Stephen Colbert and Soren Kierkegaard, Freedom Through Irony

Colbert_for_blogBig news in the world of political satire this week, folks: the ridiculously funny Stephen Colbert will be leaving the Colbert Report and it’s character, a facsimile of conservative nut-job Bill O’Reilly, to host the Late Show after David Letterman steps down from the throne. I won’t mince words, I don’t care much for the network late night shows (though as an adolescent I did watch the re-runs of Conan’s show the next day), and I absolutely love the Daily Show and Colbert Report, they’re the only shows I have been watching consistently for years. So I am of course sad to hear that one of my favorite shows will be coming to an end. That said, as a fan of Colbert, I am happy for his success, and think that of the names that were floated in the days after Letterman announced his coming retirement, Colbert is obviously the best choice; his charisma and outsized personality will make him an incredible host of Late Night and he has practice doing the sort of sketches common to the network shows. Upon reflection, Colbert is too talented to be doing the same character for decades and it would be selfish for his fans to want him to keep acting out a personification of white privilege night after night. But for that reason I also think Colbert’s work serves a necessary societal role, that of making obvious just how absurd some conservative ideals really are, and this is done through the freedom made possible by irony. Let us begin by looking into what the greatest theorist on irony, Soren Kierkegaard, had to say about the freedom created by speaking ironically.

Kierkegaard on Irony
Kierkegaard begins his elucidation of the concept of irony by looking to irony as a manner of speaking wherein one says the opposite

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard

of what one means. Kierkegaard posits that this is characteristic of all forms of irony, as evident in his noting that, “with this we already have a determination present in all forms of irony, namely, the phenomenon is not the essence but the opposite of the essence” (The Concept of Irony, 264).

This leads Kierkegaard to reason that in speaking ironically the subject is not bound to what they have said, which Kierkegaard terms ‘negative freedom’. Kierkegaard argues that in speaking earnestly one must take ownership of what one has said because their words express their thoughts, such that they could not in good conscience claim to have meant otherwise. By contrast, Kierkegaard notes that exactly because the ironic speaker said the opposite of what they thought they are not bound to what they said, as they can say, “I was merely being ironic”. Kierkegaard posits that this defense can be used against others as well as to justify the speaker’s disavowal to himself in postulating that, “if, on the other hand, what is said is not my meaning, or the opposite of my meaning, then I am free both in relation to others and in relation to myself” (The Concept of Irony, 265). As such, irony bestows on the speaker negative freedom because they are liberated from taking ownership of their words and actions and are able to do so in good conscience precisely because they were speaking ironically.

Colbert and Irony

Truthiness

Truthiness

That Colbert speaks ironically by not truly meaning what he says provides the freedom to speak as his character would without the burden of being tied to those words. Now while many conservative pundits willingly say absolutely ridiculous things, they often try to hide the contradictions in their reasoning, most likely through practice (I really don’t know how one can believe some of the obviously illogical things that conservatives do, it defies reason then to explain how they might believe those things). They hide the contradictions in their views because obviously if two beliefs are contradictory then at least one is false, and we should then doubt either one or both of those beliefs. Of course, conservative pundits hide the contradictions so that they do not cause others to doubt their beliefs, or think they are morons for holding contradictory views. Colbert is able to voice these contradictions through speaking ironically because his audience knows that what he is saying makes absolutely no sense, but do not think he is a moron for saying it.

But why use irony, if contradictions are so apparent, then why do not liberal pundits sincerely point out the contradictions? I certainly think that liberal pundits should do so, and some do attempt to bring attention to the poor logic of conservative windbags (Stewart and Maddow come to mind). Nevertheless, there is something uniquely revealing about hearing the argument from the conservative’s perspective while at the same time intuitively hearing how misguided it is. What is more, Colbert shows what kind of person the conservative pundit really is, deep down – we see what kind of person you actually have to be to believe those things: a moron.

Indefatigably ignorant and dumb.

Indefatigably ignorant and dumb.

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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on April 14, 2014 - 10:11 am

    Totally agree on Colbert, and on conservative beliefs.

    I think conservative pundits generally wear their ridiculous beliefs as a badge of honor, as a sign of their loyalty to the traditionalist culture, and that most rank and file conservatives cheer them on for being on their team. They often value group cohesion over truth. Even when knowing that truth is in their own best interest.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on April 14, 2014 - 9:10 pm

      That’s a very good way of putting it, SAP, I think your diagnosis is spot on!

  2. #3 by Michelle Joelle on April 14, 2014 - 11:03 am

    Great piece – I think to the extent that irony can serve as a mask, Colbert has done as much as he can do, and recently his best moments have been when the mask comes suddenly off and he speaks sincerely. For a time, his mask was the most effective way to make his points, but once everyone becomes used to the mask, it’s more effective to cast it aside.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on April 14, 2014 - 9:36 pm

      Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful comment. You raise an interesting point in noting that Colbert’s most effective pleas are those without the mask. Given that Kierkegaard thought that living ironically proved that the inner is not merely the outer (contra Hegel) in such a way that we are more than our finite acts, perhaps our seeing the agglomeration of ironic and sincere acts allows us to perceive the true self of Stephen Colbert in their synthesis. That’s certainly an odd bastardization of Kierkegaard and Hegelianism, but hey, I’ll take some creative liberties, we are talking about Colbert after all, lol.

      • #5 by Michelle Joelle on April 14, 2014 - 9:38 pm

        Interesting – so perhaps its not that he’s more powerful without the mask (once the power of the mask has worn off), but the power is in the act of the removal (such that both parts are needed)?

      • #6 by ausomeawestin on April 14, 2014 - 10:03 pm

        That’s a better way of putting it.

  3. #7 by jmeqvist on April 19, 2014 - 11:33 am

    Excellent post as always. I think that an essential element of satire is revealing the ridiculous. The Colbert character uses irony to reveal that in order to hold a particular set of beliefs one must be a moron, but at a more general level the Colbert report also reveals the ridiculousness of any highly stylized television pundit, whether they be liberal or conservative (think of Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann as liberal examples of the highly stylized pundit). These people seem to be more interested in their performance and personality, than in the actual issues that are being discussed. When this happens political analysis is reduced to mere spectacle.

    I am not disagreeing with you, but just trying to add an additional element to your analysis.

    • #8 by ausomeawestin on April 19, 2014 - 11:44 am

      I completely and wholeheartedly agree! I think what you point to (the political personality pundit) is actually the main phenomenon that Colbert is attempting to satirize, and as a result of that, he plays a conservative pundit in particular because there is more material to work with (again, because of their crazy beliefs). Thanks for the kind words and for bringing out this important point.

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