The Rise and Fall of Niceness

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Published on: May 14, 2015

nice (adj.) – late 13c., “foolish, stupid, senseless,” from Old French nice (12c.) “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish,” from Latin nescius “ignorant, unaware,” literally “not-knowing,” from ne- “not” (see un-) + stem of scire “to know” (seescience). “The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj.” [Weekley] — from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c. 1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to “agreeable, delightful” (1769); to “kind, thoughtful” (1830).

In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken. [OED]

By 1926, it was pronounced “too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.” [Fowler]

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?” 

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.” [Jane Austen, “Northanger Abbey,” 1803] Source 

Word History Five hundred years ago, when nice was first used in English, it meant “foolish or stupid.” This is not as surprising as it may seem, since it came through early French from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant.” By the 16th century, the sense of being “very particular” or “finicky” had developed. In the 19th century, nice came to mean “pleasant or agreeable” and then “respectable,” a sense quite unlike its original meaning. Source

If Christ was a really, nice guy, why was he crucified?

Where does this myth of the nice, hippy Christ come from?  It is difficult, as all orthodox Christians know, to find Him in the New Testament, where He was often confrontational.   And, of course, confrontation, as healthy partners to every healthy marriage know, is the polar opposite of manipulation.  Confrontation is paradoxically respectful, and respect is a dimension of love. 

Christ’s confrontation of sinners is clearly full of love and grace.  This is because confrontation is respectful, not political, not calculating.  Confrontation is passionate.  It is morally authentic.  When we love our children we confront them.  We wrestle with, sometimes in an emotionally and spiritually violent fashion. 

The gross reduction of goodness, of morality, to niceness in our time, has very deep roots in the modern rejection of a functional, teleological view of human life.  Scientistic ideology has taught the masses that there is no objectively observable function to human life even though most of us actually believe it has one — obedience to God and the incarnation in our lives of His love expressed in the construction of the family.

If there is no agreed upon view of the goals of human life, then it becomes impossible to reason together about what a good and bad life is.  We arrive at a place which contemporary philosophers call “emotivism.”  Emotivism is the notion that every claim we make about the goodness or the evil of any object or behavior just expresses our emotional orientation to it.  Of course, this ignores the fact that we can agree about how we feel about a behavior all day long and still disagree about whether it is good or evil.  In other words, emotivism conflicts with ordinary language when it reduces moral claims to emotional claims.  One’s question is not “How do you feel about it?” but “Is it really good?”  The only thing which could possibly make emotivism an interesting theory about moral discourse is that it is so blatantly reductionist.  What makes it interesting is what makes it vulnerable. 

Unfortunately emotivism, the theory which summarizes the moral disaster of modern western culture, has succeeded in reducing most contemporary moral debate to nothing more than an attempt to manipulate others emotionally.  Many people understand implicitly that there is disagreement about the goals of human life.  They have been taught to believe that there is no resolution of this primary debate where moral argument is dependent upon it.  But of course there is a resolution in both the historical revelation of Christianity and the universal image of God in man.  Christianity is undoubtedly pragmatic.   The old liberals used to readily admit this. 

Although most people have never heard of emotivism, as a formal, philosophical theory of moral discourse, they have been profoundly affected by it.  They know they live in a world of unrelenting “spin.”   They know they live in a swamp of unceasing emotional manipulation in every arena — popular culture, religious culture, academic culture, and especially politics.  This is true even in modern scientific culture where the true believers in science try to shame anyone who dares to doubt not just the factual truth of what the poliscientist (the scientist as politician) has to say, but the goodness of what he has to say.  They know that contemporary moral arguments, especially in the form of political arguments, but even in the form of “scientific” arguments, are often won by those who scream the loudest, cry the loudest; by those who are more masterful in their manipulation of the masses at the emotional level. 

Niceness functions crucially in two ways in our modern emotivist environment.  First of all it serves as what the manipulator, on the march, announces as the only appropriate response to his emotional demonstrations.   Niceness is what resolves moral ‘debate’, as little more than an emotional struggle.  Modern children, and the political left, have learned that if they are willing to expend a lot of emotional energy, they can dominate their parents in the former case, and whole societies in the latter, by reminding them of the only ready-made resolution to emotional turmoil.  They should just be nice.  They should feel good about just caving in.  Just let the master of the tantrum be who he is.  He is upset only because you are not being nice.  Niceness resolves moral debates in an age where there is little agreement on what could otherwise serve as the foundation of moral reasoning.

Secondly, niceness functions as a form of manipulation itself.  In this emotivist age people have quickly realized that not only is niceness the resolution of moral non-debate, but is often just as effective as anger in manipulating people into accepting resolutions that they otherwise would not accept.  If goodness is niceness, if this thesis has become the implicit analysis of goodness in a society lacking any other dominant conception of the purpose of human life, then killing one’s opponent with niceness becomes possible.  To be nice is to be good.  And how can goodness be rejected?   We live in a culture in which even most Christians have been convinced that niceness is a sure sign of goodness.  But it just isn’t true.  Nice people, with no passionate response to life which is always dangerous and upsetting to themselves and other nice people, have sucked the life out of not only their own souls, but those of their children, who know that this niceness is not authentic and not sustainable.  Kids on drugs may come from the nicest families.   Their parents are boring them to death.

The current nature of the liberal attack on morality, is to assert that all traditional forms of goodness, which are admittedly not nice insofar as they are confrontational, are forms of hate.  The same age which reduces goodness to niceness, reduces real goodness to hate.  Of course, good people are not filled with hate.  They are like Christ.  They are confrontational out of love and respect.  They are brave.  Their love costs them something.  Their own tranquility.  But it is worth it.  The world they construct is passionate, not boring.

Niceness cannot become a permanent substitute for goodness.  The fall of niceness is inevitable.  This is because of two aspects of niceness, especially when exhibited on a mass scale, which I have already mentioned.  It is too blatantly reductionist as an analysis of goodness, and it is too boring.  The age of niceness has produced the age of pornography, which is an attempt to overcome the boredom of niceness with brutal, relatively authentic, explicit exploitation.  Sex and violence are the relief people seek from the boredom of niceness which is not love, not passion.  Niceness (sentimentality) and brutal cynicism inevitably arise alongside of one another. 

It is perfectly obvious that there is a rising reaction to niceness, to its boredom.  Among the non-Christians this reaction is dangerously cynical and even violent.  Among Christians it is a call to real passion and discipline as a revolutionary attack on the whole culture.  This rebellion is already here.  It is in this essay with perfect explicitness.   It is all over the internet.  Young people on the left are getting just as alienated by overbearing niceness as those on the right.  The problem with leftist boredom is that it has no outlet except a collapse into violent coercion.

We Christians must destroy nice culture as quickly as we can, by defying it on a daily basis in the alternative media.  Ironically, our destruction of niceness is the only way to secure a truly, peaceful society where violence and mutual exploitation is not necessary to escape from boredom.

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