The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

Rachael from the Social Justice League does it again, with this brilliant post about why it is a mistake to confuse “niceness” with “social justice”.

Slightly abridged version here; you can read the whole post via the provided link.

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Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a “nicer” world. I am not suggesting niceness is bad or that we should not behave in a nice way towards others if we want to! I also do not equate niceness with cooperation or collaboration with others. Here’s all I am saying: the conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.

Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!). These people would hold a door for us if they saw us coming. Our enemies are not only the people holding “Fags Die God Laughs” signs, they are the nice people who just feel like marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense, it’s just how they feel! We once got a very nice comment on this site that we decided we could not publish because its content was “But how can I respect women when they dress like – sorry to say it, pardon my language – sluts?”. This is vile, disgusting misogyny and no amount of sugar coating and politeness can make it okay. Similarly, most of the people who run ex-gay therapy clinics are actually very nice and polite! They just want to save you! Nicely! Clearly, niceness means FUCK ALL.

On an even more serious note, nice people also DO horrible bad things on an individual level. In The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker, he explicitly says that people who intend to harm others often display niceness towards them in order to make them feel safe and let their guard down. This trick only works because we have been taught that niceness indicates goodness. What is more, according to De Becker, women have been socially conditioned to feel indebted to men who are “nice” to them, which is often exploited by abusers. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I suggest you pick up the book – it talks a lot about how socialisation of men and women makes it easier for men to abuse women.

How many more acts that reinforce kyriarchy have to be done nicely and politely before we stop giving people any credit for niceness? Does the niceness of these acts make them acceptable? It does not.

An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people. Being marginalised does not mean people are always nasty to you, it means you live in a world in which many aspects of the cultural, social and economic systems are stacked against people like you. Some very privileged people have had awful experiences in life, but it does not erase their privilege. That is because privilege is about groups of people being given different rights and opportunities by the law and by socio-cultural norms. Incidentally, that is why you can have some forms of privilege and not others, and it doesn’t make sense to try to “tally up” one’s privilege into a sum total and compare it against others’.

The conflation of nice and good also creates an avenue of subtle control over marginalised people. After all, what is seen as “nice” is cultural and often even class-dependent, and therefore the “manners” that matter get to be defined by the dominant ethnic group and class. For example, the “tone” argument, the favourite derailing tactic of bigots everywhere, is quite clearly a demand that the oppressor be treated “nicely” at all times by the oppressed – and they get to define what “nice” treatment is. This works because the primacy of nice in our culture creates a useful tool – to control people and to delegitimise their anger. A stark example of this is the stereotype of the desirably meek and passive woman, which is often held over women’s heads if we step out of line. How much easier is it to hold on to social and cultural power when you make a rule that people who ask for an end to their own oppression have to ask for it nicely, never showing anger or any emotion at being systematically disenfranchised? (A lot easier.)

Furthermore, I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “tranny” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.

So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people. Calling a white person a racist fuckhead doesn’t do any of that. Yes, it’s not very nice. And how effective it is as a tactic is definitely up for debate (that’s a whole other blog post). But it’s not oppression.

Being good and being nice are totally unrelated. We need to get serious about debunking this myth, because the confusion between the two is obfuscating our message and handing our oppressors another tool with which to silence us. In some cases, this confusion is putting people (especially women) in real danger.

This social movement can’t achieve its goals if people think it’s essentially some kind of niceness revolution. And anyway, social justice is not about making the world a nicer place. It’s about taking back the rights and opportunities denied to us by law or by social and cultural norms – and breaking out of the toxic mindset that wants us to say please and thankyou when we do.

via » The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good Social Justice League.

Be Nice. Or Not.

Follow Your Passion

Be Smart. Able. Strong. Successful. Not "nice".

A recurring theme in posts about sexual harassment of women in the public space is how women often feel silenced at the moment of confrontation.

When I recently commented about this in a Facebook thread, a couple of things came up. One, the original poster said that some responses might be difficult for her to muster, and also that she only found the strength to speak out as she does after reading numerous, repeated commentaries decrying this behavior by men. Repeated. So the first thing that came to me was, of course, that we do, indeed, need another post on the topic. Good thing I started a blog.

