By JohnCarl McGrady, editor in chief
On May 11th, 2020, just after nine in the morning, relatively unknown Twitter user “Quasimatt” posted a tweet reading, “tag yourself i’m teaching a class in the basement of the college of grievance studies” (sic) over a cartoon titled “The Campus” that depicted an imaginary cartoon college campus. The campus was a hyperbolic exaggeration of liberal beliefs, including a stadium titled “oppression olympics,” and a communist club meeting around a giant statue of former Chinese communist party leader and president Mao Zedong’s head. You can find the image easily online.
As his caption would suggest to those versed in the language of the internet, ‘Quasimatt’ is a leftist making fun of the cartoon for appearing, in his eyes, to be an outlandish take by conservatives on what modern college campuses, dominated by liberals, look like. Despite his lack of internet celebrity—even after the viral success of his tweet, he has fewer than 900 followers—the tweet exploded, and has, as I write this, garnered 9.2 thousand retweets and 91.8 thousand likes. It’s impossible to know for sure, but that probably means over a million people have seen the tweet.
That’s a lot, but hundreds upon hundreds of tweets every day gain more retweets and likes. So why are we talking about this one in particular?
Well, it turns out that the cartoon was drawn by a liberal to make fun of conservatives and not the other way around. The original title was “The Campus as it exists in the mind of a U.S conservative.” The cartoon was an intent to do exactly what Quasimatt himself intended to do by retweeting it; lampoon conservative views of the modern college campus.
Twitter user Mx. Monopoly’s tweet pointing this out only received 300 retweets and six thousand likes, however, so only a fraction of the people that saw the original tweet saw their addendum. The original artist of the comic, Chelsea Saunders, is a colleague of Mx. Monopoly’s, and her cartoon originally appeared in the Current Affairs magazine.
But the vast majority of people who saw Quasimatt’s tweet will never know that.
A cartoon drawn by a leftist to make fun of rightwing cartoons is now best known as a rightwing cartoon made fun of by a leftist. The irony is practically dripping from it.
How did we get here?
Part One: The Satire Paradox
Malcolm Gladwell has published six New York Times bestselling novels and is a long-time reporter for the New Yorker. His trademark is focusing on the unexpected, results from academic studies that you wouldn’t predict going in, almost to the point that you can predict what a study is going to say in a Gladwell book by thinking about the obvious answer and then predicting the exact opposite.
Gladwell has captured a rapt audience with his ingenuitive ways of thinking and intriguing journalism, and in 2016 he did what all successful creators do when they want to put out more content; he started a podcast. His podcast, Revisionist History, leans even heavier into the unexpected, in that the idea of the podcast is questioning traditional views of different subjects.
One of the more famous episodes of his podcast is titled the “Satire Paradox,” and, to radically oversimplify, argues that satire that is too subtle can be easily co-opted by its targets and biting, aggressive satire is better. For example, he talks about Tina Fey’s Saturday Night Live portrayal of Sarah Palin, and Stephen Colbert’s mock-conservative persona made famous on his show the Colbert Report. He argues that Colbert’s persona comes off as a caricature of conservatives to liberals, while conservatives see a grain of truth to his antics, and still agree with him in the whole.
Gladwell calls this “motivated cognition.” While I don’t entirely agree with his conclusion that satire should be more harsh and less humorous in order to be effective—note anecdotally that Palin eventually lost election, while Donald Trump, perhaps the person SNL has portrayed most harshly in its entire history, ended up winning—I agree with this premise that people of different political ideologies simply appropriate satire for their own ends.
Of course, Gladwell doesn’t go far enough.
Part Two: Tomorrow Belongs to Us
Media critic and youtuber Lindsay Ellis borrows from Gladwell in her essay “Mel Brooks, the Producers, and the Ethics of Satire about Nazis,” but she goes on to point out that this issue exists with dramas as well.
To use Ellis’ main example, “American History X” is an explicitly anti-Nazi drama. It’s not a satire. There is nothing funny about “American History X.” The text of the movie adamantly and repeatedly portrays neo-Nazism and white supremacy as bad. And yet, neo-Nazis have appropriated the movie. As Ellis puts it—satirically, I should add— “isn’t it kind of badass when [the film’s main character] is a neo-Nazi alpha?” Take the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” from the anti-Nazi musical Cabaret, another of Ellis’ examples. While the musical is a drama, and not a comedy, Nazis have still taken that song out of context and used it in rallies to attract new recruits because, hey, tomorrow belongs to the neo-Nazis, right?
