The Fault of Being Nice
December 2004By Mitchell Kalpakgian
Mitchell Kalpakgian, who taught at the college level for 35 years at Simpson, Christendom, and Magdalen Colleges, is currently a teacher and Academic Dean at Mt. Royal Academy in Sunapee, New Hampshire. He is author of The Marvelous in Fielding's Novels (University of America Press), The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature (Neumann Press), and the newly released An Armenian Family Reunion (Neumann Press).
In casual conversation the word "nice" is often used as a synonym for "good," as when someone compliments a man for being "a nice guy." But a world of difference separates the bland quality of being "nice" from the Christian virtue of charity and the noble virtue of justice. While it is relatively easy to be "nice," charity and justice are exacting and demanding. Anyone can be nice -- that is, easygoing, non-threatening, non-judgmental, and tolerant. A nice person never criticizes or judges; a nice person avoids confrontations and arguments; a nice person does anything and everything to keep peace and make life comfortable for everyone. He hears no evil and sees no evil. A nice person never insists on virtue or ever questions the prevalent practices and trends of the day. A nice person never feels outraged at shameless behavior or shocking injustice. While being nice easily leads to popularity and respectability and never creates enemies, it does not inspire admiration, cultivate heroism, or evoke respect.
In Flannery O'Connor's short story "Revelation," Mrs. Turpin prides herself on being a respectable woman, a God-fearing Christian, and of course an exceptionally nice person with a good disposition -- quite unlike the other people waiting in the doctor's office whom she categorizes as "niggers" or "white trash." Mrs. Turpin is nice because she imagines that her warm congeniality, friendly conversation, and happy disposition distinguish her from all the boors in the waiting room. In her eyes, the proof of her niceness is the affability and good will she demonstrates to her black servants: "When they come in the morning, I run out and I say, Hi yawl this morning?' and when Claud drives them off to the field I just wave to beat the band and they just wave back . And when they come in from the field, I run out with a bucket of icewater." These insincere, mechanical gestures conceal Mrs. Turpin's contempt for those outside her social class. Mrs. Turpin's niceness is self-serving, a feeble imitation of love of neighbor which is really intended to ingratiate her with her employees, establish a favorable reputation, and earn the compliments of others.
In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain also satirizes niceness. When Huck becomes acquainted with the genteel Grangerford family, he is impressed with their civility: "Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family." Clean-shaven and handsomely dressed in "a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it," Colonel Grangerford is always affable, pleasant, and courteous. The opposite of Huck's coarse, crude, and drunken father, Grangerford smiles, uses soft-spoken tones, and practices exquisite manners. In Huck's eyes, "He was as kind as he could be," and "he was sunshine most always -- I mean he made it seem like good weather." However, when Huck attends church with the Grangerfords and notices the guns between their knees, the aura of niceness is soon dispelled. The ancient feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons erupts when Sophia Grangerford elopes to marry Harney Sherpherdson -- a violence that unleashes the destructive hatred between the two families that culminates in several deaths, including Huck's dear friend Buck. Shocked, disgusted, and heartbroken, Huck leaves the scene of the murders and runs for his raft: "It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree . I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night, to see such things." This episode exposes the hollowness of niceness, the sham of manners without morals, the façade of sweetness and light concealing cruelty and revenge. While the Grangerfords embody respectability in dress, speech, and etiquette, and impress Huck as "a mighty nice family" living in "a mighty nice house" that reflects culture and refinement (displaying a family Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, and portraits of Washington and Lafayette), Huck uncovers their hypocrisy. The family that goes to church and hears a sermon on brotherly love begins shooting and killing on the same Sunday afternoon. Niceness, then, is not a synonym for either charity or honesty, and it is not a cardinal or theological virtue. People who appear respectable, amicable, civil, or educated may assume that these qualities amount to real goodness, but the "niceness" of Mrs. Turpin and the Grangerfords borders on sweetness and sentimentality rather than Christian charity or magnanimity.
Huck Finn again encounters the vapid nature of niceness when the two scoundrels of the novel, the Duke and the Dauphin, pose as the loving brothers of the deceased Peter Wilks. They have supposedly arrived from England to mourn their loss and console their young, grief-stricken nieces. Of course they pretend to be nice men as they scheme to cheat the sisters of their inheritance. Shaking hands, sobbing, hugging, kissing, and praying, the two con men convince nearly everyone of their profound grief with their maudlin display of emotion -- "all full of tears and flapdoodle" and "all that soul-butter and hogwash," as Huck remarks. When Dr. Robinson speaks the truth and exposes the Duke and Dauphin as frauds, liars, and "regular dead-beats" with the worst English accents he has ever heard, he is accused of not being nice.
Thus, being nice often means pretending civility, tolerating lies, and allowing injustice. Those who do speak the truth are criticized for poor manners and for a lack of sensitivity.
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