Thursday, February 28, 2013

a few thoughts about niceness, in general and in politics

1. In politics.

There's a feminist claim that "“Being nice” is code for keeping your mouth shut." It's not—"playing nice" is not code for not playing. If you don't understand "Be nice", Malcolm X's advice may help: "Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone." If you think he was some sort of milquetoast, he didn't think niceness solved all problems. He finished that advice with "but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery."

So really, if no one has put a hand on you, "being nice" is the best tactic.

Angry people who love their anger think "be nice" is about denying anger. It's about controlling it. Martin Luther King said something I wish I had always remembered in political debates, "No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm." In the last year of his life, he said, "The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force."

I left this comment at Feminists can't be funny and angry? Are you having a laugh?:
Anger alienates people. Are feminists who rationalize anger really stooges for the patriarchy? If so, they're doing a great job at giving feminism a bad name: In the US, 84% of the population shares the goals of equity feminism, but according to a CBS poll, only 24% of women and 14% of men consider themselves feminist.
I googled "radical niceness" and found A Christian Feminist Journey: Radical Niceness: "Sometimes, the aggressive of left wing or feminist activists (I say sometimes and not all the time) can allienate those who may have been on our side, or who may have just had some sympathy with our cause. Courtisy, offers of friendship, and a willingness to explain or perspective can go a long way."

2. In general.

Yesterday, I tried to be nice on the internet. A little snarkiness crept in, but I'm hoping it was mostly nice snarkiness.

After some discussion on Twitter, I'm ready to propose a hierarchy of niceness:

1. Deeds alone. The nicest people never have to say a word; their actions speak for them.

2. Words and deeds. Some people insist that words are deeds, but words are only deeds when they have consequences—when speaking truth to power nicely is dangerous, it's a deed. Words may lie, but deeds never do. Some nice people's words are at odds with their deeds—those people, the world's curmudgeons with hearts of gold, tend to be hated by strangers and loved by friends.

3. Words alone. The first clue someone might be nice is not their words, but the absence of them: nice people never say anything mean about anyone. The second clue is the presence of words: nice people try to say something nice to make any situation better. But meeting both tests of niceness in words does not mean someone should be assumed to be nice—though it is nice to assume it. (Insert here any clever quote about liars, hypocrites, and con artists.)

Nice people love everyone, at least a little. "Schadenfreude"—pleasure in someone else's misfortune—is not in their vocabulary, because they suppress it quickly when they feel it, wish no one felt it, and would never accuse anyone of feeling it.

Nice people are not perfect people, but nice people are more perfect than they can know. Being nice does not eliminate vanity, but it reduces it.

Everyone is nice sometimes. Being nice sometimes does not make anyone nice. Niceness is not contextual. Most people are nice to the people they consider their peers or superiors. If you want to see whether someone's nice, try a test that people like Bell Hooks fail—how do they treat people in the service trades? Truly nice people treat everyone as a peer. They expect deference from no one.

That said, if you don't think you're nice, don't sweat it. Your suspicion may be proof that you're nice. Or it may be that niceness just isn't your virtue. I love a great many people who're the opposite of nice sometimes. Not being nice does not preclude being wonderful.

But all nice people are wonderful.

PS. After a bit of discussion on Twitter, I have this to add: "Tactics that make your opponents question your sanity rather than their assumptions are bad tactics."

ETA: Respect everyone


  1. Damn it, Will, you keep writing things that make me think.

  2. Hello,

    Are you suggesting that angry feminists are to blame for the lack of feminists?:

    "Are feminists who rationalize anger really stooges for the patriarchy? If so, they're doing a great job at giving feminism a bad name: In the US, 84% of the population shares the goals of equity feminism, but according to a CBS poll, only 24% of women and 14% of men consider themselves feminist."

    If only feminists didn't ever express anger, then more people would consider themselves feminist. It's got _nothing to do_ with misogyny or patriarchy. Move along, nothing to see here. haha :)

    'Angry people who love their anger think "be nice" is about denying anger. It's about controlling it. Martin Luther King said something I wish I had always remembered in political debates, "No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm."'

    I think when you say "nice" you must mean "civil" or something, because not being nice doesn't mean being angry (or not being calm). I think you're ignoring the connotations of the word nice.

    1. I find it fascinating that "socialist" is more popular in the very capitalist US than "feminist", even though fewer people share the goals of socialism. (Socialism polls around 40%, enough to win in a three-way race if everyone voted.)

      "Nice" has a lot of connotations. When people say "be nice", they're usually saying, "be polite". They're not asking you to change your soul. They're only asking you to change your style.

    2. Oh, to finish that thought, if feminists aren't to blame for poisoning their name, who is? Remember, socialists had McCarthy after them, and most Democrats are still afraid to speak the word, yet they're doing better than feminists in name-association.

