More Important Virtues

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Gay men are not known for being "nice," which might be one reason I like them. In fact, two of my favorite statements about niceness come from gay men. In "Disappointed," Morrissey sings

Don't talk to me
about people who are nice
for I have spent my whole life
in ruins
because of people who are nice

And in Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim, the witch tells the townspeople

You're so nice
You're not good
You're not bad
You're just nice
I'm not good
I'm not nice
I'm just right

I have long had a problem with niceness myself, not because there is anything wrong with it in and of itself, but because it is too often a shoddy substitute for more important virtues.

This is something I've been thinking about for a long, long time, but I'm writing about it now because of a post on Letters from a Broad. CL Hanson links to a very weird, very pompous editorial in some BYU publication by some guy all pissed off because women at BYU don't always accept dates from "nice" Mormon guys. It's such a weird editorial that CL wonders if the guy is a Poe (which I had to look up), but I don't think he is: he too easily plays the part of what a "nice" Mormon guy is: pompous, shallow, entitled, certain of his own authority, and ever ready to blame all relationship problems on women and their shallowness, fickleness and susceptibility to beguilement by the serpent.

Of course none of that is truly "nice," but it's what passes for "nice" in conventional Mormon manhood--along with a firm handshake and a willingness to help out at elders' quorum service projects.

Niceness for women is a little different. There is lots of smiling and the cultivation of a particular tone of voice, high-pitched, lilting and little-girly. Also, there is reminding people that "heavenly father loves them" and commanding them, in that bright, perky voice, to "smile!"

Other elements of niceness include 1) never saying No, no matter how passive-aggressive you have to be in order not to utter that dreadful word; 2) avoiding, at all costs, direct confrontation; 3) mustering enough superiority for people who disagree with or thwart you that you can "pity" them for the way they have been led astray by Satan.

I think a lot of times people are "nice" so they won't have to strive for the more difficult virtues of kindness and compassion, which involves actually figuring out what will make others' lives easier, instead of just resorting to the familiar standards of "nice" or "decorous" behavior. I'm not saying that there's no such thing as a kind, compassionate Mormon, but I do want to point out that it's much harder to be compassionate when you honestly believe that people who don't think and act as you do are led astray by the devil.

I mean, think of some "nice" people: Sarah Palin, for example. She smiles and winks and has that bright, perky voice--but she's a heartless bitch who makes rape victims pay for their own rape kits.

Or there's Miss California. Carrie Prejean smiled brightly and ended her explanation that because she's a christian, she doesn't believe that gay people deserve equal rights or recognition of their relationships by adding, perkily, "No offense to anyone out there!" That was the "nice" way to be an unkind, unchristlike bitch.

Or Bill Bennet, whom Jon Stewart skewered a few nights ago for being too fastidious and proper to tolerate the humor at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, but nonetheless defending torture.

Mitt Romney is probably "nice" too, though I find him so reptilian and repellent that I can't bring myself to think of any examples.

All of which is to say that as far as I'm concerned, as long as this is what passes for "nice" in our society, I hope it is true that "nice" guys finish dead, dead last.

7 Comments

I'm all for nice - I just don't think nice-to-get-what-you-want is the same thing as actually being nice. And the guy who wrote that post was just an insincere, entitled jackass. You find them everywhere, but in my particular experience, I found a whole lot more of them in Mormonism. I find just as many jerks outside of Mormonism as in it, but the ones who aren't Mormon are much more likely to be upfront about it. And while I'm not a fan of jerks, I appreciate the openness.

One of Dad's favorite articles was "When Nice Ain't So Nice" by Elouise Bell that was published in BYU Today in January 1991 on page 2. If you have time, look it up and tell me what you think.

Hi Rebecca--

I agree with you that a certain directness about one's lack of niceness is refreshing. It's a very western trait--old ranchers and cowboys can be like that. Truth be told, the fact that I have so many relatives who are up front about their disdain for niceness is no doubt one reason I disdain it too.

Hi Lucia--

I found the table of contents to "BYU Today," and a list of key words for the "when Nice Ain't So Nice" article, including "Nice, wimpy, dangerous, crimes, Grant Affleck, Mark Hofman, Alan Hadfield, Karen Lynn, C.S. Lewis, Alice Miller, Deseret news, highways, depression, home, aggression, metaphor, Nicene Creed, etymology, Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." But I can't access the article itself.

I don't think I ever had a bishop I respected as much as your father. I wouldn't call him "nice," not in a million years. I would call him decent, deliberate and kind. He did the work to be better than nice, so I'm not surprised that he wasn't a huge fan of nice himself.

I suck at technology, but I'll try and get you the article.

What a great essay, Lucia. Thanks for sending it to me. BYU should make it available online, because it very wise and worth reading.

Yes - I read the 'Nice' article by Bell for an Intensive Writing course at BYU and it is also one of my favorites. I have never forgotten it. I feel I was raised to be nice, so in many ways I'm quite good at being nice now and it drives me crazy. I find it is very hard to try and deprogram myself to not be nice, but to be more honest and real with people.

I'm not surprised you've never forgotten it--it's pretty darn memorable. I'm glad BYU students were asked to think seriously about what she was saying.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on May 13, 2009 1:44 PM.

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