The Niceness Myth: What if Our Solution to Society’s Woes is Part of the Problem?

I was driving behind a car when I noticed a bumper sticker on the back that simply read, “Be nice.” With our culture in such a bitter and divided place right now, that seems like good advice. Can’t we all agree to get along? But as I thought about it, I realized that it’s a message that reflects a powerful cultural trend more reminiscent of a teacher’s words on a playground of toddlers than the transcendent words of the Decalogue thundering forth from Sinai. Whereas many in our divisive culture asks everyone to be nice, God has required us to be kind: and these are two very different things.

“Nice” means pleasant, easy to swallow, in accordance with one’s fancy. And it’s a perfectly good word in reference to the niceties of the natural world. A cup of tea on a cold evening is nice. A beautiful sunset set against the ocean horizon is nice. But when we speak of human beings as “nice” what we mean is that they don’t make anyone uncomfortable. In other words: they are people-pleasers.

What makes niceness so good in nature is precisely what makes niceness so evil in human relationships: precisely because humans can have relationships and nature cannot. Being inanimate, nature merely presents itself as it is with no regard for how it will be received or for what is expected of it. Thus, in nature we find the most pleasant of niceties and the most terrifying of calamities. And in either case, nature didn’t present itself within the context of relationship.

The moment we enter the context of relationship, everything must change. For never in human relationships are we called simply to be “nice.” Never are we called to please others for its own sake so as not to make someone feel uncomfortable. Many times, we are called precisely to the opposite! The very fact of love requires that niceness be replaced by kindness which is the active pursuit of another’s good regardless of what they think about it. This is why we are called to love others as we would want to be loved, not as they would prefer to be loved in the moment. Kindness often means not pleasing people or making them comfortable. Often it means doing good things that the other cannot understand in the moment. Kindness means love and love is messy and often rebuffed.

But it’s not merely that kindness is superior to niceness. In fact, niceness is its opposite because it’s rooted not in love but in its antithesis: indifference. Niceness is indifferent to the good and well-being of the other; rather, it only cares for creating equilibrium where everyone feels good in the moment. Nature gives us “nice” things precisely because it is indifferent to our well-being. And once we dehumanize ourselves by descending to the level of being nice, we have discarded real loving human relationships for a veneer that masks an intrinsic indifference that speaks the words “I will not judge you as long as you don’t judge me.” Once our culture has descended to the virtue of niceness, it has fallen prey to a myth: for niceness does not exist where relationship does.

A society that is built on niceness is a society in decline. It’s a society built on indifference. And the danger of indifference is that it leads to loneliness and isolation. It leads to rivalry and factionalism. It leads to anger and violence. What if the solution to all this division isn’t niceness, but a more robust sense of conviction?

What our culture needs right now is love. It needs kindness. It needs compassion. It needs understanding and humility and good will. But what it doesn’t need is niceness.

A sunset can be nice. A breeze can be nice. But a person cannot and must not be nice.

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