I believe in irony as commitment. This may seem paradoxical. Irony, it seems, believes nothing, holds nothing to be true or right or beautiful. Irony is, we are told, merely crass sophistication, the wishy-washyness of progressive secularism. But I believe it’s possible—indeed commendable—to commit to irony.
As an undergraduate, I took a philosophy course from a gifted and inspiring professor, Rod Clifford. In the midst of a heated class discussion, he advised us to “hold strong opinions weakly.” I suspect he himself was quoting from a source even older and wiser than he. But the lesson stuck with me. The irony is not in the strength of the opinion: a conveniently relativist, poorly thought-out, unconsidered opinion is no opinion at all: it’s just a matter of taste, for which there’s no accounting. The irony is in the “weakly”—the willingness he suggested we all adopt to rethink our views, to examine our assumptions and our beliefs, in the face of compelling arguments to the contrary.
Now I’m a professor, not of philosophy, but of English. Frequently, I respond to students’ writing by nudging them in another direction, asking them to reexamine what they’ve already said, or to rethink the fundamental assumptions upon which they’ve based their assertions. I have to admit, it seems like a violence against them, all these suggestions. Their writing is personal, it links them as individuals to the wider world. And, perhaps most importantly, it emerges from a great deal of effort, sleepless nights the fruits of which, bruised though they may be, they are loath to discard. These facts make it very attractive for them to hold weak opinions quite strongly. What I want to explain to them—and I often do so unsuccessfully—is that I’m trying to get them to think about their experiences, their beliefs, and their opinions from a variety of perspectives. To imagine possible worlds, worlds other than the one they believe is theirs.
In an age of crossfiring pundits, of pro versus con, of black-and-white positions on immigration, the war on terror, universal healthcare, and family values—in short, in campaign season, when nuance is expendable—it’s no surprise that my students at first resist my suggestion that they adopt, at least provisionally, points of view they themselves do not inhabit. When countless pollsters and politicians exalt positions—on abortion, gay rights, gun control—over the processes by which we come to those positions, it’s hard to blame them for digging in their intellectual heels. But when they begin to articulate their views from carefully considered and comparatively formed perspectives, they find their convictions all the stronger. And, when they alter their views, rarely radically, they appreciate the freedom this rethinking has allowed them.
To be truly free is to be free of dogma, not free of belief. That, I think, is the lesson of irony. Not not to believe, but rather not to insist. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.
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