Report from the Empire of Nice
by Daniel A. Kaufman
The experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker, says that we are getting nicer. Way nicer. We kill and rape each other much less than we used to. (The “rape culture” folks apparently didn’t get the memo.) We’re less racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, sizeist, ageist, and ableist. (We’re just less -ist in general.) We don’t have comedians like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay anymore. Morton Downey Jr. is a dim, blurry memory. You get the drift.
Certainly, nice is the thing, today. Or at least, that’s what we’re all telling each other. Lots of mutual – and self — congratulation going on, for sure. A big, Kumbaya-style hug between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, with the meanie Gen-Xers crushed between them and forgotten. But, I’m skeptical.
For one thing, the nice-narrative conflicts with another popular story, namely, that we are suffering unprecedented levels of depression, worldwide. Yes, I know, some of the increase can be explained by a growing and aging population – old people tend to be more depressed – but regardless, there is something strange about being told that we are the nicest we’ve ever been … and everybody’s miserable. For another, I really wonder about the concept of niceness in play here. There seems to be some notion that less violence or overt, slur-style-meanness translates into greater niceness. But, does it? Is punching someone meaner than frivolously suing him? Or Twitter-ruining him? Overall, the punch does less harm and for a much shorter time. I’d certainly prefer it – getting punched that is. Is calling someone an “asshole” or a “pussy” worse than passively-aggressively tormenting him? I don’t think so. Again, I’d much rather have the former done to me than the latter, but of course some (of a masochistic bent) might disagree.
One contrary thought, then, is that the turn towards niceness involves nothing more than preferring one modality of meanness over another. If we punch fewer people, but frivolously sue each other left and right, we’ve certainly become less violent, but hardly nicer. We just do meanness differently. And if we call people fewer mean names, but have turned into a bunch of passive-aggressive borderline cases, we’re certainly less overtly mean, but it would be very odd to say that we had become nicer.
This idea that the Empire of Nice is really just a cover for a reconfiguration of the modalities of meanness also makes me wonder whether one might read it as simply rearranging the acceptable targets of meanness. In 1976, if two junior-high school boys had a dispute, they’d have settled it in a schoolyard punch-up. This method of conflict resolution certainly favored the physically aggressive and strong and typically, this meant the greaser kid, whose dad was the local garbage man, over the scrawny science kid, whose dad was a professor or engineer. Today, of course, punch-ups are subject to zero-tolerance policies and will get you arrested, and student conflicts are swiftly dispatched to administrative, talk-focused conflict resolution infrastructures. Clearly, this advantages the smart, the articulate, and the overall linguistically adroit which, more often than not, means the wealthier of the disputing parties. Does the new regime really show that we are nicer, then, or does it simply reflect the fact that we’ve taken the side of the upper-middle-class kid over that of the garbage man’s kid? (Proverbially speaking, of course.)
But even taking ‘nice’ on the terms they’d like us to, the residents of the Empire of Nice seem to like a lot of not-nice things. Exploitation, which was once a hyper niche-market brand of cinema – and which is characterized, most generally, as entertainment, in which the audience gleefully revels in the misery of others – is now mainstream, wildly popular, in fact, in the form of Reality TV. We may not call people “fatsos” or “lardasses” anymore, but boy, do we love watching the socio-cultural, obesity-drenched car wreck that is “Honey Boo-Boo.” We may enforce zero-tolerance policies against punching anyone, but we adore watching people punch, kick, and claw each other into bloody pulps, on UFC. (Fuck that pussy-assed boxing shit.) And I haven’t even scratched the surface – watching people with their heads in jars, having centipedes and cockroaches poured over their faces (Fear Factor) … joyfully anticipating the crushed, disappointed, embarrassed face of the next contestant to be given the chop (The Weakest Link) … laughing at (not with) the lewd and boorish antics of a bunch of posturing, developmentally-challenged Guidos (Jersey Shore) … or marveling at tweaking, rictus-grinning Charlie Sheen winning on Good Morning America — these are not the sorts of thing that nice people like (something Bret Easton Ellis observed, to devastating effect, in a featured article in Newsweek, “Charlie Sheen is Winning”).
Of course, the whole thing is a ridiculous joke to begin with; a by-now tedious example of the perils of pop-science. If it wasn’t bad enough that someone could think that the question of whether we are becoming better, as a people, or whether history has a clear, morally positive direction could be answered by counting how many people got killed or raped or were punched or called bad names before the Industrial Revolution and after, the numbers, even if relevant, don’t tell the tale. The numbers of war-dead and dead-by-totalitarian-fuck-states in the 20th Century are up in the hundreds of millions. One has to take at least a half a millennium of pre-modern history, adjusted for population, to get anything approaching the carnage that we managed to unleash in one measly century. (And that doesn’t even consider all the qualitative distinctions we might want to make, between modern and pre-modern forms of human beastliness – as Hannah Arendt once observed, “certain categories of men today are far worse off than any slave or serf ever was.”) It might be prudent not to sing the praises of the Empire of Nice too soon. We might want to wait a few more hundred years, before declaring victory. Because if they’re anything like the last one hundred, Steven Pinker’s descendants (the Pinkies?) might have to reconsider the master’s underlying thesis.
Such hesitation is unlikely, however, and I expect the Empire of Nice to continue merrily on its rose-bricked road. But for me?
I miss Sam Kinison.
Some Relevant Sources
Hannah Arendt, “The Ivory Tower of Common Sense” (1946).