This post examines the virtue of innocence. As with my other posts in this sequence, I’m less interested in breaking new ground and more in gathering and synthesizing whatever wisdom I could find on the subject. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

I felt more ambivalence and indecisiveness about this virtue than with most, so you may find this post unsatisfactorily waffley.

What is this virtue?

The virtue of innocence I want to investigate is not the legal “innocent until proven guilty” kind, but “the sweet converse of an innocent mind”[1] kind: more of a character trait than a verdict. I mean innocence not in contrast to guilt, but in contrast to guile.

A lot of what has been written about a virtue called “innocence” uses the word as a euphemism for virginity or for sexual obliviousness, often specifically for these things in girls and women. In this post, I want to consider instead a more-rarely discussed virtue of innocence — a character trait that is also available to sexually-mature adults of all genders, and as such better fits with this sequence.

I’ll first introduce a couple of scenarios that may illustrate the sort of innocence I have in mind.

Scenario #1: The racist joke

Alice tells a racist joke to her acquaintances, Carol & Bob: “What do you call a black abortion clinic? Crime Stoppers.” While Carol is considering how to most diplomatically and unambiguously show her disapproval, Bob abruptly says: “I don’t get it.”

Alice: “It’s a joke.”

Bob: “Yeah, I know. But I don’t get it. What does the color of the clinic have to do with calling it ‘Crime Stoppers’?”

Alice: “No: the abortion clinic isn’t black; it’s an abortion clinic for black people.”

Bob: “Do they even have those?”

Alice: “It’s a joke. You’re just supposed to pretend. Imagine if.”

Bob: “I still don’t get it.”

Alice: “Well you’ve ruined it now. If I have to explain it, it won’t be funny.”

The “joke” Alice told — even if you put aside the offensiveness of it — isn’t funny. It isn’t really a joke, but a shibboleth in the form of a joke. What Alice is communicating is something like this: “We all understand that black people are a bunch of criminals, don’t we?” What Carol is trying to come up with is something like: “I don’t approve of that stereotype or think it’s appropriate to promulgate it.” Bob simply says “nope.”

There’s something attractive about Bob’s innocence. While Carol has to descend into a bigoted worldview to dissent against it (or has to admit that she is already somewhat mired there), Bob stands outside of it. He fails the shibboleth.

And yet, Bob is alarmingly ignorant. It’s a sort of cultural illiteracy not to have a basic grasp of the tropes of racial stereotyping, even if — especially if — you think they are harmful.

For example, I’m not sure I have ever seen the African-Americans + watermelon trope deployed in my lifetime as a straightforwardly offensive stereotype. It’s an antique — something from another era. Whenever I see it these days, it’s in a sort of meta commentary (or edgelordish provocation) on ridiculous-looking anachronistic racist stereotypes. But I think it’s valuable to know that this trope exists and is emblematic of offense-giving, both so that I know how to better interpret it and so that I don’t inadvertently stumble into it.

On the other hand, when I was growing up in a very white community in the United States in the 1970s, the well-intentioned but perhaps not very far-sighted white liberal culture that nourished me was very concerned that I learn that black people are not unintelligent and are not uncivilized primitives and are not lawless brutes. This seemed sensible and uncontroversial to me, and I was happy to go along with it. But for some reason, every time I met a black person, concepts like “unintelligent”, “uncivilized primitives”, and “lawless brutes” kept coming to mind in spite of myself. Even if they all had “not” carefully stitched to them, this emphasized negation always seemed to accompany the assertion rather than to obliterate it. Would I have been better off if I could have remained more ignorant for longer of the racist tropes in this case? Knowledge of such tropes, even knowledge acquired “defensively”, has a way of rubbing off and subconsciously lending credence to the stereotypes. And widespread knowledge of a racist trope in a culture (again, even knowledge acquired “defensively”) can give that trope enduring currency when it otherwise might have died a well-deserved death.[2]

Each of the extremes then seems inadvisable: to remain completely ignorant of racist tropes in the hopes of not being sullied by them, or obtaining an encyclopedic knowledge of racist tropes and staying hyper-aware of them in the hopes of evading them. There is a difficult-to-find sweet spot between ignorance and pollution, and perhaps the virtue of innocence slots into this “golden mean” as virtues are prone to do.

Scenario #2: What did they mean by that?

A stranger passes me on the sidewalk. As they do, they look me in the eye and say, “nice day, isn’t it?” What did they mean by that? Some hypotheses:

  • They are making an informal salutation to me, tipping their hat verbally.
  • They find the current climate delightful and want to calibrate their assessment by checking it against mine.
  • They are sarcastically referring to current events, maybe to some news item I am not yet aware of but should be.
  • They are making fun of me for smiling like a simpleton.
  • They are hoping to engage me in conversation so that they can ask me for a favor.
  • They are reminding me that my days of freedom are numbered as surely evidence of my crimes will soon come to light (enjoy it while it lasts).
  • They are hoping I will respond with the other half of the passphrase.
  • They are practicing their English.
  • They are trying to distract me so that their confederate can steal something from me.
  • They are trying to politely point out that I have dressed inappropriately for the weather.
  • They are showing me up by addressing me before waiting for me to address them first.
  • They are trying to dissuade me from continuing to attend to the important issue.

Human communication is a noisy jumble of ambiguity and creative interpretation, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. When someone says “nice day, isn’t it?” to me, that phrase becomes at first a sort of superposition of interpretations in my mind. If I’m lucky or insightful, I can find some dominant most-likely interpretation which I can more-or-less confidently use as my working hypothesis of what-they-really-meant-by-that. Other times, things remain in an unresolved ambiguity and I have to either give up on confident understanding or dig further for clues (“you mean the weather?”).