  3. A lot of women (men too, obviously) enjoy being angry, because it makes them feel powerful, and in the case of women in particular, it makes them feel transgressive because they're 'supposed' to be 'nice'. Rejecting niceness results in the pendulum swing into anger, and sure, there's enough out there to make us angry. But it's unsustainable. If you're continually in a state of raw red rage, your health is going to suffer, your relationships will suffer (especially if you are new to not-niceness and mistake aggressiveness for assertiveness) and you will put people, including other feminists, off, because few people are prepared to put up with someone who is constantly ranting and they will simply stop listening.

  4. ...and to finish this thought, it's easier to sustain a constant level of anger when you're young. You're more scared, which fuels it, and you have more emotional energy. I pick my battles carefully, and I conserve the level of ire that I am willing to expend, because the bulk of my emotional energy has to go on direct support for family and friends, and in trying to sustain my business through the recession. Activism suffers a great deal from burn-out, and this is why: rage will eventually burn into ash.

    1. I can ditto all that, and add that I very much appreciate your point about people who are new to not-niceness. As a general rule, they should be treated like young nipping dogs, with love and firmness.

  5. Well, Will, if someone was willing to shoot you dead for being a socialist, the way women have been murdered for being feminists, then you probably wouldn't be real eager to claim the title either.

    1. I strongly suspect that if you add up the number of people killed for being socialists and for being feminists, the socialists would win. Hitler didn't round up the feminists, but he sure rounded up the commies.

      And I must point out that in your example, those women had not identified as being feminists. Crazy killers give all kinds of excuses for being crazy killers.

    2. Well, Will, I could invoke Godwin's Law, Will, but I won't, because it's your blog and I like you. ;-) No, Hitler didn't round up the feminists because Hitler said in his September 1934 speech to the National Socialist Women's Organization, argued that for the German woman her “world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home”. Any non-Nazi woman who advocated feminism could find herself imprisoned or executed in pretty short order.

      And no, the women murdered at Polytechnique didn't wear big name tags saying they were feminists, (One of the victims even said "We're not part of a parade proclaiming how much we hate men*, we're just getting an education." before Lepine murdered her) but they were fulfilling the feminist goal of getting an equal education according to their strengths and abilities. Or as Lepine saw it, they were taking away class space that should belong to men. If the victims had been barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, Lepine would not have killed them. (Of course, even if women were barred from Polytechnique, like Lepine wanted, he still wouldn't have been accepted to that school, because, let's face it, his grades sucked.)

      But if we're going to play Oppression Olympics (please, let's don't) I would say that the women who have been beaten, tortured, and killed for advocating equal rights would outnumber the socialists' sufferings at least a thousand to one. (And yes, I'm including the Peasants' Revolt, which was advocating socialism in everything but name.)

      *Where ARE these parades anyway? I've never seen or heard one, any more then I've seen women burning bras, except on cartoons and fictional TV shows. Funny thing; for all the feminists' supposed "hatred", I've yet to see a real life feminist pick up a gun and massacre men. Odd, that.

    3. I think Godwin's Law is amusing as an observation, but silly otherwise--are we supposed to pretend Hitler didn't exist? That there's nothing to learn from what he did? That analogies are invalid when one thing is greater than another?

      You made the claim that women have been murdered for being feminists, which is true, and suggested that socialists have not. If I misread you, apologies.

      Your examples of murdered feminists were women who had not declared themselves feminists, killed by someone who was insane. McCarthy's victims lost work for being socialists. Many strikers have been killed by governments for confronting capitalism. How many feminists have been killed by governments for confronting "patriarchy"?

      Or to go in another direction. We have one socialist in federal government, Bernie Sanders. How many feminists do we have and have we had? I sure can't think of any socialist secretaries of state.

      But really, my point is simple: this capitalist nation has a greater acceptance of socialism than of feminism, even though far more people support the classic feminist goals than support socialism.

      One of the complications, I suspect, are the feminists who insist abortion is a feminist issue. That eliminates over 40% of the women in the US right there.

    4. bleu, I was thinking about this a little more, and I may've figured out where we're miscommunicating. You seem to be talking about oppression of women in general, and there, I'd be inclined to agree with you--there probably have been more women killed for being uppity to men than have been killed for being uppity to kings, landlords, bosses, etc.

      But I was talking about the political movements of feminism and socialism, the people who accept the label. Why is it that socialism, in name, is almost twice as popular in the US as feminism, in name, even though the general goals of feminism are twice as popular as the goals of socialism?

  6. I have a group of radical feminist friends who set up a restaurant in the US in the 70s (still going) - their message is: we don't want a bigger piece of the pie. We want a different recipe.

    This is my view. I don't want to go down what's seen as the classical male route of outrage and wrath (it needn't be 'male', actually). There are other ways of doing things. Let's look at those.