Some while back an old –and older- friend recalled one of the first sermons I preached decades ago when I was twenty-two years old. In the message I apparently said some derogatory things about being nice. She laughingly remarked, “Lots of people walked away from church that day asking, ‘Really, what’s so wrong with being nice?’”
In turn, I laughed and confessed, “Yes, that sounds like me…still.”
Not long ago I posted on Facebook something to the effect that the world doesn’t need more people who are nice; it needs more people who are kind. A spiritually sensitive friend of mine responded, “I have found that people who are nice tend to be kind.” And he is partly right. People who are nice are indeed frequently kind. But most often their kindness is of a certain sort.
And that is the problem.
A nice person isn’t rude and impolite. He or she cares about what other people think and avoids doing things that would disrupt harmonious relationships. It is extremely important to nice people to be socially acceptable. A nice person is glad to be helpful and bring a smile to other people’s faces. When kindness is a sort appreciated by his or her peer group, the nice person doesn’t hesitate to be kind.
And all of these things are commendable. After all, there is no virtue in being a jerk.
However, because it is so important to the nice person to be accepted, he or she is deferential to those in authority and readily complies with social norms, even unjust ones. Indeed, nice people often don’t have an acute sensitivity to the injustices that would cast doubt on conventional standards. So the kindness of a nice person stays close to home, within the realm of acceptability.
Niceness has an ugly underbelly. A recent study suggests “people with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices.” Nice people are cooperative and don’t cause trouble. Such characteristics leaves them ill-equipped to go against the grain when their peer group discriminates against a minority or when their company has practices that seriously damages the environment or when their nation engages in aggression or supports oppressive forces elsewhere in the name of national interests.
The above referenced study supports what was found decades ago by Stanley Milgram in his well-known experiments described in his book Obedience to Authority. Essentially he discovered that normal, apparently decent people who simply want to be cooperative can be made to harm others when instructed to do so by someone perceived to be an authority. Most people want to please those in power and will act in a way detrimental to strangers in order to avoid displeasing someone in charge. The majority trusts in the legitimacy and expertise of those in authority and consequently they willingly follow.
A nice person might occasionally feel uncomfortable with injustice. More often, he or she will give his or her peer group or place of employment or nation a very generous benefit of the doubt and assume they are in the right, even when they are not. The one thing the nice person is highly unlikely to do is risk alienating and jeopardizing the goodwill of others. The nice person will not resist, refuse or protest against the prevailing practices and views.
Indiscriminate kindness that gives no thought of the opinion of others is beyond the inclinations of the nice person. In fact since nice people highly value the acceptance of peers, and especially those in authority, they are more likely to support destructive conventions and be led to perform acts harmful to others. On the other hand, the study found “people with more contrarian, less agreeable personalities were more likely to refuse to hurt other people when told to do so.”
Perhaps we could speak of this as the virtue of crankiness. Moral courage is more likely to be found in nonconformists who have a history of resisting the pressure of the dominant society. Those who are willing to defy authority and majority opinions and risk their popularity for the sake of the bullied, beleaguered or oppressed are the genuinely kind and compassionate people, not those who are nice.
In her extensive study of the small minority of Christians who were rescuers of the Jews, Nechama Tec found that they tended not to be socially well-adjusted but they were in some fashion marginalized, “being less affected by the community’s expectations and controls.” The rescuers had little need for “the support and approval of others.” She found “one of their central values involved a long-standing commitment to protect the needy.” To put it another way, the rescuers were not particularly nice but they were deeply kind to the vulnerable.
All this does not add up to suggesting rude and inconsiderate people are automatically the ethical superiors to those who get along well with others. Rather it means that those who refuse to adjust to injustice and well-established discriminatory practices will inevitably irritate and annoy the accommodating majority. These people may not be as easy to get along with because they will not be passive and well-adjusted to a misshapen world. And they will care a whole lot less about the irritation they cause or disapproval they experience than they do about the needy people they seek to help. These are the kind of people Jesus calls us to be.