About a week ago I read an excellent article by Penelope Blackmore in defense of being a little bit mean. It was excellent for a few reasons, but the main reason was that I disagreed with it profoundly while still finding her very, very convincing.
You can't change anything with niceness, Blackmore argued. Meanness, antagonism, conflict -- that's what drives the world forward. Improvement is built on critical thinking, and critical thinking is built on being critical. Sometimes meanly so. I'll admit I clicked on the article originally because it sounded like an attack on how I try to live my life. See basically, fundamentally, right down at the little pulsing core, I'm quite nice.
I was always told by my grandma that you should never use 'nice' to describe anything except a good cup of tea. The idea being, I guess, that it's a pretty insipid virtue. A sort of wishy washy meekness with an added dollop of apathy. And if you read Blackmore's article, that's definitely how she sees it.
"Out of all the qualities I can think of in a person," she wrote, "nice is the most disposable." My inner critic frowned, ready to deliver some scathing and pithy retort... and then withdrew, quietly mumbling 'Oh yeah, fair enough.' Probably because he's quite nice.
The hard reality is I can see Blackmore's point in a lot of ways. I'm sure there are many "fabulous and successful" people who don't give a crap what other people think of their opinion. That may, in fact, be why they're considered successful and fabulous -- it's hard to make a splash without first making waves. But what if you don't aspire to fabulousness or successfulness? What if you have smaller ambitions: empathy, consideration, conscientiousness, kindness or tolerance? Niceness may be a somewhat flimsy construction, but its roots go deep.
And the roots matter. If niceness is the frothy, harmless manifestation of more worthy virtues, at least it's evidence those virtues exist. A person who is nice is probably more likely to be patient or kind or empathetic than someone who is mean. In fact, if you dig down to the roots of meanness, you'll probably break your shovel on woody knots of indifference, ambition, callousness, arrogance. But even that isn't the real problem with Blackmore's article.
The problem is you can't just conflate niceness with submissiveness and meanness with self-confidence. You can be nice and forthright, just as you can be mean and spineless. In fact, outspoken bravado and crippling self-doubt tend to go hand in hand ('empty vessels' and all that jazz...)
Say we assume the worst about niceness: that it means simply agreeing with everybody all of the time and letting the universe walk all over you. (That's a pretty simplistic argument, but let's roll with it for a sec). And let's assume the worst of meanness (it's only fair): that it's a callous disregard for other people's feelings all for the sake of "getting ahead", as Blackmore put it. Now which one would you consider more "disposable"? The one that makes you happier, or the one that makes the world less unhappy?
I was on the train this morning, sitting in a little cul-de-sac of four seats, all facing one another. I got on first and took the window seat, and a middle-aged businessman took the seat across from me. At the next stop, two ladies got on and sat opposite each other. So far so good. The ladies spent the next 40 minutes chatting about this and that. Not loudly, just chatting. I was quite enjoying staring out of the window and eavesdropping on their conversation (I never said I was a saint), when eventually I glanced over at the middle-aged guy. He rolled his eyes at me.
"They don't run out of words, do they?" he said.
"I said they don't run out of words."
The two women naturally took offence to this, and a massive row kicked off on the crowded train. One of the ladies accused the man of being an a***hole, and he pulled out the playground big guns, replying that he "was there first". (Oh no he didn't!) Eventually, after much hurt feelings, yelling and finger pointing, the thing was over. The ladies stormed off.
Now, there was probably more than a teaspoon of misogyny involved in this incident, but let's be charitable and assume this guy is a little bit mean to every person that annoys him on trains. After all he was just being "critical", to use Blackmore's words. He was "appraising a situation, undoing it in [his] mind, and picking fault".
If he had been a little bit nice, instead of a little bit mean, he would have kept his opinion to himself. He would have thought: "Well this chatter is annoying, but is it worth being rude over? Probably not." Instead, he chose to be mean, ruining the women's day and making the rest of us very uncomfortable. But, like Blackmore said, he got results. He had a lovely, quiet train ride all the way to Melbourne.
But that's not the end of the story.
While all this was happening I sat there sheepish and awkward (I'm pretty crap at conflict -- it's a symptom of niceness), and I didn't say a word. That's bad. If I had been a little bit meaner, I would have stood up for these poor women and pointed out that "I was here first" is not a substantive argument when it comes to the quietness of trains. Or maybe something along the lines of "Please stop being so rude". But I didn't. I just went on being nice.
So where does that leave us? I think, with this: meanness, when not aligned with basic regard for people's feelings, is just being rude. Niceness, when not aligned with a regard for what is right, is cowardly. Neither is worthless, just as neither is wholly worthy. As world-shaking ideas go, that's pretty low on the Richter scale. But seriously, try to rationally argue for one without the other.
Blackmore was right: we do need a little bit of meanness in our lives. But she was wrong too. Niceness isn't disposable. It's not a weakness or a meekness. And, if you ask this guy's opinion (worth no more or less than any other), it's preferable to the alternative. Niceness may not often inspire, but it never offends. If it's a choice in this life between that guy on the train and a good cup of tea, I know what I'm choosing.