Ellis’ friend and fellow essayist Natalie Wynn talks about a different way this can happen in her essay “Cringe,” where she condemns modern cringe culture. It’s not the essay’s main point, but she talks about how people from both sides of the political aisle will cringe at the same videos, and even brings up her own experience, as a trans woman, of cringing at “trans-cringe” compilations ostensibly marketed to the right, because she saw them as proof she was a “real” transgender.
The point is, it doesn’t matter how serious your critique is. The targets will try to make it look good for them, and if they can’t? They’ll airbrush a few dozen pixels from your cartoon and change the entire meaning.
Part Three: Post-Irony
There’s this idea that originated in art called Post-Irony. Artistically, Post-Irony was an answer to the clash between Postmodern Cynicism and New Sincerity. Eschewing both dry criticism and heartfelt emotion, Post-Irony seeks to be ambiguous, intentionally treading the line between cynicism and sincerity, satire and seriousness, even reality and fantasy.
While Post-Irony still exists in pockets in the artistic world, it never really broke out of its niche into the mainstream. However, like many artistic ideas, Post-Irony is now applied to all kinds of things that are artistically ambiguous, like YouTube vlogs and social media posts. It’s common to see someone reply to a tweet with the comment “we live in the Post-Irony age.” It’s not entirely clear what this means, as the term has gotten somewhat muddled in translation, but the general concept seems to be as follows; in the age of social media, it is increasingly difficult—and often impossible—to determine when someone is being serious and when they are being satirical.
This takes the idea of satirical ambiguity expressed by Gladwell, Ellis, Wynn and others a step further. It’s not just groups misinterpreting the meaning of satire or appropriating serious critique. People are intentionally creating content that is uncategorizable. Not only can you not tell the satire from the serious, you aren’t supposed to be able to.
Some people use Post-Irony scathingly—and incorrectly—implying that in the postmodern era, we have lost the ability to distinguish satire from sincerity, and people are just being stupid. They should be able to understand what’s satire and what’s sincere, but they aren’t intelligent enough to do so. Without getting into an argument about whether the internet has negatively impacted the critical thinking skills of young people or simply increased the volume of misinformation, an issue I think is highly nuanced and not at all settled, it’s easy to discard this particular interpretation. Never before have so many people so constantly presented their content, and even themselves, in such a satirically ambiguous way. I’m not saying it never happened before, just not to this level.
To understand this better, and to strike down the above argument about Post-Irony, let’s look at a few examples.
Part Four: Kim Yo-Jung, Incels
For a few weeks in April, overshadowed by the whole global pandemic thing, a punch of news outlets suddenly decided that North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un was dead. He was not. He was not, even, as the more conservative guesses ventured, brain dead, or even in grave mortal danger. The misunderstanding stemmed from a South Korean news article that was mistranslated to English, changing “cardiovascular procedure,” to the much more ominous “heart surgery,” and also the outright lies of an anonymous source close to the dictator.
More importantly for us than the shortcomings of reporting on a nation where reporting is illegal is that, during this period, several news outlets published articles about who would succeed Kim Jung-Un if his death was confirmed. The answer, it turns out, is his sister Kim Yo-Jung, who would have been North Korea’s first female dictator.
In response to this, the hashtag Girlboss began trending on twitter. Lots of people tweeted about how they loved the idea of a female dictator in North Korea and how they supported this new “Girlboss.” Now, Kim Yo-Jung is a terrible person. She has helped orchestrate genocides, and hates free press, and I’m sure that’s only the start.
So a lot of people took offense to these tweets, counter-tweeting about the absurdity of the hashtag to the point that for every tweet calling Kim Yo-Jung a girlboss, there were five condemning the trend. The counter-tweeters were largely conservative white men who used the hashtag as an example of everything wrong with feminism, and as proof that feminists are unhinged leftist misanderers who support war criminals as long as they are female. Ignoring the gross generalization of taking a few thousand tweets and saying it applies to the entire feminist movement, the genralization was also based off content that wasn’t serious all of the time and may not have been serious most of the time but it’s impossible to tell.
Some of the people who posted about Kim Yo-Jung clarified in replies to their tweet that they were being sarcastic, and looking at their pattern of behaviour, it seems clear that they were joking, though how much that matters is debatable when people only saw their original tweet and the conservative skewering of it—see the cartoon at the beginning of this essay—but some were being serious, and with others it was more unclear. Are we meant to interpret a twitter user named “Kim Yo Jung stan account” posting about how Kim Yo-Jung is a girlboss as sarcasm? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it?
It doesn’t matter. If criticized they can say they are being sarcastic, or even double down on their persona, as if to imply that they are being sarcastic without outright saying it, but when some people actually hold the views they are espousing, and when they clearly use the account to post things they actually believe, like opposition to Donald Trump, the lines get very blurred very fast. These accounts will post about Kim Yo-Jung being a girlboss and then, in the next tweet, in the same tone, with no obvious difference between posts, will post that they support Bernie Sanders. Is it all sarcastic? Are they secretly conservative trolls? Maybe some are, but I find it unlikely that so many people would commit to such a strange act, promoting their opponents for a few likes repeatedly for years.
