Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An End to the Tyranny of Niceness

I stand today, alone, to challenge the Tyranny of Niceness.

Nice people are courteous, friendly, helpful, polite, honest, respectful and generous. Too bad humans aren’t very nice.

Oh, get over it.

Don’t say, “yes we are” in that pleading tone of voice. We aren’t. We just aren’t. Not you, not me, not anyone. We have nice impulses, yes, and logically many of us buy in to Niceness because its confines feel like a requirement of living together in harmony. We often practice and refine nice behaviour. We've even codified it into law as best we can. That doesn’t make us god. It doesn’t change the very nature of the creature we are.

A human’s primary biological imperative is to protect itself. That evolutionary requirement has far-reaching effects on how the brain and nervous system function. It affects our very minute-to-minute non-stress reasoning to an enormous degree, and hides from us assumptions that we can’t even notice to question. Protecting the ego from harm occupies an inordinate portion of our system’s activity and focuses on self.

If that was all, we might be nice by now. But it’s Survival of the Fittest in this harsh, challenging environment (I love Earth, but really, what’s with the EXTREMES?). So we developed a competitive spirit. A strong competitive spirit. Fight or Flight, Survival of the Fittest - not exactly a recipe for Nice. Even so, the need for community gives humans good reason to overcome our worst and act nice together.

Nice lets us tolerate each other. That only makes it, at best, a half-natural state.

We applaud Niceness in stories and song. We insist on it from our young. We encourage it and if necessary, enforce it through social means and, eventually, using the criminal justice systems. We expel 6 year olds if they aren't nice enough at school. All of this is geared to limiting and controlling behaviour to a set of norms that can be adhered to only through active, daily will. We all practice this art.

Every child knows that kids are unkind, adults use subterfuge, the best movies have guns, and hockey’s about the fights. We are aware of the active torture and angry violence that takes place against people throughout the world, every day, inflicted human to human. We see the contradictions. It’s something we don’t like to talk about – it’s not nice.

We also know what it feels like when we experience social disapproval. What’s the rule – no politics or religion at the dinner table? We must avoid conflict – it’s not nice. We must avoid raised passions – they lead to loud voices, which are not nice. We must come to agreement as quickly as possible to restore nice. We must silence or remove a disruptive person before they upset anyone. Let’s keep it nice, shall we?

All this niceness has let evil seep in underneath, knowing what it can get away with because people are too nice to say anything, to get upset, to say no, to ask questions, to band together, to protest, allow for the worst. Too nice to challenge each other and our assumptions. Too nice to be honest about what we’re thinking if it’s not popular. Too nice to risk social rejection by aligning with a cause or a person or pushing beyond the status quo.

While we’re playing nice on the surface, we’re keeping our gaze shallow so we don’t have to see that what’s holding it up is crumbling beneath us. For many, this is just as true personally as globally.

Niceness lets us live together. Let’s not let it keep us from living together.

Let’s find a way to have the tough conversations we all need to have, over dinner, over fences, in community centres, at the mall, in the parking lot, after the meeting. Let’s talk about values, and why values aren’t part of our conversations on economic value. Let's talk about what it means when we insist on lower taxes and fail to maintain physical and social infrastructure. Let's talk about what it means to our daily lives when our systems criminalize poverty and fail to support true mental health. Let's talk about the conflict between what's good for me and what's good for us.

Nice? Okay, let’s review the list: courteous, friendly, helpful, polite, honest, respectful and generous. This is not a list of behaviours but qualities to be applied to behaviours. Surely we can employ niceness and still raise difficult topics. Surely niceness doesn’t have to mean avoiding and pretending. Perhaps curiosity would help it along.

I often find social norms confining, but for the most part, if that’s what it takes, I’ll do my best and accept that some people will not like me along the way for whatever I failed to notice. But this norm, the norm that says no politics or religion in polite company – this one I want to push. I think it’s doing our species harm. I think it’s time we grow up and take responsibility to understand these tough problems together instead of abdicating to decreasingly effective governments. We will need to muck around in the Not Niceness together, as nicely as possible, if we're ever going to get out. Our leaders are too busy slinging mud over our heads.

There are ways out of the quicksand. Pretending we're not dirty isn’t one of them.