We Like to be Shocked Because It Means We’re Innocent

The other day, sitting in a cafe here in Nicosia, Cyprus, I glanced at CNN International on the TV as the anchor ran through the headlines. Serious dispatches from Africa, from Europe, from Colombia, and then…from the leader of the free world…balloon boy!

Lee Siegel, on the incident that dominated the headlines, writes:

Along with the primal terror of a threatened child, there is something about the ordeal of innocence that strikes deep in the American soul. We are still shocked by everything, by sex scandals, by marital infidelity, by corruption, by violence, by public displays of anger—not an hour goes by when society is not rocked, briefly, by alarm, and then hysteria over Something That Happened Out There. We like to be shocked because we like to think of ourselves as innocent enough to be shocked. So in the spectacle of a child endangered and of all the country’s law-enforcement, and military, and technological resources used to try to save the child, we perhaps see our innocence put to the test, and our strengths and virtues fully on display in response.

It recalls Robin Hanson's interesting essay on Innocence vs. Insight. Why are we so taken with innocence, an apparently attractive form of ignorance?


I have yet to find a series of insults and defenses more impressive or hilarious than those that Lee Siegel-in-disguise hurled against his detractors.


Here's Robin Hanson on why people do not care about inequality of beauty (while we do care about inequalities related to genders or ethnicities). Should we compensate ugly people for their bad luck?

Here's Hanson, in response to David Letterman's forced admission that he slept with female producers on his show, in praise of blackmail.

8 comments on “We Like to be Shocked Because It Means We’re Innocent
  • Ben: May be the public is not shocked as much as the network news people would like to project. Then again it could be the same kind of fallacious thinking that makes people think “childish” is the same as “childlike”. On an unkind note, one could allude to Marty Kaplan’s “public Puritanism but private sinfulness” paradigm of American society which would suggest that while shock is expressed in the public domain, in private the balloon boy (and other such) become the butt of jokes. Ok, it did on Twitter too, but much oppobrium was unleased by people saying “as a father/ mother of X boys…”.

    On the beauty inequality: well, beauty is multidimensional and subjective. It is culturally determined and cross-culturally objectified and exoticised (sic). Since no two beholders may agree, the metric and the scale are harder to establish than say, in obesity. The case for suffering due to absence of beauty is also harder to establish and prove, and the case for extra gains made due to beauty are mostly based on innuendo and gossip. And if you believe Ms Naomi Wolf, then beauty in itself is a problematic demand on women, a symbol of patriarchal power and of continued objectification of women. Establishing a compromise between the two schools of thought – one that thinks ugliness should be compensated, and the other that implies beauty is a burden – could be quite tricky. Ignoring may just be the most economic strategy.

  • Typos, typos. Sorry. “the balloon boy becomeS..”, “unleasHed” not “unleased”, “case for extra gains… IS..” not “..are..”. Thanks.

  • Consideration: height as a gauge of beauty for men; and most beauty is not subjective. There are plenty of elements that are consistent across cultures (symmetry, hip-to-waist ratio, ratio across the face; there is a reason most Western artists have painted the same type of face)

  • I think we don’t care about inequality in beauty because, deep down, most people think (and like to think) that beautiful people aren’t terribly clever or otherwise talented at anything but being beautiful. That’s why it’s always presented as such an anomaly when, say, a supermodel like Cindy Crawford was also valedictorian of her high school class. We’re supposed to be astonished by this, and most people don’t believe what they are supposed to – that Cindy Crawford is both gorgeous and quite intelligent. Most think, “Well, how smart can the kids of DeKalb, Illinois have been? Anyone can memorize facts. It doesn’t make her necessarily bright.” Or maybe it’s just women who roll their eyes and say/think such things.

  • A bit like you *marvel* at things when just being jealous won’t quite get you there [Imagine Bill Gates’ wealth]

    But that’s ok when compared to the vibe (horror?) you get when Robin Hanson outs his zoophilistic bend 😉

    I would settle for innocence, any day!

  • JU: You are right about the metrics such as WHR, face ratios and symmetry. Those metrics would also hold Cindy Crawford not being quite beautiful which is contrary to the broader public opinion on her beauty. Also who is to say whether a Roman nose or a button nose or indeed a flat nose is the sign of beauty. Some rather squat noses (such as on Audrey Hepburn) have not prevented the owner from being described as beautiful.. Both large, doe eyes and sleepy eyes are held up as beautiful. Hence my remark about subjectivity of beauty..

    And then again there is so the concept of jolie-laide, so ugly it is beautiful. :-/

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