The Tyranny of Nice

In this life, there is much ambiguity.  Thus, when you are presenting a talk that has a title identical to something else, you are obliged to tell your listeners in what ways your talk will differ from whatever it is has the same name.

Thus it is that I feel I must tell you that I am not going to talk about an eighty page rant by two Canadian persons of letters on the subject of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which is called the Tyranny of Nice.  Nor am I going to talk about the work of a Toronto psychotherapist on the subject of how being too nice can be self-destructive, which was called the Tyranny of Niceness.  I am going to comment that it’s hilarious that the two instances of the Tyranny of Nice that I could find are both Canadian.  We really think we have the monopoly on Nice, and any commentary on the subject, don’t we?  So much for our national character!

I’d like to talk about my own personal concept of nice, and how much that concept bothers me.  You see, I like to think that all of my prejudices have a sound theological basis, so whenever something bothers me I attack it like a dog worrying a rat hoping to get sport and exercise and hopefully results.

I generally try to link my talks to one of the UU principles.  For those of us who are relatively new to Unitarianism, we are not a creedal church.  What we do have are a number of principles, which our representatives voted on some years back and which are printed at the front of our hymnals and are reproduced on the wall behind me. Two principles in particular I’d like to draw your attention to this morning.  One is

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

And another is

  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

I’d like you to keep those principles in mind as I mount a full on attack on the concept of nice.

Nice is an English word which started its life meaning a cloud of ideas which drifted over time into meaning quite a different cloud of ideas.  Language is, after all, a natural process, with gesture and necessity woven into its DNA.  Nice comes from the Latin word nescius, meaning foolish or ignorant.  Over time the meaning shifted; in Shakespeare’s day it meant wanton or profligate, later it meant coy, and now it means some of each of pleasant, courteous, respectable, fussy and agreeable, at least as far as dictionary definitions go.  The use of the word stretches those definitions, though.  Nice is a very nebulous word.


Contemporary use of the word is sarcastic, “Nicely done!” or commendatory, “Nice!” or parental, “That’s not nice!” or non-committal, “He seems like a nice enough guy,” or cozy, “Nice and warm.”

When I think of the word nice, I think of a sickly sweetness, an avalanche of treacle and dusty paper flowers, and” I think of censorship.  I know.  That’s a strange place for my mind to go, but that’s what I think.  I think when people are being nice lies are being told and advantages are being taken.

Why would I hate the word nice so much?  One reason is school, another is feminism yet a third is our adult institutions, in this case church although work would do just as well.

Nice, in the public school sense, is a word of such weighty social conformity it feels to me like an anvil tied to everything.  At school you fast learn, if you were not fortunate enough to be taught gently at home, that everything that comes out of your body is not nice, and that the words that come out of your mouth have to conform to the nice spectrum or you will be ignored or punished or both depending on the whim of those nicer than you.  Who, incidentally, are more powerful than you.

The word nice in my mind, and especially as it’s taught in school, is tied to a concept of power.  It’s linked to shame, groupthink, and the powerlessness of those who are learning the social ropes.  Those of you who enjoyed the Harry Potter books and movies will remember the character Dolores Umbridge, whose hunger for absolute power over the children under her supervision was disguised by the appearance of being pleasant ““ of being nice.

It made her a horrific character.  I felt watching her that her version of nice was the worst ever.  Her character operated on the assumption that she was the arbiter of nice, and that she could set societal standards and expectations of behaviour, and do it without ever being elected or held to account. If she oversteps, or harms those in her care, with her careless and disrespectful beliefs, she defends herself with her good intentions, and says that she only wanted harmony.

When you’re a child, and you have feelings that you have been led to believe ‘aren’t nice’, there’s nothing that makes you feel more helpless and hopeless than to have these feelings exposed.  Those feelings are not treated as part of being human.  The are split off.  They become a marker for inferiority and a way of being placed on the bottom of a pecking order.  Worse, if your feelings are natural and normal, the fear of being not nice can drive you away from your true state of being.   As an aside, this is one of the reasons our RE program is so important to our whole church; we recognize that children need guidance when they have feelings outside the norm, not judgement and shame.  Many children are told as they grow up that homosexual feelings or not fitting into some imaginary normal gender category makes them not nice.  And yet the people saying, “That’s not nice,” when what they really mean is “that’s not normative, that’s not acceptable” are trying to do the right thing, in the face of what they see as the amoral perversity of children.  And that is what is so troubling about nice to me, that we can use and be used by a social concept that means well but doesn’t see us as we are.   Our individuality and moral agency is sacrificed to a collective desire to avoid conflict.  That’s what I am getting at in calling this homily The Tyranny of Nice.

One of our principles is the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.  There’s nothing in there about nice.  There shouldn’t be.  When we hold hands during the linking, we’re holding hands with our inherent worth and dignity, not all the crud and vice and error that we sorrowfully acknowledge.  We have made an agreement to accept it all, the dark and the light, but we side with the light, as exemplified by our chalice.