Which interpretations are my working hypotheses in such a superposition are in part a function of my experience. How have people used language around me before? What sorts of motives have they displayed? What might lead me to say such a thing? A characteristically innocent person — in the way I am using “innocence” to describe a virtue — tends to have fewer working hypotheses that are sinister: that involve duplicity, mockery, sarcasm, etc. This is in part because that characteristically innocent person is also devoid of things like dishonesty, cruelty, lasciviousness, and suspicion, and so hypotheses that depend on such things do not come to their mind as easily.

This can lead to dire consequences:

As she walked along the path, she met a wolf. She did not know what a wicked beast it was, and so she was not at all afraid. “Good day, Red Riding Hood,” said the wolf. “Good morning, sir,” she said.[3]

But there are also terrible consequences of entertaining too many hypotheses (inability to comprehend people at all, or ever-shifting erratic interpretations of people), or — more commonly — of an unfortunate imbalance of which hypotheses to consider. Any utterance could conceivably mean a vast multitude of things. You could not possibly weigh them all. You have to winnow the possibilities you will consider down to those that seem more pertinent. This winnowing colors the superposition-of-interpretations that you peer out at the world from within. For example, if your winnowing is biased to include mostly-suspicious interpretations, you will be prone to paranoia; if your winnowing is biased to hunt madly for smutty double-entendres, you risk being mired in a giggity quagmire; if you believe hypotheses are off-the-table if they presuppose caring, benevolent, loving others, some other explanation will fill the gap when people (cleverly disguised as?) caring, benevolent, loving others cross your path; if you are vain, interpretations like “I have dressed inappropriately” will always be there among the possibilities to taunt you.

Such cases show what can be described as a “loss of innocence” that works out badly. The cause might be some sort of trauma (I trusted them, they betrayed me, now I know people don’t mean what they say), or a character flaw (I often flatter people with insincere compliments, so it stands to reason that when people compliment me they’re probably being insincere), or something else (I got positive feedback from my middle-school peers whenever I was the first to point out sexual innuendo, so I remain hyperaware of any such possibility). Whatever the case, it can be a sort of over-correction that hurts both how you present yourself in the world and how you perceive the world.

So again it looks like we’re trying to find a sweet spot in the middle: There is a pathological innocence (or, early-on, age-appropriate lack of experience) that manifests as naïveté, gullibility, babe-in-the-woods vulnerability, unreadiness, superficiality. Then there is a grown-up innocence that is usually more positively-construed: purity, wholesomeness, openness, trust, authenticity. And there is a tempering that fortifies this innocence without crushing it: experience, depth, having good boundaries, healthy skepticism. But there is also a hypercorrection that breaks things: becoming world-weary, cynical, corrupt, “knowing”, “sophisticated”, suspicious, scheming, guarded.

For what it’s worth, some other virtues that seem to cluster near innocence include purity, earnestness / straightforwardness, chastity, optimism, hope, & trust, vulnerability, and spontaneity & playfulness.

Innocence has some resemblance to temperance: less a matter of resisting temptation successfully and more of being immune to temptation in the first place (a virginal child is innocent; a virginal youth is chaste).

A sense of shame has a complicated relationship with innocence. On the one hand, an innocent person is sometimes thought to be immune to shame. One of the markers of Adam & Eve losing their innocence after eating from the Tree of Knowledge is that they became ashamed of their nakedness, which beforehand was not even a thing.[4] On the other hand, the prototypically innocent person is prone to blushing at hints of impropriety: their sense of shame seems especially sensitive and may be considered part of the immune system that protects their innocence.[5] Someone is not usually described as “shameless” for being innocent but for having no trace of innocence left.

What good is innocence?

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” ―Jesus[6]

Innocence in the sense I have been exploring means that you have successfully avoided certain tempting but deceptive ruts: “locked priors” that are both deceiving and disturbing. Things like sophistication, cynicism, and smirking knowingness can parade themselves as having their blinders off and being more at ease with the real world, but they can be blinders of their own and an awkward disguise for an anxious tension. So in this way, innocence seems like it can be good for you.

And innocence of (for example) racism is certainly a blessed state, and it seems only a matter of whether or not it is timely than whether or not it is ultimately desirable.

In addition to these considerations, if you convincingly appear innocent, this can also come off as “guileless”. As such it can be a signal of trustworthiness. People may be more willing to trust you or to be more unguarded around you, which can be a good thing. (On the other hand, if you come off as guileless you may also present as an easy mark, and less-scrupulous people may be encouraged to see how much they can get away with around you. People may be less likely to trust you, for example with a secret or with the family cow, for fear you’ll innocently blab or trade Bessie for a handful of magic beans.)

An innocent person can also be like the child who points out that the Emperor has no clothes: too unsophisticated to know what everyone has tacitly agreed not to mention. They point out the elephant in the room when others will not. This too can be useful and beneficial, but likely also has drawbacks (there’s probably a reason nobody’s mentioning Jumbo).

Innocence as “purity”

“Not without a slight shudder at the danger, I often perceive how near I had come to admitting into my mind the details of some trivial affair — the news of the street; and I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish — to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself — an hypæthral temple, consecrated to the service of the gods?” ―Thoreau[7]

Innocence is commonly associated with “purity” and the loss of innocence with corruption, contamination, staining. A typical rendering makes people out to be originally pure/innocent but vulnerable to being sullied. We all once had a new-car smell, but we lost it.

We use the expression “I felt dirty” when we are exposed to someone else’s skulduggery (either as a victim, a witness, or a collaborator). We understand what Lady Macbeth means when she complains “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?”[8]

Christians hope that “the blood of Jesus… cleanses us from all sin”,[9] while Buddhists hope to free themselves from “defilements” and become like the lotus blossom that emerges spotless from the muddy pond.