Before I answer that, I have another example. You’ve probably heard of incels before. I’ve written about them myself. If not, here’s an extremely quick and oversimplified summary; they are a group of racist internet misogynists who believe they will never have a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman because of inferior genetics and the inherent evil nature of women, who they believe control society. Many of their members have gone off the rails and committed genocides, most famously Elliot Rodger, a strange spree killer motivated by his extreme incel beliefs and a lingering mental illness that has complicated analysis of his murders for years. In the community, Rodger is worshipped as a saint—that is not my term, he is routinely referred to as such by incels on various online forums—and incels have a tendency to uppercase the letters “er” when they appear next to eachothER in a word, like so, which is meant to be taken as a reference to Elliot Rodger and a suggestion to the poster that they commit mass murder.
This seems pretty straightforward. Canada has even classified incels as terrorists, and is currently in the process of trying one who killed a mother and daughter as such. However, when confronted, most incels backtrack. Their most common defense to journalists and outside sources is that they are being ironic, or sarcastic, or satirical or whatever. They don’t actually mean anyone should commit murder. It’s a joke. Like kill all men.
Now, there’s definitely a difference here. Oppressed groups generally have more of a defense to be angry at their oppressors, but forming opinions of an entire group of people based on the actions of a few of them is still bigotry and not good, if meant to be taken seriously. I’m sure a lot of people reading this have posted things like that, so let me clear; I am not suggesting that you are a bigot. I am not suggesting that you are a bad person. You probably did not mean it literally. But some people do. Those people also aren’t inherently bad people, but it’s a bad choice. We’ll come back to this.
Anyway, some of them are certainly being sarcastic, but like Kim Yo-Jung’s “supporters” they are also being serious at least some of the time. No one would join an incel community if they didn’t at least believe women had somehow wronged them. So where’s the line between satire and serious? Is the line at violence? For some of them, perhaps, but a lot of them clearly do support violence, and others profess heinous non-violent beliefs they also claim are sarcastic.
No, there’s another option. The line between satire and sincerity is nebulous, the consumer draws it at the line of their own beliefs; all that I support is sincere, all the rest satire or posted by my political opponents.
This is, sort of, Gladwell’s satire paradox, only now, even to an expert viewer, it’s impossible to tell what the creator actually means, and now, it’s not a character, but the creator in full. Stephen Colbert is a leftist, he doesn’t hate liberals. His conservative demeanor is a facade. But is this twitter user posting about killing all men being satirical? They certainly aren’t a conservative lampooning the left, so what are they, if they aren’t being serious? Does this incel support violence against women? How about hatred towards them? Is it hyperbole? If so, how much of their content is hyperbole? It’s impossible to know. You aren’t supposed to know. We live in a the post-irony age, and by that I mean we live in an age were irony and reality mesh and mingle seamlessly, and we’re all fish caught in the net, struggling to free ourselves and make sense of the media we consume, but we will, ultimately, all fail, because the media we consume doesn’t want to make sense.
It’s propaganda. Accept what you will, reject the rest as a joke, but please press that like button, please leave a comment, hit reshare, turn on notifications, I have another fifty tweets and videos and reddit threads and tumblr posts just like this lined up and you won’t be able to tell which of those are satire either.
Part Five: Conclusions
So, what do we take from this?
Before you post on the internet, take a second to reflect: do I actually believe this? If not, is it clear that I don’t? You aren’t a bad person for following an internet or being unclear in your satire and hyperbole. It’s natural, it’s common, it’s arguably the natural end-state of internet discourse. Your anger may well be justified, your actions perfectly understandable. That said, it pays to think before you post.
Of course, more important even than care while creating is care while consuming. People will repurpose even clear, obvious, serious critiques for their own purposes. Don’t let some guy on the internet with the photoshop application dupe you. Well, sometimes that’s going to happen, but try your best to minimize it.
Check sources, google things you are unsure of, make sure that if something seems surprising or even just demands an emotional response, you are certain that it’s real and intended in the way it’s framed. Read quotes in context. Read articles from reputable news sources. Pay attention to the context of the media you are consuming, and you are much less likely to be fooled.
That said, you will eventually fail. You can’t notice every single time. These people are good at what they do. It’s impossible to tell what the cartoon Quasimatt posted was supposed to mean if you didn’t see Mx. Monopoly’s reply, and that’s not your fault as a consumer.
It’s because we live in post-truth society.
Everything is ambiguous and nobody knows what anyone means.