Earnest is passe

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 30, 2012 20:51 hrs

A friend’s post on Facebook soliciting names for “a breed emerging whose only occupation is attending trendy creative conferences, lit festivals and cultural talks” results in an avalanche of responses.

Suddenly everyone is a wit, everyone is urbanely mocking, insidiously sarcastic and universally ironic. The suggested names (none of them very clever) range from the mildly humourous (Culture Mulchers, Flitterati, Airkisseratti) to the vaguely offensive (Clitterati, Movers and Fakers, Parasites).

At a cocktail party in Mumbai, amidst the “IT” bags and Jimmy Shoes (sic), the person garnering the most attention is a dumpy woman in the centre of the crowd whose sneering put-downs and sarcastic one-liners about everyone present and absent somehow makes the nervously tittering assembled guests feel simultaneously edgy and insulated from the verbal volley: if you can laugh at yourself, no one can laugh at you.

We live in an age in which, in certain circles, the worst thing you can say about a person is “he’s so terribly earnest isn’t he?” That jibe implies not only that they are in fact faking their earnestness and there is a measure of hypocrisy in their position, but that the person referred to is also a bore (which can be the most damning indictment of all). After all, who in this age of irony wants to be branded sincere?

In an excellent article decrying irony in The New York Times recently, Christy Wampole, an assistant professor at Princeton, writes, “Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back.” Describing herself as someone who also exhibits ironic tendencies, Walpole describes this generation’s dispensation to the phenomena: “As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least [or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition], it seems we’ve made a collective misstep.”

But how on earth did we arrive here? Many of us reading this newspaper are children of the Independence Movement, baby-boomers, born to parents whose defining feature was their all-consuming sincerity as they derailed lives, careers and self-interest to throw themselves in a cause larger than themselves. Tell someone of their generations that the term “earnest” is pejorative and they will think you’re mad. Their collective altruism, straightforwardness and candour are their badge of honour. That it led them to trust too quickly (Nehruvian Socialism, China’s friendly noises, Russia’s promise) is, perhaps, what got them into the mess we’re in.

But how much better off are we, their children, whose all-pervading cynicism makes us trust no one and nothing? Neither Anna’s campaign against corruption, nor the intentions of the hapless men and women who, in a bid to escape the dreariness of their lives and loves, haunt literature festivals and cultural events? Look closely, perhaps the dumpy woman hurling the verbal stink bombs hides a debilitating sense of inadequacy, and the punsters on the social network an overarching feeling of loneliness.

Perhaps it is time now to turn our backs on irony and return to an age of meaning what we say and being unafraid to be seen doing so. Perhaps we can stop trying to be clever and just try and “be”.

After all, at a time when brother shoots brother and young girls get arrested for posting remarks on Facebook — while vandals who destroy a hospital roam free — who needs to be ironic any more?

Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer

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