The Death of Irony

How could the intent of today’s column have passed so many people by?

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 29th June 2010

Before today’s column went to press, I checked it with friends and editors: could an intelligent reader possibly construe it as anything other than irony? No, I was assured by everyone, that simply wasn’t possible. Well I suppose I have to get used to the fact that life is a series of disappointments. As a string of outraged comments, posted online and by email, testify, quite a few of our readers are, to be polite, somewhat literal-minded.

Never mind that both the text and the sub-heading included the term “a modest proposal”. Never mind that it refers in the first paragraph to the crime of being young in a public place. Never mind that I proposed imprisoning all children and putting them to work sewing mailsacks. Never mind that I suggested they could obtain vocational qualifications by being sent down the mines and up chimneys; none of this set the alarm bells ringing. If some people can’t detect such warning signs, no wonder they fall prey so easily to the cranks and conspiracy theorists who populate cyberspace.

But more disturbing than the sense of irony failure is the ease with which the terms I used slipped past them. Throughout the piece I used an obvious device: I substituted the word “youth” for the words “crime” and “criminal”. I discussed the epidemic of youth on our streets, the youthwave, the fight against youth, youth statistics, the incidence of youth and the youth class. My point was that these terms have become almost synonymous. We have demonised not just young criminals, but the entire generation to which they belong. The apparent invisibility of this substitution gives my point more weight than I hoped it possessed.

There has always been a degree of intergenerational suspicion and antagonism. One reader who wasn’t fooled dug up a wonderful quote from Socrates: “Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” It could have been published by the Daily Mail this morning. Every generation of adults appears to believe that the coincident generation of children is uniquely disgusting. We don’t seem to learn from our own experience of adult prejudice, but instead take it out on the next generation as soon as we are old enough to disapprove of them.

Adults have always seen young people as troublesome and disrepectful. But two things distinguish the current climate. The first is the association we now make between youth and crime. Blair’s government in particular criminalised behaviour which was formally seen as a social problem, not a legal one. The conflation reached the height of absurdity earlier this month with the publication of the British Crime Survey’s first set of statistics on the victimisation of children. At first sight the figures were horrific: they showed that one in four children between 10 and 15 had been the victims of theft or violence – mostly by other children – over the past year.

But when you looked more closely you discovered that most of these “crimes” were incidents such as pushing and shoving, or one sibling breaking another’s toy. This didn’t prevent the Sun from reporting:

A QUARTER of kids aged ten to 15 were victims of crime last year – mostly at school, shock figures show. More than 2.1million suffered violence, robbery or theft, putting them at greater risk than adults.

The other distinguishing feature of these times is that the fear of young people in public places coincides with young people spending less time outdoors than they have ever done before. There appears to be a sharp disjunction between popular perceptions of children running wild in the streets, kicking footballs, shouting and being rowdy and offensive, and the reality of a young population which seldom sees the light of day. Perhaps it’s because groups of teenagers are seldom seen outdoors – especially playing football in the street – that they attract so much public attention and disapproval on the rare occasions when they do venture out. We’re just not used to it.

None of this is to suggest that groups of children cannot sometimes make other people’s lives hell. But in the past we managed to deal with this without demonising an entire generation, without criminalising annoying but trivial behaviour and without using collective punishments like curfews, dispersal orders and acoustic deterrents. Previous generations of adults regarded young people as a nuisance they had to live with. We seem to regard them as a nuisance we don’t have to live with.