The benefits of being irrelevant

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By Tony Samson

SHOULD OPINIONS and conversations always be about the issues of the day? Does the opinion page need to follow the events in the front page and the latest posts on the net? Can we talk about something else aside from the virus and the economic recession it seems to be causing along with the travel restrictions and their effects on the price of oil?

Can we change the topic?

If we do, there is the risk of being considered irrelevant. What’s wrong with that?

Relevance refers to being pertinent to the matter at hand. Can a person bringing up Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” when the topic under discussion is the disruption of the supply chain with the virus lockdown of China be summarily dismissed as irrelevant?

To rule something as irrelevant presumes that the real issue is clear and why an off-topic comment does not contribute to an understanding of it. Maybe an irrelevant topic like women’s volleyball or the social distancing caused by gadgets can jog a fresh outlook on the impact of the virus on sports events.

Lateral thinking developed by Edward de Bono holds that nothing is automatically irrelevant, just another angle to consider. He holds that approaching problems indirectly with irrelevant comments can provide different perspectives. Irrelevance is just one approach. Anyway, relevance is subjective. The effect of the virus on traffic or the workings of an art auction may be irrelevant but only to some.

Humor is considered inappropriate for serious topics, and thus automatically considered irrelevant as an approach to weighty matters. Roberto Benigni, actor and director, used a slapstick approach on a horrible human tragedy, the holocaust, and how the Italian Jews were sucked into it. His film, Life is Beautiful, a curiously light account of a painful historical event became an award-winning masterpiece. A recent movie, Jojo Rabbit, on the Hitler Youth and the Jews in Austria after the Anschluss does a similar comic take.

Still, irrelevance in literature has been practiced by Dickens and Shakespeare. The comic relief provided by Falstaff in Henry V has nothing much to do with the plot. Still, it provides a break to make the story more satisfying. Dickens’ Mr. Micawber and his little rules on life (“Income higher than expense is bliss; Income lower than expense is misery”) provides the same plot leavening of the novel, David Copperfield. This literary device is called “comic relief” as the levity and irrelevance give us a better perspective of tragedy.

The root word of relevance is Latin for lightening up, relieving, and raising up (as in levitate). Doesn’t irrelevance relieve and raise understanding? Getting too emotionally involved in an issue leads to passionate debate, taking sides, and introducing the ultimate irrelevance of name-calling.

If relevance implies pertinence to the matter at hand, isn’t it a priority to first define what the real subject is? Irrelevance has its benefits. It distracts us and provides distance for a better perspective.

Book reviews, karaoke behavior and what it reveals, delving into the intricacies of office politics, at the same time avoiding comments on dangling franchises, the spread of a virus (like panic), or the distant memory of ashfall give respite from doomsday scenarios.

Is irrelevance to be considered merely being out of touch, maybe even apathetic and unconcerned with weightier matters of life and death? Not really. Irrelevance can be refreshing as a form of social protest, even in the chat groups that can take themselves too seriously.

Reading a variety of books on history, like the execution of the Romanovs by the red forces or the instability, even the borderline lunacy, of a sitting president (of another country) can give a better understanding of current events. A reading program may be the best definition of “working from home.”

Life in the margins and how personal relationships develop and then deteriorate to hatred seem more interesting than following the rising or falling numbers of infected countries and the incidences of lockdowns.

Anyway, it’s too late to wonder how you, Dear Reader, got this far in the topic of irrelevance. It’s too late at this point to try to get back to something weighty or relevant… and definitely more gloomy.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.