Be Nice

Be nice. 

Oh, how I hate that phrase. Whenever someone makes that request (which is more of a demand), they are establishing an asymmetrical expectation of who is entitled to offend and who has to suck it up and live with the offense. 

In my town of Ridgefield, we have an organization whose primary mission is to encourage everyone to be nice to each other. These are well-intentioned, good-hearted people. These are my neighbors and my friends. But they are wrong. Very, very wrong. A recent episode in our town highlights just how easily civility can become a truncheon to stifle and punish voices of opposition. 

At a recent meeting of Ridgefield’s Economic Development Commission,  members discussed who should be honored with a cultural district award the commission was considering. (The town of Ridgefield is the first municipality in the state to have a designated cultural district.) One member proposed selecting Cass Gilbert, a 19th century architect who designed and donated a fountain which has become an iconic symbol within our town. Another member of the commission offered a rebuttal, suggesting that perhaps the commission shouldn’t reflexively decide to choose “an old white guy” for the award. 

Well, you would think that this person had called someone’s baby “ugly.” The responses were almost comical in their effortless floatation over the top. The local newspaper and social media channels were flooded with breathless criticism and condemnation.  “How dare she say such a thing??” There were demands that she apologize for her rudeness and calls for her resignation.  Even the First Selectman announced, “We will not tolerate those kinds of statements being made in public meetings.” Apparently, in Ridgefield the First Amendment only applies when you’re polite, or when people agree with your opinion. 

The offending commissioner has been duly chastened and has apologized. She probably will keep her comments to herself from now on. And that makes me incredibly angry. And sad. 

Being nice certainly sounds like a virtuous standard to which every one of us should aspire. But “Be Nice” is not the golden rule. Instead, it is a lop-sided form of social and political oppression, a way to ensure that the status quo is preserved. Older politicians (like our president) and older folks in general, yearn nostalgically for the days when people who disagreed were civil to each other, and after fighting on the floor of the Senate, adversaries went out for a drink together. 

Sure. That’s how they remember it. I remember it a little differently, as a time when Black people were told you would get a lot further in life if you just stopped protesting all the time, if you weren’t so angry all the time. Women were told to stay home, be quiet and take whatever their husbands dished out. Basically, if you weren’t a privileged white male, “be nice” meant be quiet and take it. I have no illusions of nostalgia for those times. 

In his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reserved his most stinging criticism for his “moderate” allies who prefer “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”  He decried the paternalism of those who felt entitled to dictate when and how Dr. King should call for his own freedom. 

We need more voices like those of this Ridgefield Commissioner, not less. We need more people questioning and challenging calcified opinions and practices. Making some people uncomfortable is often the only way to tell that you have said something worth hearing. All my life, people never hesitated making me feel uncomfortable. I’m just trying to return the favor.   

A news reporter once asked civil rights activist Dick Gregory why he chose to be an agitator. Gregory’s response was, “You have to have agitators. This country can never be clean without agitators. The next time you do your laundry, take the agitator out of the washing machine and see what you get. You get a bunch of wet, dirty clothes. Without the agitator, nothing comes clean.”

And so, I too aspire to lead a life of constant agitation. 

To be clear, I am absolutely not trying to justify hate speech, which is something entirely different. Any honest and reasonable person knows the difference. I seek to challenge and deflate prejudice and hatred, not promote it.   

People today bemoan the fact that our country “has never been more divided.” My response to this pronouncement is to ask, “Do you mean as opposed to the time when separating people in every public place according to the color of their skin was actually the law of the land? We weren’t divided then?”Americans never got all that upset when all that hatred and division was directed at the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. But now that these tensions are directed at each other, it’s a very big deal. 

In another passage from “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote about the importance of tension to achieving justice. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension,” King wrote, “but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”  

We should not fear that form of tension. We should fear its absence. Contrary voices, challenging, sometimes angry voices, mean that you and I are free to speak our minds and our hearts.

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