The second thing was my response – how women are socialized to be NICE. How we’re worried about what even this guy invading our space or body will think of us. How we are trained to avoid confrontation. This is something I think about a lot. I’m not reinventing the wheel, but I do want to cover some of my impressions about NICE.

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I don’t think I was particularly taught to be nice. Then again, I wasn’t really “taught” very much, having grown up with a violent, unstable, neglectful home life. The main way I survived my nightmare childhood relatively intact was by never giving in. Though my parents could cow me through violence and manipulation, I never gave in mentally, in the sense that I never conceded that they were right. Only that they had power over me. So I ended up a fairly confrontational person. I’m not likely to fear any confrontations I might face as an adult (say from some creep touching me in line) given my long and thorough training. And confrontational — is not NICE. But it does give me the ability to not conform.

And I don’t.

As a result, I have been called all kinds of things by all kinds of people: An “unnatural woman” because I choose not to have children; My ex-husband wanted me to be “more wifely”;  People at my (very normative) workplace whisper about me because of my queer and feminist activism. The list goes on.

Which doesn’t mean that I was unaffected by the role models, imagery and standards of my time: From Nancy Drew to Barbie to Samantha Stevens, to Disney princesses… Gender-based role assignments, such as that women could be teachers, secretaries, nurses, ballerinas, or flight attendants (‘scuze me, stewardesses), and must aspire to wifedom and motherhood and a showcase home… While men could/should aspire to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, president, architects, pilots, astronauts, or anything they damn well pleased (except for teacher, secretary, nurse or ballerina). That there was a right way to be a woman and a wrong way: And the right way was to be pure, to be ladylike, to be pleasing… To be NICE.

Of course, being nice was a completely feminine domain. When I was younger, I agreed with my then best-friend that we didn’t want a “nice guy”. Ick. That would be boring. We wanted someone who knew how to strut, who knew what he was worth, who could take control, who would provide excitement. Who was MANLY. We, on the other hand, would bat our lashes, and smile a lot. Unlike the boys who had their pride and honor, we would easily apologize, accommodate, adapt.

And the boys, not only were they not taught to be NICE, they were taught to go out and crush the opposition. They were taught to WIN. They knew that “nice guys finish last” and of course, that nice guys don’t get the girl. They knew who did — the soldier, the pilot, the leader, the tough guy, the bad boy, the Casanova. Their mothers beamed with pride as they practiced trampling the weak and taking what they wanted.

When I experienced sexual harassment and even when I was raped, it never occurred to me to tell anyone, to complain; that there might be something I could do about it (in truth, there probably wasn’t). It was something to put in a drawer and move on from. And I still had to be NICE to the men who treated me that way.

The bottom line is that I if you look at the dictionary definition of NICE it is not a bad thing – it’s a quality more people could use an increased dose of. But the way it’s used – to tell girls how to be proper females, and as an example of what men should NOT be – I have a huge aversion to the word.

And I do not really consider myself a NICE person.

However, not being “nice” has not make me: unkind, ungenerous, uncaring, inconsiderate, unsupportive, a bad listener, or lacking any of a range of other positive qualities. (Not saying I don’t have my faults 🙂  Nor that I am never “nice”. )

And another note: My best friend in law school told me in response to the not wanting a nice guy thing, “But of course I want a nice guy. Who doesn’t want their partner to be nice to them?” Duh. Yep, that was a wake up call.

And yet, the word NICE still makes me cringe, a bit. I think it’s good (desirable! essential!!) to teach your children to be courteous, to be considerate, to be contributing members of their communities, and so on. But every time I hear a girl being told to “be nice”, my stomach turns over. It incorporates into that one little word a whole universe of harmful behaviors socialized into girls/women, that I really REALLY want rid of. I want us to teach girls to say no. To know what they want, and believe they deserve it. To expect others to respect those wants. Not to cave in to bullying or manipulation. To recognize when they are being manipulated. To know how to effectively protect themselves. To stop apologizing. To stop making excuses for bad behavior by males. The list goes on.

Coming soon:

More on silence in the face of actual or threatened violence, and practical tips on overcoming the “Nice Girl Syndrome”.