Whether it’s the modern puritan warning against the perversions of pornography and drugs, Rousseau complaining that our natural innocence is corrupted by the evils of society, the social critic decrying capitalism for selling us trademarked superheroes to quench our desire for real heroes, or a rationalist reminding us that human instincts were optimized by evolution for our species’s ancestral environment but have been rendered misleading by the accretion of cultural innovation — the familiar story suggests a promising innate potential that is blotted out by some menacing environmental threat.

Clearly there’s something intuitively appealing about this motif. The seed inside of each of us was destined to blossom into something stately, unblemished, proud, undistorted, vibrant… but only if we could resist the forces eager to make us stunted, stained, cowering, warped, and dull. You could have been a princess if you hadn’t been consigned to sweep the fireplace by your evil stepmother. Why is this sort of myth appealing?

The intuition underlying this is, I think, that as we go through life we pick up experience (and experiences) and learn from them to craft our characters. But if we stop to take an inventory, it seems that some of this we could have done better without: things learned that would have been better left unlearned, experiences better left unexperienced, ways in which we changed our characters for the worse rather than for the better. Some experiences give us wisdom, skill, and perspective; others don’t offer much more than scars, limps, or chronic tinnitus. In at least some ways, we suppose, if we had been able to remain more innocent we would be better people for it. If we had a second chance, maybe we could stay on the straight-and-narrow path where we could pick up the good experience and leave the rotten stuff to rot.

Remaining innocent is easier than restraining guilt within reasonable bounds

When “innocent” amplifies “not guilty of some particular transgression” (or “some variety of transgression”) it can highlight how such transgressions are not merely isolated events. For example, the first time you shoplift something you not only have committed a discrete act of theft, but you have also taken a first step toward adopting the character of a thief. The first such step, from innocence to naughtiness, is often fraught and difficult; the second and subsequent steps easier and more casual. So the advice to defend your innocence in such a case is really advice to defend your character — vigorously, at the borders, not merely when the siege comes to the castle walls.

Related to this is what has frequently been noted about a transgression like lying: that an original lie will often demand reinforcements in the form of further lies. If you remain innocent — refrain from that first lie, or from having anything to lie about — the others won’t be necessary and so you won’t risk being tangled in more deception than you’d allowed for. Innocent people are free from the burden of having to keep their stories straight.

What bad is innocence?

The loss of innocence is also sometimes called “disillusionment”. If the world is not as simple and benevolent as you had hoped, such disillusionment is bitter medicine, but it does cure what ails you: illusion. You can now trade in your false hopes for truer if less lofty ones. You can’t spend your whole life believing in Santa Claus.

There is a kind of innocence that precedes discovering one’s insignificance in the context of everything, or one’s mortality. One may have innocently aspired in one’s daydreams to utilitarian perfection, sinlessness, omniscience, immortal fame. Having lost this sort of innocence, one can come down from the clouds and adopt more realistic ambitions.

Is innocence just a phase? Maybe losing your innocence is like giving up your pacifier… something you have to do, however reluctantly, in order to mature. Maybe the idea of “innocence as a virtue” is an unhealthy nostalgia for childhood — a fruitless wish that we could return to a time before we packed our emotional baggage and set off for the real world. (My guess is that this depends on how you define innocence. You can define innocence in such a way that it is just a word for childish naïveté. But in this post I’ve tried to carve out a variety of innocence that resists illusion.)

“Innocence” also has a bad reputation from how it was used to label people who were mostly valued for their unsulliedness, as though they were pieces of more- or less-valuable produce (like the way sex “ruins” an unmarried woman in a 19th century novel), or to label whole peoples whose supposed lack of sophistication justified paternalistic colonial oversight.

“Innocence” can be deployed in bad faith. For example, there is reason to doubt the innocence of many “good Germans” who ostensibly had no idea their suddenly missing Jewish neighbors were in deadly peril. People who excuse their willful ignorance of inconvenient facts by an appeal to the value of innocence (“why should I sully my beautiful mind with something like that?”) are no more effective than anyone who sticks their fingers in their ears and sings “la-la-la” to drown out the sound of bad news.

Self-representations of being “nonpartisan” or “unbiased” are sometimes also criticized as examples of unearned, affected innocence. Nonpartisan and unbiased standpoints are esteemed because of their supposed innocent lack of prejudice. But those who pretend to be operating from such standpoints may do so by means of a disingenuous denial of their biases, rather than from an innocent lack of them.

How to develop (preserve? recover?) innocence

“Innocence more often than not is a piece of good fortune rather than a virtue.” ―Anatole France[10]

In much folklore about innocence it is (not coincidentally) something like virginity: you can lose it, but you can’t get it back once it’s lost. Tales of lost innocence are either tragedies, or the loss of innocence is the necessary growth of a character as they transition from youth to maturity. Tales of quests to regain lost innocence are farces (or sometimes tragedies, like The Great Gatsby) of characters in denial who chase after already-popped bubbles. When innocence is conflated with youth you get the often comic but sometimes horrible (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sunset Boulevard) tales of people trying to cheat time and remain forever-young.

But I think we can be more hopeful than this, at least for the sort of innocence I’m concentrating on here. When this sort of innocence is lost through a glitch in mental training (having an exaggerated amount of training data of a certain type, getting pathologically distorted rewards or punishments, generalizing too quickly and too strongly) there is some hope that you can identify the error and take steps to reverse it.

For example, I discovered well into adulthood that I was over-relying on cynicism in conversation. It was my go-to tactic of wit, and I leaned on it so heavily that I came off as a snide smart-ass presuming to hold the world up to mockery. When I finally noticed this, I decided to put in some deliberate effort to become more sincere, and it worked. I stopped looking for the angle from which I could look upon anything and everything as pretense, and started taking things more at face value. It was good for me, I think — it improved my outlook on life — and it probably made me more companionable to boot. Some younger me had wanted to seem more sophisticated by demonstrating (vocally, over-and-over) that I wasn’t being taken in by the world’s masquerade. When I got older and no longer had so much to prove, for a long time I hardly noticed that I had this no-longer-helpful habit: I had to discover it in myself and then work to discard it.

