Ignorance is bliss for whom?

My friend Pete was being a cruel and unfeeling excuse for a human being the other day and inflicting Christmas jingle ear worms on me. I needed a defence.

I’d recently been reminded of Jonathan Coulton, via RE: Your Brains (which is entertaining and I recommend). There was a brief period of time when I listened to him a lot, then I just stopped for some reason. However, I remembered he had some very effective and (mostly) less irritating ear worms (I recommend not listening to Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance if you ever want it to leave your head), and a lot of his music is on Spotify recently so I thought I’d have a listen.

This didn’t go so well.

It was going ok, although some of his songs are way more depressing than I remember.

First I listened to Code Monkey. It’s… a little bit offensive. As well as being about nerd stereotypes (something you can probably imagine I’m a little touchy about), it’s also about a guy’s obsession with a fairly stereotypical secretary character (apparently) purely because she’s pretty. It’s not a big deal at all, but it annoyed me a little bit.

Then The Future Soon came on. I used to really like this song. It’s basically a kid fantasizing about what it’s going to be like in the future and how his life will be better then (nerd stereotype again, but one I can sympathize with enough that I’ll give it a pass).

And, err, about kidnapping his high school crush and forcing her to marry him.

So, huh, this is kinda rapey isn’t it?

Oh well. They can’t all be winners… Next one.

Hm. Skullcrusher Mountain you say? A light hearted humorous piece about a mad scientist trying to woo a lady… It’s not going so well given that she’s understandably rather terrified of him after his henchman kidnapped her for him.

This too, huh?

Ok. I’m done with this.

Well, this sucks. My increased awareness of social issues has ruined my enjoyment of something. No wonder they say ignorance is bliss, right?

This got me thinking.

A friend mentioned something recently, which resonated a lot: Heavily paraphrased, her point was that she found that getting better at social skills didn’t necessarily make social interactions easier and sometimes made them harder.

How does this make sense and why is it related?

The reason it happens is that increased social skills give you better social awareness. This means that you are more aware of how people are perceiving you and their reactions – if you’re making someone slightly uncomfortable, boring someone, etc. there’s now a much higher chance that you will realise this. You then have to figure out what to do about that, which can be difficult and potentially even painful.

The common point is that your increased awareness of the situation has made you more able to understand why there is a problem while not necessarily granting you the ability to do anything terribly effective about it – you can stop listening to the song (and maybe avoid Jonathan Coulton in future, although I’m not really sure I’d go that far. I have to think about it), or you can try to do better in the social situation (but “improved social skills” doesn’t necessarily translate to being smooth and suave and able to recover here, only that you know that you’re not doing so well. It’s a start, but not necessarily a finish). So by knowing more you have made your life worse.

This seems a bit sad: We’ve improved ourself and are being punished for it. No wonder they say ignorance is bliss.

Thinking some more, we get to the point of the title of the post: For whom, exactly, is your ignorance blissful?

Well, for you, obviously.

Thinking some more…

If you don’t know about them, the problems are still there, aren’t they?

It’s not like the Jonathan Coulton songs are not rapey just because you don’t notice. There’s a reason feminist theory has a term for things which normalize sexual assault, and it isn’t because they’re a rare event. They’re still there and still have an effect regardless of whether you explicitly notice that effect, but by noticing you at least register that it is not OK and start to push back on that.

It’s not like you weren’t (or, to make this less abstract, I wasn’t. There have definitely been periods in my life where in retrospect I was being a bit of a dick and didn’t realise) making people uncomfortable or otherwise causing social problems before you gained better social awareness. Your improved social awareness has come at a cost to you, which is that you are now more aware of others and have to take that into account. Well, you don’t have to, but it’s The Right Thing To Do.

So this is my thesis:

In many cases, knowing more comes with a cost to yourself. This might incline you to conclude that knowing more was bad and that you should avoid it in future. This can certainly be a good strategy in some cases.

But before you do that, you should ask yourself what cost other people were paying previously because you knew less.

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4 thoughts on “Ignorance is bliss for whom?

  1. Anon

    The two halves of this post have quite a lot in common. The characters in many of Jonathan Coulton’s songs are deeply flawed people (er, or part-robot-part-humans) and he’s not condoning their behavior. Instead, he’s asking the question “Why would someone become a supervillain?” and attributing it to an extreme version of the lack of social awareness you describe later. Both “Skullcrusher Mountain” and “Future Soon” feature characters feeling powerless because of their own social ineptitude and trying to compensate for it. The guy in Skullcrusher Mountain doesn’t have any idea what the girl he’s interested in would actually like, and he doesn’t know how to handle social situations, so he makes her a terrifying monster creature instead of, say, asking her what she’s interested in. You’re not supposed to laugh at the plight of the women (which is definitely not funny). You’re supposed to laugh at the awkward guy who is so bad at understanding others that he’s actually managed to become what we as a society consider evil. Coulton seems to be suggesting that supervillainy isn’t just maniacal laughter and blowing things up. It’s a pretty sad existence.

    But I’ll happily grant you that Code Monkey is irritating and stereotypical. Can’t stand that one.

    1. david Post author

      Yeah, I’m not really intending to accuse Coulton of being a bad person who is saying “Isn’t rape awesome?!” so much as…

      Hm. How to put this.

      You know Watchmen? It’s really not about how awesome it would be to be a super hero. I mean it’s really not about that. It’s basically about how fucked up actual super heroes would have to actually be.

      But, particularly with the movie (and the graphic novel to a lesser degree), it’s incredibly easy to enjoy it entirely on a “Super heroes are cool!” level because it’s a pretty cool super hero story as well. Indeed the people who most likely need to have the problems with the genre pointed out to them are the ones least likely to notice that Watchmen is doing so and enjoy it entirely without noticing the deconstruction.

      So on the one hand your reading of the songs is valid. They are in many ways a deconstruction.

      On the other hand, it’s very easy for it to be listened to as just a “When I take over the world” rapey fantasy. And I think it’s probably easier to do that than it is to actually spot the deconstruction.

      Or to put it more simply, I think “But it’s subversive!” is probably not any better a defence for this sort of thing than “But it’s a joke!”.

  2. Ambrose Chapel

    Isn’t the joke about Code Monkey that the protagonist is an actual MONKEY? It’s certainly not funny if he’s just a person being referred to as a monkey.

    1. david Post author

      No, I don’t think that’s the joke at all. “Code monkey” is a fairly standard affectionate/derogative term for developers (usually used by the developers themselves in a self-deprecating manner. e.g. “I’m just a code monkey”)

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