There are few insults worse than being called “nice.” Not that I don’t want people to think I’m kind; what I mean is that if someone were asked to describe me and they responded “he’s nice,” it would sting worse than being called a callous misogynistic asshole. Because “nice” is the bland default opinion you have of loose acquaintances and people you haven’t ever met — a general, barely-valenced, non-descriptive, minimally approving, almost, if not entirely, uninsightful descriptor. Maybe not terrible if said by someone who barely knows you. But uttered from the lips of a closer acquaintance, friend or confidant, nothing could be worse.
Yet, at times, I think we are all too quick to be exactly this — nice.
Bill Maher ’78 has a running gag on his show where he describes Mitt Romney as the “least interesting man in the world.” Perhaps particularly acute in Romney, I think this nearly comical strategy of adopting the most acceptable opinion, equivocally backing out of it if need be, being terrified to embrace any opinion too extreme and too scared to make any strong definitive statement — aside from ones so obvious as to be meaningless — is a terrible illness which afflicts not only Romney but a great many politicians. And what does Maher attribute as the cause of Romney’s and by extension other politicians’ glorious blandness? It, he says, is “what you get when you place a premium on never offending anyone and only saying what’s safe.”
This to me is the essence of the behaviors that would lead us to be described as “nice.” It is the outcome of the easy and comfortable process of taking the sum of everyone’s opinions and attitudes, averaging them and then adopting all the resultant averages, with perhaps some slight modification, as your own attitudes and opinions. So what it really means to be “nice” is to be boring. Bland. Uninsightful and uninteresting. And it makes us unproductive and unconstructive.
It chokes us, constrains us, limits us and confines us within an ever shrinking neatly zoned-off area of acceptability. Venture outside it and who knows what the punishment might be.
In fact, I can’t help but think that the student leaders on campus today who will be the politicians of the future are going to be the most bland, boring, nice ones who were active but never took an extreme, interesting, radical or definitive stance on any major issues, tip-toeing around, never deviating from the group average by more than half a standard deviation. How else would you survive your Senate confirmation hearings?
Aside from an objection to this, in principle, as fundamentally dishonest to oneself and disingenuous to others, there are two problems with this behavior in consequence. First, when we become so concerned with being nice we often end up with a collective view that is a distorted version of all our individual private views. And second, it means we end up wasting a lot of time debating the wrong issues and asking the wrong questions.
The most concrete illustration of this first problem is evident in a study done by Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller at Princeton. They examined students’ attitudes in a setting in which we are particularly concerned with niceness. A social one. Specifically, they studied students’ attitudes about drinking. They had students rate their own comfortability with alcohol, then estimate what (a) their friends and (b) the average Princeton student would put down as their comfortability with alcohol. What they found was that their overall estimate of the average Princetonian’s comfort level was higher than their overall estimate of one’s friends’ comfort level, which in turn was higher than self-ratings of students’ own comfort levels. Of course, only this last category is the actual average Princeton student’s comfortability with alcohol. However, a concern with niceness leads us to misperceive each other’s attitudes. Doubtless, this is true in a host of other domains. (In fact, social psychologists have a name for this phenomena: pluralistic ignorance.)
This misinformation is a problem in itself, but it in turn leads to a second larger problem. If our concern with niceness makes us misperceive people’s real views, then we have a fundamentally distorted perception of reality, making our debates, discussions and behaviors distorted too. With drinking for example, it means we argue over whether to go to Pixel or Chapter House, instead of whether we want to go out drinking at all. More broadly, it leads to policy debates and conflicts which aren’t wide enough and are often about the wrong thing entirely.
For example, in the aftermath of the Desdunes tragedy, there was a lot of discussion about how to change the Greek system, but little discussion was had in the way of whether we wanted it at all.
On an even larger scale, before the subsequent wars in the Middle East, we debated whether getting involved in them was a relevant retaliation for the September 11th attacks. However, few people — I can only remember David Foster Wallace asking it in an article in 2007 — debated whether any kind of retaliation in response to these attacks was logical or justified. He made the point that we accept the 40,000 deaths on domestic highways as the price of having them. So, he wondered, would it be equally “monstrous” to regard those “killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifices on the altar of freedom’” — what if we “chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?”
These are the types of questions we aren’t asking. Not because they’re not important and not because we aren’t thinking them, but because we’re all being too damn nice.
Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester.