Image via Lorie Shaull

How the Parkland Teens Give Us a Glimpse of a Post-Irony Internet

When sincerity breaks through the spin

It’s been two weeks since a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, claimed 17 lives and sparked an unusually sustained demand for gun control. It feels as if it’s been much longer, as we’ve grown used to news cycles measured in minutes, and hard conversations about American gun culture tend to collapse after the latest victims are buried. The newfound staying power of voices demanding change is owed to several factors, from the Parkland survivors’ social media savvy to renewed activism among teachers to parents and politicians challenging those who stand in the way. We can’t know if the movement will last, but for the moment, there’s a refrain: “This is different.”

What shifted?

It would seem to me that, after more than a year under a president who has done little but lie to the country ad infinitum, we’re starved for sincerity. Weary reporters have discovered that blasting conservatives for their open hypocrisy on almost every moral test of our century appears to have no effect — but now we see that presenting the honest, forceful case for superior principles just might. And as Trump’s reported sexual assaults threw wide the door to a purge of predators, his habit of gaslighting us with untruths and word salad prompts a rejection of other meaningless platitudes we get from a government and pundits who enforce the status quo.

The above exchange offers some perspective: Tomi Lahren, a Fox News talking head with more than a million followers, racked up 50,000 likes for a tweet deflecting calls for stricter gun control — a reheated version of the old “too soon” talking point that Republicans like to drag out for these grim occasions. A Parkland survivor with only 27,000 followers (and surely far fewer at the time) has close to 900,000 likes on her bracing reply, roughly 350,000 more than Trump received for his best-performing tweet ever.

This is happening everywhere you look: viral momentum piling up not behind the contrarian, bad-faith take but those who call bullshit on it. Outspoken Parkland survivor Emma González amassed more Twitter followers than the NRA within days of joining. The biggest moments of CNN’s town hall were Sen. Marco Rubio being applauded for his accidental endorsement of a ban on semi-automatic weapons and the father of a girl killed in Parkland confronting him for his “pathetically weak” leadership. Shortly afterward, another survivor landed an excoriating burn that summed up Rubio’s failures.

There are few ways for conservatives to spin away the righteous anger of eloquent, focused, victimized children who have never known a world without the internet or school lockdown drills. You could go the crazy route and say they’re “crisis actors” or “paid protesters” doing the bidding of liberal operatives. You could imply, as washed-up actor James Woods has, that they aren’t grieving properly. Or you could whine that they’re being rude to grown-ups. So far, none of these tactics are particularly effective. Nothing out of the old playbook sticks. And alt-right con artists are turning desperate as they realize they can’t count on social platforms to support them in this war of words:

One hopes that the Parkland kids’ unapologetic and disarmingly forthright style of engagement will trickle up to the adults who tend to equivocate and dissemble on the crises we face, yet already we’re surrendering to a less hopeful narrative: It’s generational.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas kids are speaking this way because this was Generation Z’s worst school shooting, because they were always destined to clean up the mess following millennial disruption, because they are digital natives with a strong work ethic and significant anxiety about the future. This assumes, among other things, that Generation Y never figured out how to do anything besides fuck around, pirate music and talk about their depression on the internet, which is at least half-true. It’s trickier, though, to speculate on whether they might break out of that paralysis and embrace their own potential clout the way the youth have. It’s one thing to tweet “teens are going to save us all!” and quite another to devote your energy to their cause.

To acknowledge both their addiction to the internet and the mind-warping effects of that dependency, a subset of Extremely Online millennials frame their issue as an illness. The disease goes by a variety of names, though “irony poisoning” is recognized as the classic diagnosis. The irony-poisoned individual has spent a staggering portion of their precious life on earth compulsively tweeting, posting, commenting and sparring with strangers via social media and message boards; their mental vocabulary is cluttered with coded phrases like “corncob” and “milkshake duck” and “it’s time for some game theory.”

One indication of irony poisoning is if, “when your buddy says something stupid, you picture a Ratio forming under his chin.” Don’t know what The Ratio is? Congratulations: Your irony levels aren’t yet toxic. The upshot of the condition is that it becomes hard to separate your jokes from your beliefs, and on the hard right, this is partly strategic: Violently racist and misogynist ideas are smuggled in as “humor.” For others, irony poisoning manifests as a meme-enabled detachment from meatspace.

You can imagine irony poisoning as a metaphorical version of the black lung, and millennials as the canaries in the coal mine that is internet discourse. We were introduced to a web that was anarchic and free-form, with fairly limited influence on public policy and opinion; Generation Z knows a web of walled gardens and apps with rules and significant ramifications, an internet that is not separate from reality but a key facet of it. Anyone older has had to chart that evolution over the course of the last decade, and progress is remarkably slow. Still, haven’t you noticed that the most trenchant political criticism of late — aside from that delivered by the Parkland students — comes not from the professional columnist class but Weird Twitter people with cartoon avatars? Aren’t the thirtysomethings who once reveled in shitposts migrating toward seriousness? Did you ever imagine, way back at the dawn of Twitter, a future in which some comedian with the username @fart would be saying this stuff?

https://twitter.com/fart/status/958530516117934081

To earnestly quote David Foster Wallace: “Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone.” Sincerity’s job is to gaze upon the ugly facts exposed when the fiction has dissolved. The corrupt morons in power today, unable to maintain the façade of a healthy or functioning democracy, need not be ridiculed. They need to be removed. Organizing a progressive voting bloc or legislative push is tougher than dunking on the same bow-tied Twitter dipshits five times a week, but as the people advocating for gun control (and racial justice, and gender equality, and an end to permanent war) in 2018 have shown, there’s no reason you can’t do both — as long as the takedowns take you somewhere.