That experience gives me hope that we can steer ourselves back in the direction of a healthy innocence once we’ve discovered ourselves to be off-course.

The brute force technique

The slow and steady, brute-force, no-shortcuts method of recovering innocence is to address each stain on your innocence on its own terms, one at a time. If your innocence is marred by actual guilt, try atonement, apology, and (self-)forgiveness: Swallow hard and consider steps 4–10 of the Twelve.[11] If your innocence has been warped by cynicism, cunning, or obscenity — put in the work to change these habits.

If you are troubled by an unearned sense of guilt that was put on your shoulders (or that you voluntarily shouldered) long ago, maybe relitigate the case in the light of a mature outlook (and perhaps a helpful analyst) to lighten your load. People may feel guilty, for example, over having been victimized, or having had some unfashionable or untimely expression of sexual desire, or having acted childish as a child. To regain innocence may be a matter of appealing this sentence to a court that recognizes that being human is not a sin, and that if it is sometimes an ordeal this is not because it is a sentence.

It can be obscure to us where we feel guilty, and of what charges. Such things often come from directions in which we prefer not to look. One way we can discover where we are no longer enjoying innocence is to look for where we try to justify ourselves to ourselves, (that is, where we are preparing our defense against the charges). With sustained introspection (for example, disciplined meditation or the ruthless self-examination of certain marijuana highs) or with trained assistance we may be able to discover where we are doing this and use it to retrace our steps back to our innocence.

Hesitating before reducing reality to one’s expectations, or trying to extract from it what meets one’s agenda

One interpretation of the kind of innocence I’m considering here is that it is an absence of prejudice or presupposing, the lack of an agenda or angle, or the willingness to take things at face value rather than read between the lines.

In this interpretation, one’s childish presuppositions (“it’s all about me!” “everything has a purpose”) eventually give way to an open, curious, alert, aware innocence that wears its heart on its sleeve, but one remains in danger of becoming reentangled in more mature and dismal prejudices (“everyone is out for themselves,” “life is meaningless”) and temptations to artifice.

I’m not convinced that this is an accurate picture of human development. Haven’t we always been interpreting reality through a variety of hypotheses and generalizations? Haven’t we always been a tangled mess of mixed motives? But assuming for the sake of argument that there’s some core of truth to this interpretation, how can one navigate this process of maturing innocence well?

One possibility is to try to interrupt the process of imposing judgement or supposition on reality altogether, so as to avoid the possibility of prejudice or presupposing. In the Buddhist system, the world of phenomena arises from a chain of processes of dependent origination that leads (in those of us still mired in defilements) to suffering. Among those processes early in the chain, coming directly after the ignorance that is (roughly) the opposite of lotus-like innocence, are fabrications or mental dispositions (saṅkhāra). If you can work your way back along the chain and stop generating these fabrications, you’ll interrupt the rest of the chain and cut off the flow of suffering. In Western pop-Buddhism this sort of thing is sometimes expressed as seeing reality as-it-is without imposing concepts and judgements on it. In any case, it is difficult to accomplish even for people who have bought in to Buddhism and are diligently on its path; for the general public it seems far out of reach.

But maybe there are some part-way measures we can take. Is it a good practice perhaps, in conversation, to increase one’s credence of literal, earnest, straightforward interpretations of what other people say? I’m skeptical. Maybe for some people at some times, something like this would be a valuable corrective (obviously, for example, people suffering from things like paranoid delusions or delusions of reference). But rich human conversation relies so heavily on non-literal statements and on intimate, complex tangoes of ambiguity, intuition, and analysis. Even if you could take everything at face value, you’d still have to interpret questions like “why are they telling me this particular set of things? in this particular order?” the answers to which cannot be found in the statements-as-given. Meeting your conversation partner half-way with your best guess of what they mean to mean is an important way of showing that you care and are paying attention. “Do I have to spell it out for you?” is a way of expressing frustration towards someone who doesn’t seem to be putting in that effort. I’m not even sure that The Literal Meaning of a typical statement in conversation is a thing. We somehow have to be open to a variety of interpretations, some of which our partners in conversation might not even themselves be aware of (it’s not unheard of for someone to understand us better on some occasion than we understand ourselves), without putting our words in their mouths or planting our ideas in their heads.

Wash that innocence back in

The classic remedy for lost innocence is a good bath. If one’s innocence has metaphorically acquired a stain of filth, why not try extending the metaphor and wash that stain away? This, anyway, is something I see when I look at the many cross-cultural varieties of ritual purification in which a physical act of self-washing has transphysical implications.

For example, to become a Christian is to be “washed… in the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb” and is often accompanied by a ritual baptism that is supposed to wash away one’s sins. (The “born again” metaphor also implies a kind of reset back to the innocency of infancy. With these, and with its practices of justification and sanctification, Christianity seems particularly optimistic about our ability to regain lost innocence.)

Affected or defensive innocence

“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…”[12]

There may also be a case for merely acting innocent.

For example, there’s a sort of affected innocence that people sometimes deploy in conversation. “I’ll pretend I didn’t get what you really meant by that.”

Evasion or euphemism can be a sort of anti-implicature that requires the same sort of collaboration that implicature does. For instance, if I am distressingly sensitive to criticism, I can choose to accept the gambit of insincerity or changing the subject and pretend not to notice the implied criticism:

A: “How did you like my presentation?”

B: “Your tie was very striking!”

