February 6, 2018, by Anya
In Defence of ‘Nice’
Maybe it was feedback on a story you wrote at school, perhaps it was a comment by a lecturer or perhaps even advice on a creative writing course, but I would hazard a guess that at some point you have been told not to call things ‘nice’. This is perfectly good writing advice; it’s a weak word, with no punch at all, and it conjures up images of other people’s grandparents.
The problem is that this sentiment is not limited to writing; the quality of niceness is seen as just as pallid and insipid as the word itself. In many ways this is understandable; self-professed ‘nice’ people are often anything but, and the requirement to ‘behave nicely’ is used as a stick to beat anyone who resists oppression. Your scary housemate ranting about Brexit at the breakfast table might have told you to ‘be nice’ when you questioned their logic. But niceness itself can be a radical concept, and one which is difficult to cultivate in a world in which ignoring suffering is the norm.
To be nice to yourself, for example, is a difficult task. Treating yourself nicely requires going against an enormous amount of social conditioning. As a student, you will be facing social and academic pressure to push yourself to the limits of your ability. In this environment, to be kind, compassionate, and gentle to yourself takes a great deal of mental strength and determination.
Similarly, to be nice to others can be tremendously hard when society encourages us to only feel responsible for ourselves, or at a stretch our nuclear families. It is difficult to empathise with people who are suffering greatly; it itself is an upsetting experience, and it is one we are often discouraged from having. But in this time of emerging global crises, it is something we must do.
Sometimes being nice can be removing yourself from upsetting situations, like your housemate’s breakfast ranting. Sometimes it can be intervening, arguing a case for someone who can’t, or donating money and time to causes you believe in. We cannot just be nice to those who have wealth and authority. If you treat everyone as worthy of compassion, respect, and gentleness, you will quickly find that you have adopted a radical view. It might inform your political decisions, and it will certainly affect the ways you behave day-to-day. So it may sound trite, but please, be nice.
As the poet Phillip Larkin said:
‘we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.’