one’s laughing. In a New York Times op-ed from April, Justin E. H. Smith argues that ironic satire is dead because it is impossible to distinguish fact from disinformation in our age of pervasive fake news and ubiquitous social media. Irony can offer no meaning, provoke no thinking, and spur no action. Each ironic joke headline, whether from the right or the left, is only a barb directed at the other side, a small tack being driven into a sign already held up by a thousand other tacks. When every argument is a reductio ad absurdum, argument itself becomes absurd.

Yesterday’s Irony Has Become Today’s Reality

But the ineffectiveness of irony as satire is also due to the fact that few things are morally beyond the pale any more.

Swift’s essay said that babies should be taken from their mothers after one year, a year in which mothers could provide for them inexpensively since all they would need is milk. After that, they would be sent to the meat market. I could suggest now that the most humane thing we could do for unwanted babies is let them live a full year before we “abort” them. But where would be the irony in that? In a few months, that could very well become a legal reality, and I would hardly be called a prophet.

Swift’s satire was potent because it relied on shared cultural norms, standards of what was acceptable and what was so wrong that it was absurd. “A Modest Proposal” was ironic and shocking because cannibalism and abortion were both entirely objectionable in England. But today, few things are unacceptable, because the agreed-upon norms that once were widely upheld across cultures and centuries (what C.S. Lewis called the Tao) are no longer widely upheld.

Consider the odd case of the sexual-purity-promoting, feminist Hollywood actress. One might first feel relief that actress Alyssa Milano, a culturally influential person, advocated abstinence to oppose restrictions on abortion. But that reaction would soon give way to the worrisome realization that irony is coming full circle. Yes, Milano was denounced by many on the left; and yes, she retracted her proposal soon after; but what conservative writer could have come up with a more ridiculous joke about feminism than suggesting that a feminist Hollywood starlet would protest abortion restrictions by advocating nationwide abstinence? That she went so far left as to circle back to the right is the absolute height of irony. It is rivalled only by the fact that Swift’s proposal to kill inopportune babies, even after birth, has been literally proposed and enacted via modern abortion.

To Be Real, Be Moral

School kids think ironic means the same thing as funny. But if we taught them the truth about the meaning of words and their power, about history and the consequences of oversimplifying it, about integrity and sincerity and humility, if we made them read good literature, really read it, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this predicament. Wampole wrote a follow-up article in 2016 suggesting that Trump’s election shook many out of their reverie of irony:

If religion and other foundational institutions that have lost their symbolic capital over the centuries left a seemingly unfillable void, it might come as a relief for us to realize that there actually are values that deserve to be defended, values that have become glaringly clear in the wake of the election.

But if those “values” don’t include the inherent worth of human life, then they are not complete. The failure lies in separating one value or a handful of values from the body of values that postmodernism blew up. This too is self-deceit, and what is intended literally might be better understood as failed figuratively.

The substitution of a subset of traditional morality for its entirety might remind one of synecdoche, the trope in which a part is used to represent a whole. But in this case the part (the “values that deserve to be defended”) arrogates the integrity of the whole (the body of traditional morality, or the Tao) to itself, saying to the left-out parts, “I do not need you!” It mirrors the specific case of the pregnant woman who might say, “Everything in my body is subject to me alone” and “I reject the life in my womb as part of my body” at the same time. In other words, the new morality has lost its integrity (a word that comes from the Latin integer, meaning “whole”). Even that word has become relatively meaningless thanks to our misuse of tropes and our disconnection from reality.

Milano’s suggestion is the other side of Swift’s coin. Her proposal demonstrates that public morality has been upended completely: what should have been a joke was meant in earnest, while what Swift meant as a joke has now been enacted. Marilynne Robinson has written that morality is what gives us “grounds for preferring what is excellent to what is sensationalistic.” There is still a chance for us to escape such an unreal existence, but it will require us to stop assuaging our pain and hiding our apathy with satirical memes.  It will require a determined pursuit of moral wholeness and a holistic respect for humanity and all human life, including the babies.

Swift called them helpless infants; progressives call them parasites. A more appropriate metaphor would be to call memes parasites, but a more appropriate satire, double-tinged with irony, I doubt we will see for some time—not until we find a firm grounding in sound morals, studying the Tao that postmodernism said was irrelevant. Then, hyperbole, satire, and irony will be distinguishable from reality and sincerity, and useful once again.