Friday, June 29, 2018

Niceness versus civility

The hardest thing to understand is an idea you accepted before you knew you could question it. Like most of us, I was taught to be nice while I was learning to speak. For decades, I had the vaguest idea of the differences between niceness and civility, but watching people rage at the idea we should be civil has helped me see how very different niceness and civility are, and why people who value niceness may hate civility, and why some, like me, may come to think that niceness is a refuge for hypocrites.

Niceness and civility are both forms of politeness, yet they're as different as grape juice and wine:

Nice people don't like disagreement.

Civil people enjoy civil disagreement.

Nice people think respect means being gently deferential to social superiors like parents and bosses and celebrities they admire.

Civil people think respect means treating others as equals, no matter how different their circumstances or views.

Nice people divide the world between nice people and mean people. They are nice to nice people, but since they believe mean people have rejected niceness, they feel free to treat mean people rudely.

Civil people divide the world between people who act civilly and people who act rudely. Civil people are nice to people who act nicely and civil to everyone else.

The nice person's impulse to defer can make them respond nicely to something mean. Then they regret it and say something like "I don't know why I stepped aside" or "why I didn't slap him", and their friends assure them "it's because you're too nice." "Too nice" is a gentle rebuke that nice people use to remind each other that sometimes nice people must be rude for two reasons: a nice person's rudeness tells a mean person that they are not being nice, and it tells other nice people that the nice person is defending niceness.

At its most extreme, the belief that niceness does not need to be shown to mean people results in something many nice people will deny: mobs often consist of nice people. The jurors in the Salem Witch Trials were thought nice by their neighbors, as were the people who blacklisted suspected socialists during the Red Scare, as are the people who join in mobbing online and off.

The civil person's impulse to treat everyone as an equal can inspire nice people to take offense when they think a mean person is being treated with insufficient contempt or a superior is being treated with insufficient deference. The Quakers are a famous example of the latter: their insistence on politely treating nobles as equals made nice people think Quakers were not nice—which was true. Quakers were not nice. They were civil. They may've seen the difference between civility and niceness in the Bible. Luke 6:32-33 points to it:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.
Many of history's worst monsters were nice—Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, said he was "a pleasant boss and a fatherly friend". Niceness is called a virtue, but it shouldn't be—responding nicely to nice treatment is a trait we share with many species. The true virtue is civility, which calls for overcoming our tribal desires for vengeance and treating all others as full members of the human community.

PS. If you think you cannot protest injustice and be civil, look to the example of the civil rights heroes.


Another difference: Nice people think nice people don't lie, so they believe nice people who accuse others. Civil people think accusations should be examined thoroughly before deciding guilt.

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