I’ve been thinking about the issue of niceness a lot recently, for three reasons. Two are books.
1. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson.
There are several striking scenes in this book in which the author interviews psychopaths who are unrelentingly nice — psychopaths who have committed atrocities and war crimes.
It seems that being nice is actually easier if you don’t really care about other people at all, because niceness can be achieved according to relatively simple formulae — formulae that are hard to use sincerely if you do care about other people.
2. Mr. Nice , a biography of Howard Marks.
Almost everyone buys that Howard Marks is a great guy.
Why? Because he’s nice.
It’s in his name, or at least in his nickname, how could you argue with that?!
Reading his book, though, I’m not sure why.
He admits to being the cause, directly or indirectly, of death, famine and war. That’s three of the four horsemen and I’m only about halfway through the book. I assume pestilence will pop up at some point.
He has funded incredibly violent terrorists, encouraged farmers to drop much-needed food crops for cash crops (in a variation on a tragedy of the commons scenario), made himself rich and not paid a penny in tax. He doesn’t give a shit about suicides, expressing the barest flicker of regret only about one of two suicides he writes about (this is tinged with a hint of “You stupid arsehole, why did you go and make me look bad?”, so I’m not sure if this flicker of regret counts).
I might be convinced by the rest of the book, but I sincerely doubt it.
3. Nice is reliant on Norms.
This means that those who are abnormal (abnormal for whatever your norms are, I mean) are, by definition, not nice. Niceness makes no allowance for the not-nice.
Two examples cropped up lately.
The first was a smug, overbearing fellow who insisted everybody play along with his stupid Rules Of Fun, and actually got a little violent when a woman present objected to his disregard for her right to make decisions.
The second, more serious one, was when a friend-of-a-friend revealed that they were, despite being a very nice person, intolerant of a particular group. This caused a great deal of very real pain.
As far as I can tell, being nice requires nothing more than adhering to social norms at all times. This can be either good or bad.
By contrast, to achieve any change in a community, norms must be challenged. To achieve a significant change for the better, or to ‘do good’, by the same token, norms must be challenged.
There’s a reason it’s “nice ‘n’ easy”, and not “good ‘n’ easy”.