September 23rd, 2023


Shocked but not surprised: A mantra for our era

 Stephen Carter

By Stephen Carter Bloomberg View

Published November 16, 2020

Shocked but not surprised: A mantra for our era
"When news broke last month that top aides to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had accused him of bribery and abuse of office," wrote the Texas Tribune the other day, "many in the Texas political scene were shocked but not surprised."

The opposition of shock and surprise is suddenly everywhere. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times says she was "shocked, but not surprised" by President Donald Trump's defiant remarks on election night. "I am not shocked but I am surprised," said one scholar in response to the overwhelming vote in Mississippi to approve a new state flag that lacks any Confederate symbology.

The turn of phrase isn't new - a form is attested at least as early as 1800 - but if you sense that it's being applied more frequently, you're right. According to Google's Ngram Viewer, which measures combinations of words as a percentage of all available written texts, usage has exploded over the past 20 years. Whatever explains the detonation, those who take grammar seriously have a responsibility to ensure that the expression is employed properly.

Let's first consider whether "shocked but not surprised" might be a redundancy. The concern arises because of definitions of "shocked" like this one, from the Macmillan Dictionary: "very surprised and upset by something bad that happens unexpectedly." Or this one of the verb "shock" from Google: "cause (someone) to feel surprised and upset." Thus one might suppose that "shocked but not surprised" means "very surprised but not surprised."

But top-line definitions can mislead.

Here's an example that draws a nice distinction. The headline on a 1978 story in the Hartford Courant about the firing of New York Yankee manager Billy Martin described the team as "Shocked But Not Surprised." But upon reading the players' actual comments, we discover this, from star outfielder Reggie Jackson: "Nothing surprises me. I think it's unfortunate."

Jackson's use of the term "nothing" before "surprises" inverts the usual definition, conveying a sense not of astonishment but of world-weariness. This is surely what most people mean when they set up the opposition "but not surprised" after expressing their shock at Trump's words or actions: They've heard the same thing over and over, and they're tired of the drudgery. To be sure, this understanding knows no partisan boundaries. It's surely what Republican Bob Gibbs of Ohio meant when he said in 2016 that "the nation was shocked, but not surprised" by allegations that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups.

The phrase also has a slightly different meaning, exemplified by a 1903 headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal: "Shocking But Not Surprising Would Be Democratic Iowa." The story goes on to say that Republicans would "have no right to be surprised" should they lose the state in the following year's election. Here the connotation is that the event might take people by surprise, but shouldn't; more careful observers would have expected it.

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This, I suspect, is what Britain's Independent had in mind when it recently described as "shocking but not surprising" the news that covid-19 infections are highest in the northern part of the country. As the story makes clear, although people were surprised by the news, the reporter doesn't think anyone who has been following the outbreak should be.

The Oxford English Dictionary demands a sharper differentiation still. None of the OED's three definitions of the adjective "shocked" connote intense surprise. Two involve being shaken physically. The third is "scandalized, horrified" - such as (in true British fashion) forcing the prince to shake hands.

The old-time radicals, many of whom had a reverence for language, got this one right: "Many were shocked but not surprised that such a thing could happen in the land of 'democracy,'" wrote the official newspaper of the Black Panther Party after the 1971 killings of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by the Chicago police. The article went on to explain the distinction: "Though Fred's and Mark's murders shocked and hurt us, we were not surprised, for we have come to expect no better treatment from those who would keep us slaves."

Here we have a dichotomy the OED would approve. The Panthers were using the term first as an adjective meaning "scandalized, horrified" - and then as a verb meaning "to affect with a painful feeling of intense aversion or disapproval." To be shocked in this sense is sometimes described as being struck as if by a blow. ("A shock to the system.")

My wife reminds me that the word "shock" can convey an even stronger meaning: an event that comes as no surprise but nevertheless shocks the conscience. The concept of shocking the conscience comes from the law of equity, where the court will not grant extraordinary relief (that is, relief other than damages) in a lawsuit where the plaintiff, even if entitled to victory as a matter of law, has engaged in outrageous conduct.

(The U.S. Supreme Court has adopted this phraseology as a justification for holding various acts unconstitutional, but the traditional meaning better fits the common usage.)

An act that shocks the conscience is not an act I lack the right to do - it isn't wrongful - but an act I ought not to do. Thus in 1825, a judge of what was then known as the New York Supreme Court of Judicature struck down a wily scheme to protect assets from creditors because "it offends the moral sense; it shocks the conscience, and produces an exclamation."

"Produces an exclamation": There's the proper punctuation of the fury that, for many, the Trump era, even as it wanes, continues to evoke.


Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught since 1982. Among his courses are law and religion, the ethics of war, contracts, evidence, and professional responsibility. .