Friends and I gave a ride to a hitchhiking teen last week. The conversation was difficult because we couldn’t hear her. Between our aging ears, the rumble of the car and her nearly inaudible mumbles, her ideas just weren’t getting through. She had to say everything twice or more.

I remember mumbling inaudibly at her age. It was how I coped with my fundamental uncertainty. I anticipated myself saying something stupid I’d want to retract. Once your foot is in your mouth though, there’s no getting it out gracefully so I’d speak half-heartedly and half-vocally. People would ask me to repeat myself. The mumbled, inaudible first pass was like a rehearsal, a half-inflated trial balloon floated low and wavery in the strong gusts of adult conversation.

Tentativeness is a teen’s right of passage and mumbling is but one of a few strategies for coping with it. Another is to overcome it with brazen, dogmatic, self-certainty as in the teen who compensates for tentativeness by declaring as absolute fact that his parents are loser-idiots.

Still another strategy is irony: Put what you say in quotation marks as though it were said by someone else. That way, if what you say turns out to be stupid you can disclaim it. Really, you were just making fun of people who say things like that.

Sometime in the last decade irony peaked, was criticized as corrupting a generation of youth, and then fell into disrepute as a trendy, hip, too-easy formula for hovering cynically above and outside reality. Irony was seen as a sub-species of sarcasm, saying the exact opposite of what you really mean, for example saying “My, isn’t this nice!” when you mean it’s awful. With irony, defined this way, you play-act as though you’re some other dork who would say “My, isn’t this nice!” when it’s obvious that, to hip people like you, it’s not nice at all.

Irony was seen as a sign of the next generation’s exceptional lack of self-discipline. Why can’t they speak forthrightly the way we do? As such, the criticism was our generation’s contribution to a traditional campaign of frustration with the young, a campaign that goes back at least as far as Plato (429-327 B.C.E.) who is quoted as saying, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

This is a hard campaign for baby boomers like me to pull off convincingly. In all of history, my generation will go down as the pinnacle of slouchiness. In the service of irresistible convenience we burned roughly half the fossil fuel accumulated over eons. Comparatively, ours was a time of extraordinary freedom and opportunity. Many of us floated trial vocational balloons, decided against them and managed to launch successful second and even third careers, a sign of the extraordinary opportunities we had. We worry for our ambitiously artsy children because we know their opportunities are slimmer than ours. We fear they won’t get a second chance the way we did. Yes, they’ve joined us at the party, enjoying the unprecedented party favors of our fossil fuel and resource rich post-war economy. But we know. We’ll be leaving the party just as the fuel and economy are spent. They’ll be left to clean up after us. They know too, and are confused by their more limited ambiguous options.

From this perspective irony or any coping strategy teens might adopt is a natural and appropriate response. Think of how much uncertainty my hitchhiker has to cope with. It’s a hard time to know what to do.

Not for some, of course. These days we’re seeing the surge of that other coping strategy, the brazen, absolute, dogmatic self-certainty in fundamentalists of all stripes from Tea Party activists to Hard-line Muslims. The fundamentalists claim to have been provoked to it by the radical stances of their enemies. The Tea Party for example, provoked by the totalitarian, socialist, unconstitutional tyrants on the left. There’s a war on, like that declared by teenagers against their parents. And yes, sometimes teenagers and revolutionaries are right to go hard line, “lock and load” and do battle with the tyrants. I leave it to you to decide whether this is indeed such a time.

Irony is defined variously. The version that treats it as just a sub-species of sarcasm—saying the exact opposite of what you mean–isn’t the most interesting. Another is saying both what you mean and its opposite simultaneously. That too is a kind of bet-hedging that gives you conversational cover. Float the trial balloon. If it’s affirmed by your conversational partner embrace the balloon as if you meant it. If it’s disaffirmed, say you were only kidding.

My teenage son, whose birthday it is today is tickled by a loop. Sometimes he says, “No seriously, I was only kidding…but seriously, I’m only kidding….” He can go on for quite a while without losing interest. I too am fascinated by this loop, and as I’ve noted elsewhere, so are many philosophers and logicians. “Seriously, I’m only kidding,” is a rephrasing of The Liar’s Paradox, the statement “It is true that I am lying.” which is true if it’s false and false if it’s true, a paradox that has bedeviled logicians since Empedocles (490-430 B.C.E.)

Though I’m no longer a teen (alas), I embrace this kind of irony. I do speak my mind but feel it’s my obligation to do so tentatively. A lot of what I say therefore has a “seriously, I’m only kidding,” two-facedness about it. Sometimes I do it other-mockingly the way the hipster might. I put on funny voices of people I’d caricaturize. Often though, I do it self-mockingly, embodying the dork I am or could be, for all I know. This kind of irony is not a sub-species of sarcasm but of self-deprecation, to see yourself as a fool, to quote your inner weasel, your inner-pig, your inner-loser. It can temper self-regard and can be a fine way to assert tentatively, to be bold and clear and at the same time more humbly open to revision. It can invite others to challenge you.

In our divided union these days Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart represent not just two different political platforms but two different coping strategies, both with teen pedigrees, so I’m not calling either uniquely juvenile. Listen to Beck and you’ll hear sarcasm, of the sort teenagers use to mock their parents. You’ll hear him ironically quote the liberals who claim to “care.” But you won’t hear real self-mocking irony. He does a perfunctory version of it, saying the equivalent of “I may be crazy but…” You can tell it’s perfunctory though by how fast the “but” comes and is swiftly followed by all the ways he’s right and serious and telling the truth and championing virtue, and under attack.

Watch Jon Stewart and you get something quite different. Many of his jests are at his own expense. He leans into the kind of self-mocking irony I embrace as a sound coping strategy for old and young alike. We’re all bozos on this bus, hitchhiking a ride through uncertain times. That’s no reason to mumble inaudibly, but it is a reason to bet-hedge. Listen for the difference between Beck and Stewart’s coping strategy. It’s up to us all on Tuesday to decide what these times call for.

Note: A good book for those wondering what to do about our uncertain times:  Robert Reich’s latest, “Aftershock.” Here it is as audio. Or as fast audio.