A: “Thanks! I picked it up for a steal at an estate sale…”

Implicature can sometimes be an aggressive insinuation — trying to force a particular interpretation into the mind of another, to conscript them into the insinuator’s worldview. In response, someone might deploy affected innocence defensively, to deflect such an attempted insinuation. For instance, if Carol had joined Bob in saying “I don’t get it” in response to Alice’s racist joke — Carol doing so insincerely — this could have had the effect of embarrassing Alice more thoroughly than Carol could have done by confronting her more directly. A defensive innocence in response to sarcasm, insinuation, double meanings, etc. communicates something like this: “no, I will not descend with you into sly winks and nods and second-guessing; I will instead treat what you say on the most earnest and straightforward level I know. If you want to communicate with me, you have to meet me there.”

There is also an aggressive innocence (or “violent innocence” as Christopher Bollas calls it[13]). Someone who makes a mess and then says “who, me?” when confronted (or who uses certain other forms of “gaslighting”) is deploying aggressive innocence.

Implicature can be a motte-and-bailey tactic. Person A implies the bailey, but if person B explicitly acknowledges it, A is ready to retreat to the motte with something like “that isn’t at all what I meant; you’ve just got a filthy mind.” This is also a sort of aggressive innocence on A’s part, and it can be combated by B refusing to go along with it: “innocently” refusing to infer the bailey and so forcing A to explicitly state the bailey in order to introduce it into the conversation.

Another form of aggressive innocence is when someone insinuates something vague but portentious but then denies that they have done so, thus trying to force the other person to play detective:

A: “Fine.”

B: “What do you mean? You sound angry.”

A: “No. It’s totally fine.”

Bollas considers “violent innocence” to be a variety of denial, though an indirect denial of another person’s (valid) interpretations about oneself. More ordinary denial is often also a sort of forced innocence. When we edit our memories (such as those of a love affair that we regret — “they seduced me!”), we often do so to cover-up complicity or guilt in an attempt to patch up a façade of innocence. Something like “sour grapes” can be a way of editing-in innocence of failure or disappointment or desire, for example.

The “white fragility” Robin DiAngelo wrote about is a sort of desperately affected innocence. Rather than make an embarrassing acknowledgment that I too have been infected by racism, as a fragile white person I can opt to hide behind the innocence of my good intentions and insist that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” or “I don’t see race; I just see people.” Implicit-association tests are supposed to be able to help one discover the parts of oneself that are crouching behind such good intentions trying to stay hidden.

To the extent that there are advantages to pretending-to-be-innocent, this might be a good strategy on occasion, but it seems a stretch to consider such pretense a virtue: a characteristic that is evidence of flourishing. I suppose you could argue that there is some larger virtue about characteristically presenting yourself successfully as you would like to be seen, of which the ability to persuasively adopt innocent camouflage is a part. To characteristically be the last person anyone would suspect of the crime one has committed is also perhaps a Machiavellian virtue of sorts.


When asked on his death bed whether he “had made his peace with God,” Thoreau quietly replied that “he had never quarreled with him.”[14]

I’m not at all confident after writing this that there really is a virtue called innocence. I bent over backwards to try to find something innocence-like that meets the criteria, but I’m not sure I succeeded. What I found may be virtuesque, but I don’t know that “innocence” is really the right name for it.

  1. ^

    John Keats “To Solitude”

  2. ^

    Compare, for example, “Polack jokes,” which were also a thing when I was growing up (you might find paperback compilations of them in waiting rooms or drug-store book racks). I haven’t heard a “Polack joke” in years and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rising generation is mostly unaware that there ever was such a thing.

  3. ^

    “Little Red Riding Hood” Grimm’s Fairy Tales

  4. ^

    Genesis 2:25–3:18 “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.… Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked….”

  5. ^

    But Rousseau: “Whoever blushes is already guilty; true innocence is ashamed of nothing.” (Émile)

  6. ^
  7. ^

    H.D. Thoreau Life Without Principle (1863)

  8. ^

    Shakespeare, MacBeth act Ⅴ, scene 1

  9. ^
  10. ^

    Anatole France Les Dieux Ont Soif [The Gods Are Thirsty] (1912), Chapter ⅩⅤ

  11. ^

    Paraphrased: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself; admit to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs; be entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character; humbly ask Him to remove your shortcomings; make a list of all persons you harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all; make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others; and continue to take personal inventory, and when you are wrong promptly admit it.

  12. ^
  13. ^

    Christopher Bollas Being a Character (1992) chapter 8

  14. ^

    Mostly as found in Henry S. Salt Life of Henry David Thoreau (1890) p. 210; I’ve seen many variations on this anecdote and don’t know where it originated. It has the smell of doubtful apocrypha about it.

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The “joke” Alice told — even if you put aside the offensiveness of it — isn’t funny. It isn’t really a joke, but a shibboleth in the form of a joke.

But of course the joke is funny. It’s got a classic joke structure: setting up an expectation, then subverting it by means of some sort of semantic ambiguity. The only reason to claim that such jokes simply aren’t funny is cheap virtue signaling.

Now, what we can say is that the joke isn’t funny to those who have heard it already (unsurprising), or that it’s not funny to those who already expect a punchline of that sort (because they are primed to—correctly—expect the joke to be racist). That is reasonable. But the claim that the joke is inherently not funny is not credible.

And, correspondingly, Bob’s claim to not get the joke is also not credible. His so-called “innocence” is very obviously performative and fake. Far from being “attractive”, such “innocence” is extremely off-putting; it reliably indicates that the person performing it is a tiresome, stuck-up, and self-righteous. (Note that Bob doesn’t even have the courage to simply come out and say “not cool, man; that’s racist”, though we can be sure that he’s thinking it!)

The reason I said "not funny" is not my sideways way of saying "I don't approve of that sort of thing" but is more related to the point in your second paragraph. You can't just state your opinion in the form of a joke and turn it into a joke that way. (Except perhaps in some rare edge cases: "Knock knock. Who's there? Epstein didn't kill himself.") It's like if I said "What do you call a ladder? An accident waiting to happen." Have I said anything funny, or have I just chosen a strange way to say "I think a ladder is an accident waiting to happen"?

