I AM A PRACTICING IRONIST. Needless to say, I have run up against a few obstacles trying to use it effectively on the internet, especially on Facebook. I usually use irony as a rhetorical device when I want to make a point about someone’s extremely irrational or just plain stupid comment—a rather common occurrence.
When I want that person to know that I believe he is incorrect but I want the challenge softened by a wee bit (bite?) of humor. And, as all Facebookers know, there are a whole helluva lot of people on Facebook who post first, think later!
Actually, it is doubtful that they think ever. 1
If the person gets the irony, great! It’s a clue that they know how to use their brain for something other than as a sponge for soaking up rightwingnut demagoguery.
I don’t intend this to be one of my political rant-pieces, but almost without exception, the people who do not get irony are the so-called conservatives.
Poe’s Law states that parodies of extreme views will be mistaken by some readers for sincere expressions of the parodied views.
Also almost without exception, the readers who do get irony on the Internet (and usually elsewhere) are the so-called librulls.
A dear friend of mine—and a lifelong Republican (although I haven’t given up hope of converting her, even if on her deathbed)—who I shall mysteriously call Jaygee, suggested that the Internet needs a new typeface just to indicate irony and sarcasm!
I thought this a great idea, except that there are so many typefaces already that are ugly or absurd or pretentious or just dumb that I doubt that such a thing could ever happen.
Instead of a stylish new font face (Ironetica condensed? Sarc sans?), we have the rather childish (if admittedly somewhat effective) emoticons.
The Poe’s Law you will read about here has absolutely nothing to do with one of America’s greatest writers, Edgar Allan Poe. That Poe singlehandedly saved director Roger Corman from a life and career of mediocrity by writing stories for three movies that lifted Corman out of the hell-hole of Hollywood dreck: House Of Usher (1960), The Pit And The Pendulum (1961), and The Raven (1963).
Italians, Irish, and Irony
I was motivated to do this piece because I posted some not-so-subtle irony on another person’s Facebook page yesterday. The person posted what I found to be an irrational rant:
“This morning on the news, Obama wants to let more Syrian refugees into the states. For all you bleeding hearts out there, why don’t you let them live with you, hang out in your basement or shed, and borrow your Home Depot card. Are you really that f*ckin’ stupid? Or just as corrupt as Obama?”(Various grammatical boners corrected.)
It struck me as ironic and funny that the person had three surnames (marriage?) from three different nationalities, one of which is Italian. So I commented, “Frankly, I think we should have drawn the line with the Eyetalyans and the Eyerish in the 19th century, but it’s too late now.” 2
No winking or smirking emoticons.
While I have yet to hear from the poster, I did have a couple of polite chit-chats with readers about my intention. One was Italian: he wasn’t certain as to whether or not I was some weird anti-Italian bigot.
We ended up chatting. I invited him over here to read and comment. He warned me that he was into discourse and not arguing. I replied with a clever bit of bogus algebra: “argument – (uncontrolled) anger = discourse.” To which he agreed.
The friend who read my post emailed me and inquired as to my awareness of Poe’s Law. Never heard of it, so I looked it up. (Of course.) I was curious: whatever could old Edgar Allan have to do with the worldwide web.
Poe’s Law on the Internet
In 2005, a thread on the Christian Forums website was one of the endless debates regarding creationism. Apparently, many of the arguments were parodies of creationist claims, a target too easily parodied for many people with a bent for wicked humor.
Apparently, some readers of the thread took the humor as further irrational arguments for creationism. That is, they took the parodies at face value without reading the ironic or humorous intent.
Someone named Nathan Poe posted a comment that I assume was a parody and ended his post with a winky.
Another reader replied to Poe, “Good thing you included the winky. Otherwise, people might think you are serious.”
Poe then entered the Pantheon of Minor Internet Deities by replying, “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake [it] for the genuine article.”
From that humble origin came Poe’s Law. Basically, without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, many if not most parodies of extreme views will be mistaken by some readers for sincere expressions of the parodied views. Here is a more formal sounding version from Rational Wiki:
“Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.
It is an observation that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between parodies of fundamentalism or other extreme views and their genuine proponents since they both seem equally insane.”
