instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, May 16, 2015

{Ironic Title}

I was just about to fraternally correct a brother in the Lord into next week. But then he's miss Assumption Sunday, so I decided to refrain.

No, actually I took a closer look at the ammunition I was going to use, and decided a bloodless blog post might be safer.

In putting together some material on the Eighth Commandment for a recent RCIA class, I noticed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while largely aligning with St. Thomas, broke with him on the concept of irony. They both agree that irony is an offense against the truth, but while St. Thomas calls it an act of irony when

a person belittles himself by forsaking the truth, for instance by ascribing to himself something mean the existence of which in himself he does not perceive, or by denying something great of himself, which nevertheless he perceives himself to possess,
the Catechism deplores
irony aimed at disparaging someone by maliciously caricaturing some aspect of his behavior.
I thought it was odd that two of my standard references would use the same term to describe two nearly inverse acts, but what are you gonna do. What I didn't think was, "As long as I'm reading up on offenses against the truth, I should ask myself whether I ever commit any of them."

It wasn't until my son was ten or twelve that I realized just how compulsively ironic I am. Between always meaning the opposite of what I said and saying it with a deadpan delivery that still confuses my wife a few times a week, it's no wonder I had such a hard time getting the kid to realize I really did mean he should take out the recycling the night before collection.

But that, for the most part, is rhetorical irony; a vice, arguably, but not a matter of belittling myself or someone else. Granted, when I do choose to disparage someone (I don't ever seem to choose to disparage myself), irony is a tool close to hand.

Do I maliciously caricature some aspect of another person's behavior in order to disparage him? Um... sometimes."Stupid" is a behavior, right?

A fool or idiot (blogger's conception).
I would hope to never maliciously caricature the physical behavior of someone with poor eyesight or bad knees, or of someone with well below average intelligence. But someone whose intelligence or wisdom doesn't keep pace with his mouth or keyboard? Let me at them. But don't let me justify it as fraternal correction, as though Internet mockery ever corrected anyone. I do it for sport (I'm also referee and scorekeeper).

Beyond the pleasure of getting off a good zinger, though, I sometimes find myself using verbal attacks out of envy. As galling as the thought of envying fools and idiots is, more galling is the thought of them earning respect and praise despite, or even because of, their foolishness and idiocy. I could try to dress it up as a thirst for justice -- they don't deserve respect and praise -- or for truth -- once they're laughed off the stage, we can continue our quest. That may sometimes even be the case, but there have certainly been times when my chief if not only intent was to take someone down a peg or two, and any opportunity for genuine good that might follow was mere gravy.

I am a firm proponent of acting with mixed motives -- that is, if you do have mixed motives, the fact that you're acting in part out of a bad motive does not necessarily make it wrong to act.

Mixed motives do not necessarily prohibit action.

Still, figuring out the motives themselves, much less evaluating them to assess the overall morality of an act, can be a lot of error-prone work, particularly in matters of speech that directly impacts social relationships. There are times -- most times? nearly always? -- when the better part of virtue is to avoid the gray areas of rhetoric altogether, even when they might offer a shortcut to justice and truth.

As a practical matter, mixed motives are often a bear.