A few days ago, whilst being driven around Tampa, I noticed a car bumper sticker telling me to “Just Be Nice.” For some reason this irritated me. Indeed it made me feel decidedly nasty. Why was this? Had I become a grumpy old man, an irascible curmudgeon, or, most contemptible of all, a latter-day Scrooge? Why was it that I felt the urge to blurt out “humbug” every time someone wished me a nice day?
Returning home and still feeling a little guilty about my killjoy tendencies, I decided to google “just be nice,” just to see which sinister organization was behind the phrase which had so affronted me. To my consternation, I discovered that the bumper stickers were the work of justbenice.com, a company run by two nice sisters in honour of their late and evidently very nice father. The sisters seem to do much good work for children’s charities and appear to have no sinister agenda. This made me feel worse. How could I have such nasty thoughts towards a bumper sticker produced by such nice people? The reason is that “nice” is not enough and that, by itself, it always turns nasty.
The modern colloquial use of the word “nice” as something agreeable or attractive, disguises a darker meaning which emerges in the history of the word itself. The older meaning of “nice” as it is used by Shakespeare is “fastidious,” “scrupulous,” “discriminative” or even “punctiliously petty,” a definition which can still be seen in the negative connotations connected with the word “nicety.” When Portia in The Merchant of Venice talks about the “nice direction of a maiden’s eyes” she is using the word “nice” in a pejorative sense, as something which is not nice at all! She would not dream of allowing such prejudice to cloud her judgment of what constitutes a suitable spouse. And we can take this etymological understanding of “nice” still further. The Middle English meaning of the word “nice” was “stupid” or “wanton,” having entered the English language, via the Old French, from the Latin word, nescius, which actually means “ignorant,” from whence we have the contemporary word, “nescience.” For Chaucer, “nice” was indeed nasty and if you had told him to have a nice day or to “just be nice” he would have been justified in punching you on the nose!
Although I am consoled somewhat by the knowledge that Chaucer would have been as irritated by the bumper sticker as I was, it is clear that the nice ladies who designed the stickers did not intend them to convey the older meaning but the newer one. The problem is that the newer meaning is not as nice as nice people seem to believe. The paradox, as I have said already, is that “nice” turns nasty.
Clearly further explanation is needed if the paradox is to be understood.
The word “nice” in its modern incarnation can be compared with the modern understanding of the word “love.” Chaucer and Shakespeare would not have used “love” in the sense that the modern world uses it, any more than they would have used the word “nice” in the modern sense. For the Christian, and let us not forget that Chaucer and Shakespeare were Christians, love is a choice and an action. It is emphatically not a feeling. Love is to choose to give ourselves to the other; it is to lay down our lives as a sacrificial offering for the beloved. It is inseparable from the Cross, which is the sacrificial signifier of the marriage of love and suffering.
This traditional understanding of love differs drastically and radically from the modern understanding of “love,” which can be defined as that which makes us feel good, especially in terms of the erotic. As Kris Kristofferson tells us:
Feelin’ good was easy Lord, when Bobby sang the blues, Feelin’ good was good enough for me, Good enough for me and Bobby McGee.
I love you because you make me feel good. When you do not. make me feel good any longer I will nott love you any longer; I will find someone else who makes me feel good. This “feel good” love was epitomized by the hippy movement, by Lennon’s mantra “All You Need is Love,” and by the so-called “summer of love,” with its narcissism finding fulfillment in narcotic-induced oblivion. The fact is that feeling good is not good enough for me or for you, or even for Bobby McGee. True love is never about feeling good but about being good.
In many respects, the word “nice” can be seen synonymously with modern “love.” It is ultimately about feelings, not about virtue. We need to be “nice” because we do not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We want other people to be “nice” because we do not want anyone to hurt our feelings. It is about not getting hurt. In other words, it is about the avoidance of suffering. This is the opposite of love, which is inseparable from the acceptance of suffering, and is therefore not “nice.” It is not nice because the avoidance of suffering leads to hell, like all roads of least resistance, and not simply to the hell in the hereafter but to the hell in the here and now.
True love is the love of the Cross that springs from the Love on the Cross. All talk of “being nice” in the absence of such love is “as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal,” as St. Paul tells us.
And if I should speak of liberty, equality and fraternity and have not love, I am nothing and will treat my neighbor as nothing, sacrificing him on the guillotine of my own ideology.
And if I should speak of “love” and have not love, I am nothing and will treat my own babies as nothing, sacrificing them in the name of my right to choose to feel good.
And if I should be nice and have not love, I am nothing and will treat all those who are not nice to me as enemies whose liberties must be crushed under foot.
Perhaps, after all, nice still means what it meant to our ancestors. It is stupid, wanton and ignorant. In fact, come to think of it, it is not nice at all!
Just be nice? “Bah, humbug!”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.