And in the case of Bob, I can certainly imagine someone from another culture, or who is young and sheltered, etc. not being up on American stereotyping and for whom such innocence would not be merely affected innocence.

The reason I said “not funny” is not my sideways way of saying “I don’t approve of that sort of thing” but is more related to the point in your second paragraph. You can’t just state your opinion in the form of a joke and turn it into a joke that way.

What does that have to do with the point in my second paragraph?

Frankly, it’s absurd to suggest that the joke in question amounts to simply “stat[ing] your opinion in the form of a joke and turn it into a joke”. It’s very obviously not that. As I said, it has a very straightforward, classic, “subversion of expectations” sort of joke structure. You can find it not funny (one’s individual sense of humor is hardly arguable), you can say that it’s a low-quality joke (true!), you can be offended by it… but if you say it “isn’t really a joke” or is just “stating your opinions”, etc., you’re simply wrong as a matter of fact.

And in the case of Bob, I can certainly imagine someone from another culture, or who is young and sheltered, etc. not being up on American stereotyping and for whom such innocence would not be merely affected innocence.

Someone who is genuinely confused would not be as impervious to explanation, or as flatly uninterested in understanding, as Bob is portrayed as being. (I know, because I have had the experience many, many times of not understanding some bit of humor or some cultural reference, due to being from another culture.) That sort of blank “I don’t get it” is, however, absolutely typical of the fake, performative incomprehension that I was talking about.


I agree that someone who behaves like Bob is almost certainly being performatively-fake-innocent, but I think you're wrong to say that someone unfamiliar with the stereotypes couldn't behave that way. For one thing, Bob-as-portrayed isn't impervious to explanation or flatly uninterested in understanding. He asks for explanations and doesn't really get them, and if he ends up not understanding it's mostly because Alice hasn't really tried to help him understand (perhaps because Alice thinks, as you do, that he can't be sincere).

If someone told the "abortion clinic for pianists" version of the joke in my other comment in this thread, I can imagine responding very much like Bob. (Aside from the black paint / black people misunderstanding, which wouldn't have a parallel in that case.) I'd be assuming that there was some relevant thing about pianists that I didn't know, or some pun I was failing to detect, and I'm not sure I could do much better than "I still don't get it".

I agree that someone who behaves like Bob is almost certainly being performatively-fake-innocent, but I think you’re wrong to say that someone unfamiliar with the stereotypes couldn’t behave that way.

I didn’t say couldn’t, I said would not. Anyone could behave in any way they please; it’s just not likely.


By "couldn't" I didn't mean "would be physically incapable of", I meant "certainly wouldn't", which is what I took your "would not be ..." to be saying. "Usually wouldn't", I have no disagreement with.


Having the form of a joke is not sufficient to make something funny. I think you're right that David goes too far when he says it "isn't really a joke" -- it is really a joke -- but to whatever extent it's even meaningful to say "this is/isn't funny" without appending "to me" or "to the average 21st-century San Franciscan" or whatever, you can't refute "it isn't funny" just by saying that the thing is joke-shaped.

Suppose it had been "What do you call an abortion clinic for pianists?" with the same punchline. There would be the exact same structure, the exact same "subverting by means of semantic ambiguity" at the end. But I am fairly sure that essentially no one in the world would find it funny. And the only difference between this version and the one in the OP is that some people think black people are very often criminals and no one thinks that about pianists.

Maybe that's enough to make the joke funny for people who think black people are very often criminals. (I'm inclined to think not.) But I don't think you can claim that "of course it's funny" if its funniness depends on a belief that not everyone shares.

("But black people are more likely to be criminals than white people, I've seen the statistics!" Maybe so, but I don't think that's enough. Suppose it turns out that pianists are a bit more likely to be criminals than the general population; would that make the pianist version funny? Nope. I think the joke depends on equating "black people" and "criminals"; of course that doesn't mean that to find it funny you have to think all criminals are black and all black people are criminals, but I think you do need opinions that can round off to that; part of the humour, such as it is, comes from the exaggeration involved in doing so.)

Suppose it had been "What do you call an abortion clinic for pianists?"


Suppose it had been “What do you call an abortion clinic for pianists?” with the same punchline.

Doesn’t work, because there is no ambiguity here (as you note in your other comment); so this transformation does not preserve the joke structure. This refutes your point.


I'm not sure whether the ambiguity you're referring to is (1) the black paint / black skin one (which I mention in my other comment) or (2) something else.

If (1), I flatly disagree that that ambiguity is essential to (or even relevant to) the joke. I think Alice is expecting Bob and Carol to understand "black" as meaning "for black people" right from the outset.

If (2), then I'm not sure whether you mean (a) something to do with the alleged criminality of black people, or (b) something else.

If (a), then I think you misunderstand what I'm doing with the comparison. (Also, I don't think "there is no ambiguity here" is a good way of describing the difference between the two jokes.)

If (b), then perhaps you could do me the favour of explaining more clearly what you have in mind, because in case (2b) I have clearly failed to grasp it.

I should justify "I think you misunderstand what I'm doing with the comparison". (Here I'm assuming we're in case 2a.) I'm not saying "the black-people version of the joke isn't funny, because the pianist version of the joke isn't funny and there are no relevant differences between them". I'm saying "since the pianist version of the joke is uncontroversially not-funny, any funniness in the black-people version of the joke must depend on what's different about the two versions of the joke" -- more specifically, I think it depends mostly on the idea that black people are criminals -- which is relevant because you claimed that (apparently as a matter of objective fact) the black-person version of the joke "is funny", and I don't think that's an accurate way to describe something whose funniness is completely dependent on particular ideas or attitudes that many people don't hold.

