Taoiseach's 'joke' was no laughing matter :-(


Has the media lost its sense of humour? Have emoticons finally killed irony? Or does Enda Kenny just need to work on his routine?

WARNING! Irony ahead! To help you out it will be flagged with symbols such as :P, (?) or *laughs*. I wouldn’t want you to be caught out. Or to fly into a rage at taking things, well, literally.

I know how it is. You snatch a few opening lines of an article on your smartphone, perhaps on your daily commute – in a bad mood – and before you know it you post an angry response, not realising the author was being “ironic” or maybe even “sarcastic”. Anyway, you have been warned. So here it goes . . .

Enda Kenny is so-o funny. ;) The notoriously macho Taoiseach, like, made a joke at the Fine Gael think-in, in Westport, about how Ministers could face the chop if they didn’t climb Croagh Patrick. But that’s just the half of it. As the political news cycle was taken over – seriously – by questions about a Cabinet reshuffle, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said: “The Taoiseach cracks very good jokes – I think that was one of his better ones.” (As if [!]) #sarcasm

Confused? You weren’t the only one this week, as a light-hearted comment by Kenny got out of hand, exposing – depending on your viewpoint – either the humourless nature of the media or the long-trumpeted death of irony.

“One of the essential aspects of irony is that it can always be misunderstood or missed,” says Dr Sam Slote of TCD’s school of English. Citing masters of the form, such as Swift, Nietzsche and Joyce, he says irony is designed to plant questions in the audience’s mind rather than to hammer home conclusions. If the meaning is lost “in some ways you could say it’s the fault of the audience”, he says.

So there you are: proof the media is humourless – that is, if you classify the Taoiseach’s comment as “ironic”. Of course, one of the problems with irony is it’s overattributed. Famously, Slote notes, “just about none of the things” Alanis Morissette listed in her hit single on the subject “could be properly called ironic”.

Another problem is context. Many a celebrity’s light-hearted tweet has been misconstrued, leading to a deluge of misplaced abuse. To avoid being the ultimate butt of the joke, Slote says, it’s important to “know the cues”.

These are of particular interest to Dr Tony Veale, a specialist in computational creativity based at UCD who is – no joke – trying to train computers to be ironic.

A holy grail of computer science is passing “the Turing test” – designing a machine whose exhibited intelligent behaviour is indistinguishable from that of a human being. Computer programs have been written to “babble in a fairly superficial way”, says Veale, and “there has been success in humour generation at pun level”. But this is a long way from the reality of human communication.

“Irony is effectively a conceptual pun. We have not cracked that because you need really rich meaning structures, and you need a computer with a lot of world knowledge, not factual knowledge but knowledge of things like cliches, similes and stereotypes.”

Speaking from South Korea, where he also lecturers, he is now in the process of “harvesting tens of thousands of similes” typically used in social media and online comment postings to build such artificial intelligence.

As for irony being dead, he says all you have to do is enter the hashtag #irony on Twitter and “you’ll see the whole spectrum of use”. Most entries fall into the category of what Slote calls cheap irony. Used as “a shortcut to unearned intellectual sophistication”, this, he says, has “proliferated since maybe the 1980s”.

Coincidentally (or should that be ironically?), next week marks the 30th anniversary of emoticons, those irritating imitations of facial expressions, composed mainly of punctuation marks, that appear in everything from teenagers’ text messages to civil servants’ briefing notes.

It was Scott Fahlman, then a programmer at Carenegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh, who first used a “smiley face” in an electronic message on September 19th, 1982: “I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways,” the message ran.

Interviewed this week, he was less sanguine about the creation, especially its garish yellow descendants known as Emoji. “I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters,” he said. The emoticon for irony is :P (representing a tongue sticking out). Related symbols include “air quotes”, putting quote marks around a suspect word or phrase, and, of course, LOL, although this has become so ubiquitous it can be read in certain contexts as a “an ironic double whammy”.

Are such signifiers contributing to an impoverishing of communications? Slote is slow to judge. “If emoticons were around in Joyce’s time he would be using them, not necessarily in the way we do in emails: he would be having fun with them.” He adds: “In some ways there is a dumbing down, but there is also a cycle of evolution.” Emoticons compensate for not being able to convey the tone of voice you can use in oral communication, he says. “Perhaps better methods will be developed in the future.”

Perhaps. But in the meantime we are stuck with them – along with the sense that a creeping literalism is infecting everyday conversations. :-(

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