So, Poe’s Law was not applicable to my Facebook experiences today but it certainly captured my attention . . .
British writer Arthur C. Clarke gave us three ‘laws’ regarding recurring themes (cliches) in science-fiction. The third law (below) has been adapted repeatedly for other areas of use, such as the ubiquitous and generally reviled ‘trolls’ on the Internet.
Prehistory of Poe’s Law
Poe’s Law was not the first such observation regarding the inability of some of us-all-of-the-time and all-of-us-some-of-the-time to discern the commenter’s intentions.
• In 1983, Jerry Schwarz noted on the antiquated Usenet: “Avoid sarcasm and facetious remarks. Without the voice inflection and body language of personal communication, these are easily misinterpreted. A sideways smile [our winky above] has become widely accepted on the net as an indication that ‘I’m only kidding.’ If you submit a satiric item without this symbol, no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.”
• In 2001, Alan Morgan took Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd Law, a well-known maxim for science-fiction writers, and created a ‘law’ for the Internet: Clarke’s “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” became Morgan’s “Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook.” 3
I acknowledge that this is not an area of my expertise. Much of the text making up “Poe’s Law of Internet intention” and “A prehistory of Internet law” above was rather liberally adapted from Wikipedia.
Most of the text that follows (“Expansion of the concept” through “Poe’s Paradox”) is an edited abridgment of the entry on the Rational Wiki website—which is much better organized, written, and edited than standard Wikipedia entries.
Any changes I made aside from judicious pruning is enclosed in brackets ( [ ] ). This lengthy section is also indented, to further set it off from my own words.
Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj visit Stuart’s comic book store to feed their infantile obsession with comic books (The Big Bang Theory). They are admittedly far more rounded human beings: they have jobs, social lives, and—gasp!—wives and girlfriends! I know this has little to do with Poe’s Law, but the extremes of fanboyism are mentioned in the Rational Wiki piece (below) and I still love comic books of the pre-fanboy-takeover era.
Expansion of Poe’s Law
Originally, Poe’s Law specifically addressed someone mistaking a parody of fundamentalism for the real thing—that if someone made a sarcastic comment stating that evolution was a hoax because “birds don’t give birth to monkeys,” then there was a high probability that at least one person would miss the joke and explain (in all seriousness) how the poster was an idiot.
However, the usage of the law has grown, and now the term Poe is applied to almost any parody on the Internet. Essentially, Poe’s Law has developed to include three similar but distinct concepts:
1. The original idea that at least one person will mistake parody postings for sincere beliefs.
2. That nobody will be able to distinguish many instances of parody posts from the real thing.
3. That anyone not already in the grip of fundamentalist ideas will mistake sincere expressions of fundamentalism for parody.
Not only can Poe’s Law apply to extreme fundamentalism, but it can also apply to extreme liberalism, fanboyism, charitableness, environmentalism, or even love.
The most likely reason for this expansion is the tendency for people to “call Poe’s Law” on any fundamentalist rant even before someone has responded negatively.
The actual canonical definition has not changed to encompass the expanded usage, and a true Poe’s Law fundamentalist could object to its usage beyond the original concept. 4
On the other hand, the objection itself could be a parody.
Poe is also a noun
Poe as a noun has become almost as ubiquitous as Poe’s Law itself. In this context, a Poe refers to a person, post, or news story that could cause Poe’s Law to be invoked. In most cases, this is specifically in the sense of posts and people who are taken as legitimate but are probably parodies.
Hence a typical phrase would be “it’s a Poe, guys, don’t be so stupid” when [an extremely rational] link is posted. A similar use is “I hope this is a Poe” to refer to the desperate hope that humanity isn’t quite as stupid as [the comment that] someone has just read.
The main corollary of Poe’s Law refers to the opposite phenomenon, where a fundamentalist sounds so unbelievable that rational people will honestly think the fundamentalist is presenting a parody of his beliefs. The Poe’s Law Corollary reads:
“It is impossible for an act of fundamentalism to be made that someone won’t mistake for a parody.”