People who think that pianists are criminals would (I think) find the pianist version of the joke about as funny as people who think that black people are criminals find the black-people version. The difference isn't in (what I at least would call) the structure of the joke, it's in the context that makes certain aspects of the structure salient.

Suppose it turns out that pianists are a bit more likely to be criminals than the general population; would that make the pianist version funny? Nope.

Eh... I can imagine that happening, if, say, there's a group of criminologists, one of whom presents a report about crime associations by profession, and one of the results mentioned is "Turns out pianists commit 20% more crime, at least based on this sample!  Huh!"  Then I can imagine, a while later (when half of them had started to forget), one of them making that joke about pianists, and that producing a real "...Hmm?  Oh, ho ho ho, very nice" response.  It does depend on shared awareness of the statistic rather than directly on the truth of the statistic.

I can also imagine making a similar joke about cardiologists, for an audience who's read Cardiologists and Chinese Robbers (where cardiologists were completely arbitrarily chosen to make the point "With large n, you can pick lots of individual bad examples even if they're per capita no more likely to be criminal", and you lean into acting like cardiologists are a known scourge of humanity).


I actually considered writing "cardiologists" instead of "pianists" :-).

I think what's needed is some sort of context in which the thought "group X are all criminals" is salient (even if only as a deliberate exaggeration). For someone who has strongly anti-black attitudes, that thought may be salient all the time when X = black people. For someone who's just heard about some statistics saying that pianists commit a bit more crime, it's probably salient enough because they've specifically been thinking about pianists and crime. But e.g. a few years after that criminologists' conference, when everyone's aware that pianists commit a bit more crime but no one particularly hates pianists as a result or anything, I don't think they'd find the joke funny.

Innocence is basically a lack of understanding, or more precisely it seems to be a lack of negative connotations in ones understanding of the world.
You can undo this process through mental alchemy, but I can not put the process into words very well.

To give an example: I might not want to buy a videogame, because the company which made it is big, and because big companies tend to be evil, and because I don't want to support evil. Here, we see that a negative impression of mine is causing a bad feeling to appear on something mostly unrelated (4 jumps of distance away). This is a sort of corruption.
I can love videogames and still hate large companies, they're not mutually exclusive. But the naive person is just happy to play a video game, they don't have personal battles against evil which pollute their mental associations, or at least not many. This inner grouping of things should be avoided, lest one creates a big knot which is triggered by basically everything. This is probably why stupid people are happier - they think more locally (and live more in the moment)

I doubt you will get many good answers on the topic on LW. Why was eating the forbidden fruit sin? Why was prometheus punished? Why is the devil generally regarded as intelligent? Why is self-reliance sometimes refered to as luciferian? Knowledge is generally bad for ones mental health, it just aids survival. So is knowledge possibly evil? I don't expect other users to even entertain this thought. I will also add that it's possible to know a lot and still be innocent, which is because intellectuals tend to live in ivory towers. The bad kind of intelligence so to speak is the one which looks beyond the surface too much. This is possibly related:

There's many reasons why innocence feels nice, the most important ones are:
1: Environments in which innocence can exist are good. Innocence is a finite resource, if you have too many people acting in bad faith in a population, they will exploit this innocence and destroy it in the process. It feels good for the same reason that it feels good to see a big beach without any plastic, glass bottles or billboards on it.

2: Innocence is beautiful. This is because it has high purity. This means that it has a low entropy. This means that it's untouched, uncorrupted, and healthy. Life is a battle against entropy, is it any wonder that our instincts picked up on this?

3: Innocence can be exploited by us. There's an old "rule of the internet" which says: The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt it, isn't it?". I think this is true, as grim as it sounds. Consider internet trolls and reaction channels on Youtube, what's the goal here? It's envoking reaction. But reactivity is a limited resource. One reacts less and less as their mental model is updated to destroy prediction-errors. This is also a reason why intellectuals tend to be so calm, and why a lot of us have problems with socializing as intensely as others, no?

4: Innocence allows us an escape from ugly things. A large amount of media, mostly Japanese, is simply escapism, "slice of life", products made for "healing" us, i.e. purifying our mental associations so that our 12-hour workdays don't destroy us. As a defense against mental corruption, we have created three additional memes in recent times, though I don't think a lot of people are aware of the deeper motivations here. They're "touch grass", "return to monke" and "quit social media". What does these translate to? "Get away from the negative, associate with the positive instead".

I could write a whole sequence on this topic myself, but I should stop here, after explaining two things which generally genetally get in the way of peoples understanding of this topic:
1: There are no racist jokes. Things don't hold attributes like "racist" or "degenerate", instead, they exist in the minds of those telling them. Sometimes, as most accusations of these things are actually projections. "Anti-racists" tend to condemn everything within a distance of 4-5 associations of racism, which is why you might get called a nazi on Reddit if you say that you are against mass-immigration. (Every echo-chamber has people like this, it's not unique to a specific ideology at all)
Truly innocent people have no reaction, and shameless people have no reaction either. The former is thought to be the latter, and ironically it's only because those who misunderstand this are ugly on the inside themselves. If I say something inappropriate, it's likely because I don't know that it might be inappropriate, and not because I'm an asshole who has gotten so used to being inappropriate that I made it who I am.
2: Consuming "corrupt" material doesn't make you corrupt before you understand it. It's indeed possible even to purify the material. Consider porn - is that degenerate? It often is, but animals engage in sex with absolute innocence. It's only shameful and dirty once you make it. But again, the shameless and the innocent look much too similar, they're misunderstood.

As an extra note of caution: Don't fight against bad things, fight for good things instead. These two are not equal. The western world is basically collapsing into degeneracy because people don't understand this. They keep engaging with everything they want to remove. "That which you resist, persists", "He who fights monsters", how many times does it need to be said for the population to get it?

