“Be nice.” “That’s not nice.” “Wouldn’t it be nice if people would just get along?”
Nice is almost as hard to define as the notoriously subjective “fair,” but I’m starting to think it’s far more dangerous. ‘Nice’ is applied to a standard of behavior that does not raise objection among those who are around to be offended; ‘nice’ is a sort of vague version of ‘polite,’ centered around everyone feeling good.
Most obviously, I’m sure anybody that’s stumbled on to this site has at least heard someone say “I’m not very religious, but I try to be a nice person– and that’s what’s really important, isn’t it?” Those of us who have argued theology have almost surely heard “Well, we disagree about that– but we agree that people should just be nice to each other, and that’s the important thing.”
Now, there is a very important point to the idea of being “nice” to people; Jesus said we are to love our neighbor. Those of you who have been around kids, let alone raised them, know that only being nice from the kid’s point of view is not being very loving to them at all. It makes you feel good, in the short run, but isn’t actually aimed at the good of the other person as a person. On a side note, the “love” mentioned in the Bible is generally agape, charitable/giving/sacrificial love– giving someone a thing they need because you have it to give.
The point about loving someone as a person is relevant; it’s not all about you– or, more commonly, how they make you feel– it’s about them. To paraphrase a quote I first came into contact through by another paraphrase, “in the absence of faith, we govern by nice. And ‘nice’ leads to the gas chamber.”
It’s not nice to let someone suffer great pain, even if there is no way to help them heal; it’s not nice to tell someone no, be it an alcoholic who wants another drink or your boyfriend; it’s not nice to have standards, because someone will always fall short– and it’s not nice to feel like you failed.
It’s not nice to let a child be born into a less than ideal situation, be it because the kid is believed to have a physical condition that will cause a young death, or be it because the parents are not set up to take care of them in the most ideal of manners. Unmarried, poor, have diseases themselves– or, God forbid, the poor child came about as a result of rape. It’s so much nicer to just…make sure they never have to deal with anything. Ever. And no-one else will have to feel bad, or have demands made on them, as a result of that child’s life if the life is ended before birth. (Or shortly after, depending.)
If the quality of their early life at home is reason enough for it to be nice to keep them from suffering, how about things like Down’s Syndrome? Since the unborn aren’t visible in general company, you can’t really be nice to them, so if some are lost in the search-and-destroy for unwanted syndromes then you’ll just have to be extra-nice to the woman that would have been their mother. Of course, if a woman should somehow give birth to a “defective” child, there’s always a lawsuit. Because it wasn’t nice to not tell the parents so they could…”fix” the problem.
I really hope anybody getting this far has the same sick lump in their gut that I do; when I first heard the phrase about “compassion leads to the gas chamber,’ it confused me– how could killing people be compassionate?
That was, obviously, before I was familiar with the idea of mercy killing. Long, long before I ever found out about the justifications the Nazis used to kill off the disabled– long before I ever heard that they had targeted the disabled, along with anyone else that was different or in the way.
The last century gave a pretty solid nose-to-toes example of the various ways that people could use various notions of nice— stripped of the moral recognition that some other human is a person, and thus has inherent dignity that needs to be respected. Even if they’re not close enough to you, physically or emotionally, for being nice.
From the opposite direction– isn’t there always room for over-correction that sends you right into a new mess?– there are things like the abuse of the ‘seamless garment‘ metaphor that hold objective evils– abortion, euthanasia, deadly human experimentation, contraception– on the same level as subjective, pragmatic applications of teachings. (War and the death penalty are famous examples.) We do need to respect the human dignity of others in more ways than just not killing them personally– the details of how to go about that are where it gets sticky. Possibly as a matter of how the world works– the poor we shall always have with us, after all.
This life and death see-sawing should make us watch our step carefully– the misapplication of the idea of being nice doesn’t mean that we should avoid being nice, it just means that we should keep it in its proper place; not the highest calling, but a worthy servant of loving others.
It will not always be easy to figure out how to best be loving to everyone.
On further consideration, I’d kind of like a phone call when someone actually has a situation where it is usually easy to figure out how to be loving to everyone. With a miracle that size, figuring out my phone number should be a snap.
The bigger stakes, the harder it is– I know that I cannot desire to end the life of another person, but I am aware that I may have to do so if that’s the only way to protect a third party. Sometimes, even if I think someone is justified in their actions, I’m going to have to resist them because the effects will be so bad.
I guess that’s why we’re all supposed to try to assume the best of others– charity in thought, as well as deed, with enough wisdom to keep from making bad assumptions that cause an even bigger problem.
When I manage that this side of heaven, I’ll give you a call.
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