Being Nice

Be leery of those who hold the platform to write and speak your truth, as they will never shift that power for fear you will control theirs.  —Dewey

Being nice is not natural.

Being nice is not objective logic.

It is a tool of the privileged that preserves one’s sense of superiority over others while reproducing inequality under the guise of “kindness.” It is a concept rooted in our subjective experience, one already tethered to our own views about gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability. A progressive, human rights-based perspective must grapple with the painful thought that our good intentions, well, may just be a form of violence.

Yes, I just said that: certain “kindness” can be an act of violence.

Some may feel defensive and angry hearing this because—like me—you probably have been raised to “be nice”… and in so doing, you felt you made things better. We hear “be nice” (or a more recent version is “be professional”), and we are to assume that if we believe this is our overall motivation, well, then any behavior enacted under this belief must be justified. As a trained sociologist, I have begun—as part of my activism—to critically investigate the logic that motivates us and to analyze how various ideas and policies, even if well-meaning, can actually perpetuate the very problem we assumed it would solve.

I critically study how we can be a part of institutions that we believe address inequities in society while ignoring how our own efforts fail to change the underlying structure that supports those class, race, and gender-based inequalities. What we must recognize is that being nice is a process between various individuals with the hope of appearing, and being perceived, as well-intentioned. We rarely take the time to consider long-term and unintended consequences of such actions and policies.

We assume that if they appear “good” and make the doers “look” good, then they must be good for all, right? Further, because recognizing the painful contradictions in our institutions prove difficult to admit and change, we tell stories and create myths to assuage any doubts. Take, for example, the legal system. To pull off the mental trick of making the law seem race-neutral and fair, we must find ways to make sense of, say, the disproportionate representation of African Americans in the correctional system. We do so by telling stories about a link between “culture” and immorality/crime. Even more insidious, these stories remove any historical creations of race with crime.

Let me give you two additional examples. I was told that teachers tell students to “be nice” as a way to address bullying and that giving a compliment is one way to do this. But not all compliments have a positive effect: they can hold underlying meanings. (For example, “You are very articulate” can imply that “people like you” typically aren’t articulate). These compliments also lend a power to the giver: “I am in a place to judge you.”

These hidden meanings can then perpetuate differences and hierarchies, which leads to deepening inequities. Further, in a place that should encourage equal opportunity for learning, complimenting can work to further entrench young girl’s sense of self as beneath, and always in relation to, boys. For example, a classmate or teacher who tells a female student that she is a “good” student is unlikely referring to her academic ability but rather about how well she fits in socially. Girls are often told to be quiet or say that in a “nicer” manner, which works to tone down their physicality.

Girls learn their bodies are to be small, quiet, and physically constrained. Messages received by girls are that they should regulate themselves, their clothes, and their behavior and be aware of how they impact (and please) others. (See the work of Edward Morris and Mary Berstein.) This “compliment” reminds girls that they are judged by qualities often at odds with education, situates them in competition with other girls (and others situationally marginalized) for attention, and reminds them that their success is based on how others will see them. We socialize girls early to be concerned about how others perceive them, situating their energies to self-police so as not to challenge the structure that limits them.

Current bullying policies also attempt to “empower” victims by telling them to put their hand up and say “stop” in response to unwanted comments, and if that does not work, to walk away. This response individualizes the problem and holds the victim responsible for the actions perpetrated against them. What these policies do not do is hold all of us accountable to the interactional and institutional processes that allows bullying to take place. Telling kids to “be nice” frames the issue as one simply between two disagreeable children who must “work it out”—but does not challenge our larger culture that makes teasing, belittling, and bullying quite likely.

Telling someone to “be nice” is also a way to silence them. If you use this phrase as your guide in dealing with others, it probably means that you have failed to critically grapple with how being nice can perpetuate race, gender, and class-based inequities.

“Be nice” is something I also hear as an adult when others do not like to grapple with the topics I desire to discuss. “Be nice” is a way to silence dissenting views, especially if you fear losing, or even recognizing, the power and privilege you hold over others. To say “be nice” to another adult—especially one with less social power—because you don’t or cannot engage in a discussion for fear that you might alter your own thinking and center someone else rather than yourself is childish. It is a way to evade the possibility that you might have to hear and respond to the needs of others. When others shut down and concede because you say “be nice,” you have retained the structure of inequity through the act of silencing.

Therefore, let’s stop saying “be nice.” Rather, let’s say “be inclusive,” and teach ourselves and children specific skills: ones we can practice—ones that actually work to include and value the voices of others. This means that you begin by asking questions, actively listening, and allowing a diversity of ideas to help YOU restructure your opinions and actions rather than believing that you have the best ideas for others. It is our job to change the culture and the various institutions that—even if through well-intended, benevolent “be nice” policies—support discrimination and multiple forms of violence.

Jodie Dewey