Nice is a word full of unchallenged assumptions and flattened emotions.  Nice is an enemy of creativity.  If too much weight is given to appearances and not enough to truth, creativity withers or flees.  Great art isn’t nice.  Great art grabs you by your gut and your intellect and your senses and pushes you out of your comfort zone.  Nice is all about the comfort zone.

I really don’t consider myself to be a nice person.  I swear too much, I am unsparing in my use of humour and sarcasm, and I’m not always perfectly coiffed when I get to church.  But I would like to be known as a useful person, a kindly person, and a person who is sympathetic to outsiders and people who don’t toe the conventional lines with respect to both norms and needs.  And I’d like to be known as somebody who does things besides talk.

If you’re a feminist, the word nice is a tripwire tied to a tiresome form of oppression called gender essentialism.  Briefly, this is a view that boys are boys and girls are girls and there are aspects of boyness and girlness that are intrinisic, unchanging and immutable, which may then be used as an excuse to treat boys and girls differently from birth.  The problem is that most human activities and thought processes are not really dependent on what shape your naughty bits are.  The concept of nice enters our lives as a tool of social control over children, but it seems to work its worst against women.  We get it at home, church, school and work and in the media it’s an avalanche of advertising messages and political tropes, standing by one’s man and keeping a nice home.  Oh, and never ever being angry.

Anger is natural, but that alone doesn’t make it good or right.  We know that anger hurts people’s feelings and injures the person who is angry, especially if the anger is not proportionate in any way to the offence.  However if going to church is going to be psychologically and spiritually useful to us, we have to acknowledge our darkness, whatever form it takes, and recognize that the acknowledgement alone may take us out of the sphere in which we can think of ourselves as good or nice.

In order for us to genuinely live our lives, we must wisely live with the anger we feel at ourselves, other people, institutions, and nature.  It is not impossible to live without anger, but I don’t know anybody who ever managed that besides my grandmother, and she was a special case.

I’d like to comment about niceness in relation to the volunteer work I do for the church.  I’m on the board at Beacon, and one of our strengths as a Board is that we all feel safe about expressing anger, doubt, disappointment and fear ““ all negative emotions, definitely emotions that do not fall under the banner of nice.  If the purpose of the Board was for us to ever be in agreement, to wear smiles and aim for the false consensus that comes when people fear to rock boats, we’d be in poor shape.  No, our job is to provide leadership to Beacon and support to each other in the process.  Leadership that works is not nice, because it doesn’t run away from conflict.  It is candid, thoughtful, inclusive and forbearing, and it is decisive.  It doesn’t wait for consensus to arrive on perfumed stationery.  When we talk about buildings and budgets and our hopes for a minister, consensus comes from respect and an ability to hear each other out, not from our differences being ignored in the hopes they will go away.  We’ve had some very heated discussions on matters both great and trivial, but at no point did any of us sacrifice our ability and willingness to speak because we wanted to play nice.  Maybe we were waiting for the right thing to say and the right moment to say it in, but that is not the helpless self-censorship that comes when group cohesiveness is more important than the reason you are in the group in the first place.

The free and responsible search for truth and meaning isn’t intrinsically nice.  It’s hard work, and it cannot exist without conflict.  The word responsible is in that principle to remind us that we can’t just jump out of our seats and call somebody an idiot or in Unitarian speak “misguided” at a congregational meeting, however much the prospect appeals to us; but we’re not supposed to sit on our hands and avoid conflict to preserve the appearance of being nice, either.

If you see something that isn’t working, the responsible thing to do is to say something, or to think about what you’re doing and act, even if it isn’t the nice thing to do.  For if you are right, you need to feel confident enough that a responsible discussion or action will vindicate you, and if you are wrong, you need to feel like you will at least get a hearing until you have a chance to be convinced otherwise.  In the process of hearing each other out, we must sacrifice niceness to the greater good, and candidly, I’m always anxious to do just that.

Fight back against nice.  Pull it out of your vocabulary and send it far, far away.  For we should not aim so low as to merely be nice people, and I hope we never do. May we be hospitable people!  May we be kind people!  Let us be compassionate and caring, may we commit much to justice and equality.  May we have the courage to say things that many in this culture would not consider to be nice ““ if they are true, and need to be said.  May we be people who think, and people who feel, and people who create.   But for us to be nice, I think that would be a tragedy.   Nice means inoffensive, and inoffensive never changed the order of things or spoke truth to power.  That ain’t what nice does. Nice is incompatible with angry, and it’s impossible to be engaged with the world in these times and not be angry on occasion.

Does Beacon want to be a nice little church, full of nice and inoffensive people who do nice things?  Oh, puhlease.  Do we say, “That Jesus fellow seems very nice” after he said things like “I bring not peace but a sword” and whacked the moneychangers in the temple courtyard with a leather thong?   If Jesus had played nice he never would have come to mean what he does to billions of people.

If I ever overhear one of you say again that Beacon folks are nice people, I’m going to remind you that we have had members jailed by Nazis and McCarthyites.  In the memory of our sainted elders, and trusting that we and our children may yet have to fight our century’s battles with our words, deeds and lives, let us live our values and remember that we can do it without ever succumbing to the Tyranny of Nice.

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