Friday, July 8, 2011

M.D. Harmon: Ironies can be sadly amusing – or unspeakably tragic

Several recent articles on a modern trend abroad carry lessons for us here at home.

Among the things journalists are taught to avoid -- including obscenities, libelous statements and claims known to be untrue (unless you're quoting a politician, of course) -- there's one figure of speech that we aren't often warned about, but we learn by hard experience never to use.
It's irony.
The dictionary's first definition of irony is "a humorous or subtly sarcastic expression whose real meaning is the opposite of the usual sense of the words used." (As in using "smart move" for a foolish act.)
Journalists learn quickly that most readers expect straightforward language and will take whatever you write in its literal sense, with any ironic subtext gliding past unnoticed.
If they discern the double meaning, they may be amused -- or they may think you tried to fool them and get mad at you. The downside outweighs the upside, so writers avoid irony.
Still, as a literary device, it can produce a wry grin. Thus, Garrison Keillor's spurious radio ads for "The Professional Organization of English Majors" (I'm a member, by the way) have English majors using their skills at work -- which their jobs never require.
In one, Keillor played an English major impressing a female moviegoer with his insights on films -- while working as an usher. The irony -- unstated, so as not to spoil the effect -- is that all the jobs the ads portray are minimum-wage. Want a better job? Next time, major in something useful.
The problem is, many things that are ironic are not fully humorous, but sadly so. Even Keillor's irony takes its bite from the fact that many newly minted English majors do find the job market a challenge.
But irony can go far beyond sadness to actual tragedy -- indeed, to events and trends so momentous in their impacts that even the word "tragic" cannot express the full meaning of what has happened.
Thus, the definition of irony I have in mind isn't the literary one. It's No. 3 in my Webster's, "a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what might be expected or considered appropriate."
Here's the warning. I started this column on a lighter tone, because I have learned some things I found so disturbing that I couldn't approach them directly. From this point on, the ironic theme that will be discussed is a very dark one, and if that bothers you, well, you can turn a few pages and find the comics. I won't blame you.
Unfortunately, I can't avert my eyes from this, and neither, I think, could any morally responsible adult. In the past couple of days, I have read a number of articles on abortion that I found unutterably tragic and I intend to describe them in the space that remains.

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