This corollary comes into play especially when the rational person has already learned and experienced Poe’s Law, predisposing them to think that any extreme view is probably parody.
Then there is the Poe Paradox, a further corollary to Poe’s Law that results from an unhealthy level of paranoia. It states that:
“In any fundamentalist group, a paradox exists where any new person (or idea) sufficiently fundamentalist to be accepted by the group is likely to be so ridiculous that they risk being rejected as a parodist (or parody).”
This perfect illustration is by Terrence Nowicki Jr for the This Is Historic Times website (2009). This is a play on the explanation that Doc Daneeka gives Yossarian in the book (below). Sayeth the artist: “This started out as a cartoon on the current healthcare debate and kind of mutated into a comment on health insurance.
Poe’s Law Paradox as catch-22
I started an article several years ago on the Ten Books That Best Captures the Zeitgeist of “The Sixties” and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was the first title on my list. While people who didn’t live then may be confused as to why so many of us old farts bliss out whenever this book is mentioned. After all, it’s about bomber crews in World War II!
Yes, but the theme of the book is the perversion and insanity of war and capitalism and the necessity of defying authority and bullies everywhere if you want to die with your soul on! Here is the pertinent excerpt from the book:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded.
All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them.
If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” 5
The term catch-22 has since entered the English language, referring to a type of unsolvable logic puzzle sometimes called a double-bind. According to Heller’s novel, people who were crazy were not obliged to fly additional bombing missions over enemy targets. But anyone who applied to stop flying because they claimed to be crazy was showing a rational concern for their safety, and was therefore sane.” 6
For a photo of the perfect raised eyebrow, I went in search of Spock. Then I found this one of Tommy Lee Jones, and well, ladies and gents, this one says, “Was that apropoe?” just fine, thank you.
Round-up and conclusions
Well, the smartypants writer side of me wants to continue using irony (and innuendo and allusion, but that’s another story) freely, without giveaway emoticons. But what’s the point if the point is never made because the person the irony is intended for is apparently incapable of understanding irony. Or even appreciating irony when it’s explained?
The only plus of going on the way I have is that it makes meeting the readers who get it and either laugh with me or challenge me and then laugh that much more enjoyable.
But using emoticons would clear up potential confusion and clarify exactly what I hope to communicate. Decisions, decisions, and, oh, woe is me.
I have also used the rhetorical question with irrational people; it works about as well as irony on the Internet. But if you really want to piss them off, send them a link to a site full of facts that disprove their hate-filled belief!
Coining a new word
From apropos (“at an appropriate time; opportune”) I have coined apropoe to replace the need to say “I call Poe’s Law,” which sounds rather fanboyish. Instead, one may raise an eyebrow, roll one’s eyes, and then drolly drop, “How utterly apropoe . . .”
HEADER IMAGE: There are many fine illustrations for Poe’s “The Raven” on the Internet. I found this one for an article titled “Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven 170 years ago today” by Avishay Artsy on the Which Way LA? website. It is perfect as a header for this article. Alas, I could not find the artist’s name.
1 Will someone please alert me when Internet-with-a-capital-‘I’ becomes a generically Internet-with-a-small-‘i’?
2 Of course that is my attempt at humor: misspelling Italian and Irish. The poster had at least one Italian surname while my family is mostly Irish, despite the weird last name. So, knowing that—which the poster could not—any slighting was self-deprecating (and ironical) (of curse).
3 A troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people by posting comments in an online community with the deliberate intent of angering others and disrupting normal on-topic discussion for their own amusement.
4 The author(s) that I am using here used the term fundamentalism more loosely than I would. The standard definition of the word applies to a form of religious belief: “a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching.” It has become more generic and a second definition follows on Merriam-Webster: “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.”
5 I blasphemously took editorial liberties with Heller’s sacred text and broke the one big paragraph into three smaller ones. I did this for the sake of readability and am willing to do the necessary penance. (Once a Catholic . . .)
6 A double-bind is “an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual or group receives two or more conflicting messages, with one message negating the other” (Wikipedia). And it is “a very difficult situation that has no good solution” (Merriam-Webster). And it is “a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action” (Google).