When I try to think of a utopian future, the people in that world understand the concept of such non-innocent things, but correctly have a very low prior probability on them, in their typical interactions between each other. 

Think of dath ilian keepers. Of course they understand the concept of malicious deception, and of course they don't expect it from each other. 

Part of this is just "have a good prior about the likelihood of deception/innuendo etc" with having a prior of 0 as a defense against an overly high prior.

Partly, these could be considered low grade infohazards. Things it is unpleasant but sometimes useful to know. 

And for such things, there are 2 good approaches. Fortifying your mind until you can deal with them without strain. Or hiding in a protected bubble where you don't need to worry about such things. The second strategy relies on someone else being competent and powerful enough to protect you.

You are mostly describing Naivete.

Innocence is closest to purity, as it describes absence of evil.  It is compatible with guile, to be "As innocent as a dove, and as shrewd as the serpent."  To do so would describe cleverness, even craftiness in service of definite intentions, without any evil in your heart.  A clear example might be deceiving someone doing human trafficking in order to save those being trafficked.  Sometimes a razor's edge to walk, no doubt, but one that broaches not an epsilon of naivete (which could get someone killed in the above example of trafficking).

Can you tease apart those two traits, naivete and innocence?

Yes. I agree with you. Innocence is naivete. They are the same thing. But innocence emphasizes the benefits of being unsullied by knowledge and naivete emphasizes the dangers.

Knowledge isn't always psychically refreshing. I've heard people use the term cognitohazard to describe knowledge that causes mental harm to the person who knows it. Knowing about the wicked tendencies of man and the indifference of the universe is psychically scarring. Once you know about it, it alters your thought processes pretty permanently. It makes life sadder and fills it with more anxiety. However, because knowing about these things means that you can watch out for them and survive, not knowing can be dangerous.

In situations where not knowing does not present immediate harm, we use the word innocence. "Look, she is so friendly with everyone, even people she doesn't know. Isn't that precious. I wish I were still like that." But in situations where not knowing places someone in danger, we use the word naivete. "Can you believe she gave that strange man all that information? She is so naive. He could come to her house and hurt her."

As for innocence and naivete being associated with sexuality, the same reasoning holds. Sex, past and present, is dangerous business. In the past, getting pregnant meant you were at elevated risk of death or disability. Even if not impregnated, you could get incurable diseases that would shorten your life and make you unmarriagable. Lacking knowledge about sex meant you weren't aware of this grim reality. And people who were aware of it wished they could go back to not knowing because the burden of knowledge is heavy. So they would say: "look, she is so innocent. Wish I were still so." On the other hand, when people aware of the grim reality saw an innocent person acting in a way that was likely to attract unwanted sexual attention, they would call them naive, since this attention could lead to disease or pregnancy and therefore the discovery of the grim reality.

They are most definitely two different things, though it is popular to conflate them.  Innocence of Evil does not require naivete, only that you are pure of doing the evil.

And the purity distinction is important.  Otherwise we will fall prey to the delusion that it was our goodness itself which betrayed us or that in order to be pure, we must be fools regarding some part of the Truth.  Though it is popular to think, as you have pointed out in the sexual distinction above, that awareness of consequence necessarily begets heaviness or loss of innocence (as if we cannot now take wiser action and secure our freedom, whereas prior to accurate knowledge, it was only through dumb luck something had not already gone wrong).

As for some psychical scarring occurring due to knowledge of the potential of humans to do harm, yes this is unpleasant, and the knowledge of it may cause some discomfort -- as you have said "cognitohazard."  The question then is what is the nature of this discomfort?  The bulk of it boils down to self-pity that the world is not as one wishes it to be, or that the world contains people who are damaged.  The remainder, what you called "psychic scarring," is usually an accretion of previous unhealed trauma getting triggered (PTSD), or one's self-pity wishing to perpetuate naivete.

We could say that innocence is supreme sobriety, sober enough and seeing enough truth to be absent of evil in the situation, and naivete is drunkenness -- if anything, whatever good it manages is just one's having stumbled blindly into it.  As a simple thought experiment, if sobriety and awareness of truth does not lead to good will and good actions, then our understanding of good will and good actions must be updated; if it is otherwise, then virtue does not exist in any form, and the "effective altruism" aspect of this community is wrongheaded and impossible (naive).

Otherwise, lets get back to the business of being "Innocent as a Dove and as Shrewd as the Serpent."

I think this disagreement stems from a failure to distinguish which meaning of innocence we are talking about. By my reckoning, there are three major meanings: legal innocence, moral innocence, and naive innocence. Legal innocence is the lack of criminal culpability. Moral innocence is the lack of moral culpability. Naive innocence is the lack of knowledge about sensitive topics.

"Innocent as a dove and shrewd as a serpent" is referring to moral innocence and means: be clever, but only so far as is morally acceptable. Naive innocence, however, which is the topic the OP seems to be discussing, isn't a virtue, it is ignorance, and curiosity is the virtue which seeks to extinguish it. An innocent listener who doesn't understand the racial joke should be curious and ask probing questions and do research to better understand what the racial joke teller was trying to say. Then, the next time someone talks in a similar manner, the now savvy listener can make an informed decision about whether that person is the sort of person the listener wants to associate with.

I slightly disagree; I think the OP's example of a racial joke is a great way to respond. Playing ignorant is a really effective move when someone says something crappy. This is different than actually being ignorant; the goal is simply to demand that they explain the joke. however, strong upvote.

>I haven’t heard a “Polack joke” in years and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rising generation is mostly unaware that there ever was such a thing.

On the contrary, I heard one at an ACX meetup in Boston in summer 2023. I was not amused.

I live in the Boston area too, and this doesn't exactly sell me on going to one of those meetups :/