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Irony: The Velvet Glove of Colonialism?

Did the Greeks invent irony? Rahila Gupta makes the case for Britain’s mastery and ownership of the device

The British Raj in India. Photo: Retro AdArchives/Alamy

IronyThe Velvet Glove of Colonialism?

Did the Greeks invent irony? Rahila Gupta makes the case for Britain’s mastery and ownership of the device

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“In order to make America great and glorious again, I am announcing my candidacy for president of the United States”, so said Donald Trump recently without the faintest hint of irony.

In the face of the combination of bombast and fake news as represented by this gasbag, irony doesn’t stand a chance. But are Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ the inevitable outcome of post-modern relativism or can we reach back into the history of British colonialism to explain it? 

I have a theory that the British invented irony.

Before you jump in and tell me it was the Greeks – because every literary and philosophical conceit of theirs seems to underpin all of Western thought – yes, okay, you are right. But the British gold-plated and put rocket boosters under it. 

The British were so invested in the image of themselves as polite, tight-lipped, humane and civilised that the only way to disguise any murderous or aggressive feelings towards the natives was through irony. Along with the Christian civilising mission, it was the perfect camouflage for a colonial power who wanted to appear benign and morally superior whilst sticking the knife in.

We Indians, the subjects of the British – along with Americans – are regularly accused of not getting irony. 

When Robert Clive won the pivotal battle of Plassey in 1757 against the Nawab of Bengal and laid the foundation of the British Empire, this is the account he gave of himself when accused of corruption by the British Parliament:

”Consider the situation in which the victory at Plassey had placed me! A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy, its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels! Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my moderation.”

It is surely a classic example of British understatement that can only be read as irony.

My aunt married an Englishman who liked telling us that the Koh-i-noor diamond in the royal collection was gifted to the British by a grateful people. My father would open his mouth to correct this ignorance and I would have to put a restraining hand on his shoulder and say ‘joke!’ However, my uncle was vindicated by another Indian – the Prime Minister of India himself. Modi did not get the irony of that position when he declared that the diamond had been gifted by India (probably a ploy to get a better trade deal with Britain).

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The construction of the British as laid-back explains the popularity of an internet meme written by an anonymous wag after the 7/7 attacks on London and now falsely attributed to John Cleese. It has been doing the rounds ever since 2005 in new iterations that speak to the current political moment:

“The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Afghanistan and have therefore raised their security level from ‘Miffed’ to ‘Peeved’. Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to ‘Irritated’ or even ‘A Bit Cross’. The English have not been ‘A Bit Cross’ since the Blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out.’

The same meme goes on to say that “the Scots have raised their threat level from ‘Pissed Off’ to ‘Let’s get the Bastards’”.

It is a distinction between national characters that obviously resonates with the populace. Of course, for us Indians, they were all Britishers but it may explain why the Scots were the foot-soldiers of Empire.  

Then there are the matter-of-fact justifications of British colonial power which acquire an ironic gloss with the passage of time.

While reading the biography of an Indian freedom fighter who gunned down a British official in London, Exhumation, I came across Britain’s climatic theory, popular at the end of the 19th Century. “People born in warmer climates were more indolent, less disciplined, lacking in moral fibre, and thereby, a naturally subject people, whereas those born in colder climes were hardier, self-regulating, and naturally born rulers.”

There are those justifications whose irony is immediately obvious and lampooned by contemporaries: the infamous poem by Kipling, ‘The White Man’s Burden’, which advocates the necessary but difficult imperialist mission of civilising “new-caught, sullen peoples/Half-devil and half-child”. Sadly Kipling himself was writing without irony.

As irony was such a sophisticated linguistic strategy, we colonial subjects were left with ‘Desi-frank’ (Desi, a Hindi word which translates roughly as ‘local to South Asia’). It allows us to be as blunt and brutal as we like because we know no better.

My dear father helpfully once advised a younger English friend of mine to ask me about the creams I use so that her skin could remain as unwrinkled as mine. 

Was irony the first manifestation of that currently fashionable crime of passive-aggressive behaviour which is defined as “a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them?” Perhaps.

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By the time British rule came to an end, irony proved too tight a corset and all the aggression started spilling out. Even Churchill, who was universally admired for his mastery of the English language – including ironically by many Indians – lost all eloquence, when he described the Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. If you were getting the hell out of India, there was probably no need to maintain a façade.

But then the colonial subjects started arriving in the motherland. We had to bottle any discomfort we may have felt at sitcoms like Till Death Do Us Part, where Alf Garnett made the most racist comments because it was ‘ironic racism’, don’t you know. Afraid of being called ‘politically correct’, we laughed along. That debate continues to this day.

A Guardian cultural critic points to the elitism of this form of irony which “invites a nominally well-educated and bourgeois audience to ridicule and belittle the apparently inherent racism of less well-educated, working-class” groups. I discovered that this was also called ‘hipster racism‘, which lives in irony. Hipster racism is “too hip and self-aware to actually mean the racist stuff one expresses”.

Irony usually needs the long form to be properly understood – but even in long form, it can be dangerous. Here is a response to a question posted recently on Next Door, the app for neighbours. Somebody posted a question about the going rate for cleaners and received this response:

‘My wife and I had a jolly good chat about this over a glass of Chardonnay one evening and we came to the conclusion that you get what you pay for in this world so we decided to push the boat out and go for £6.50 an hour. Now I know that sounds like a lot, but remember she has to buy her own cleaning products and we do ask her to make a contribution to our electricity bill when she heats up her lunch in our microwave, which my wife and I thought was only fair. Jocasta and Tarquin, our youngest, absolutely ADORE her, but then they do see an awful lot of her, what with her getting them dressed in the morning, making them breakfast, and driving them to school before she starts on the cleaning for the day. Best of all she gets dropped off and picked up by a couple of lovely young chaps, Bulgarians I think, who seem ever so smart in their matching black leather jackets! So anyway, you could pay top rates like us and get yourself an absolutely super little maid-cum-nanny-cum-chauffeur-cum-cleaner, or you could be a right old scrooge and pay a lot less.’

One comically understated response from someone with an English sounding name was, “£6.50 – is that a typo?” 

When I commented, “I think it is irony”, I knew I had finally naturalised as English.

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