The Sin of Nice

Recently, the proprietor of this blogspace, Mr. Funky Dung, commented
about the "nice things" I say here from time to time. Though I am reasonably
certain that Mr. Dung intended it as a compliment, perhaps in the vein of "nice
arse kicking" or "nice proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem," part
of me was quite taken aback [I meant it in the sense of "nice reasoning"
or "well thought out response" or "good points". – Funky]

You see, "nice" has been registered as a complaint leveled against
Evangelicaldom in recent years. And as one of the token Evangelicals in these blogparts,
I must confess that I take the criticism to be all too often valid. I am therefore
probably more sensitive to occurrences of this word that most folks, not having
been accused of the sin of nice, use in a completely innocent, even complimentary,
way. Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up

A quick query of "nice" yields a number definitions,
ranging from the morally beneficial ("Of good character or reputation",
"subtle" and "Done with delicacy and skill") to the morally
irrelevant ("Having a pleasant or attractive appearance") to the morally
bankrupt ("fussy" and "Wanton; profligate"). And though this
last denotation is considered obsolete, it is easy to see why "nice" has
had and continues to have such a wide spectrum of connotation. The word comes originally
from the Latin nescius, ignorant, by way of Middle English, where
"nice" meant "foolish". Add to this the innovative connotations
given to the word in recent idiom: "Nice [sigh]" meaning "this sucks"
and "That’s nice, dear" meaning "That’s thoroughly irrelevant, dear."
Certainly no one today wishes to be identified as wanton or fussy or sucking. And
in matters pertaining to moral and intellectual suasion, being merely pleasant,
merely attractive or mostly irrelevant would be likely considered downright insulting…
were it not true. Alas, it is just such pleasantness, attractiveness, and irrelevancy
that Evangelical subculture is so often (and often rightly) accused.

Father Gassalasca Jape, the 500 year-old Jesuit blogger over The New Pantagruel’s Japery, has had much to ridicule, err… say, over the past
few months regarding the Evangelical tendency to exalt "niceness" as a
virtue–especially as it might contend with real virtues such as reason, fidelity,
and truthfulness. Other than highly recommending his incisive rants as regular addition
to the astute reader’s intellectual and moral diet, I’ll make no attempt to replicate
here (much less make sense of) his subtle, yet profound, and often side-splittingly
humorous arguments.

G. K. Chesterton (he’d’ve made a great pope, no?) once wisely wrote that the "trouble
with a quarrel is that it so often interrupts a good argument" (or something
to that effect). And this is the crux of the matter to me. Many, probably most,
Evangelicals, at least the ones I rub shoulders with each Sunday, cannot well distinguish
between an argument and a quarrel. Birds of a feather quite often flock together.
And this is no less true of Evangelicals. We like to be with each other, i.e., with
people who, more or less, think and act like we do. But such a habit has one (among
many) deadening effects to the moral and intellectual life, viz., we begin to see
earnest disagreement as something dirty, something divisive, something to be avoided
even at great costs, something that is just… not nice. But isn’t earnest
disagreement a product of earnest searching? And isn’t earnest searching the highest
order of spiritual attainment–the highest application of the imago dei with
which we’ve all been imbued–that ability we all have to reason, to reason morally,
and to reason absolutely?

The highest irony of this Evangelical distaste for argument is that, while it derives
chiefly from a habit of liking to be around "folks just like us," it most
seriously degrades the very skill from which we take our name, viz. evangelism–spreading
the life-altering, soul-satisfying, good news of Jesus Christ. And if this is our
mission, which it is, and if that mission calls us to a land of long shadows, shades
of gray, and moral blindness, which it does, then a culturally induced inability
to distinguish between a quarrel and an argument, and the diverse moral and intellectual
maladies derived therefrom, will prove, I fear, to be an insurmountable handicap.

Let none of the foregoing diatribe be construed to mean that we as Evangelicals,
or we as Catholics, or we, ultimately, as Christians, might ignore the higher forms
of "niceness" when it connotes well-mannered or subtle or excellent. We
have every obligation to display such virtues. But remember that there is a broad
spectrum of ways to say "That’s incorrect"–and none of them are all that
nice. Sometimes, however rare, conditions in the ongoing battle to take captive
every thought and make it obedient to the Law of Christ warrant use of the much
stronger synonym: "That’s a load of crap!" [Pardon the edit
here, Steve, but I try to keep the language pretty tame in my posts. – Funky]
use the weapon with caution, but let’s not remove it from the collective arsenal.
And by all means make sure its use is backed up with the truth, that greatest weapon
of all, however nice or not-so-nice that truth may be.

Comments 5

  1. Steve N wrote:

    Ideally, in most circumstances we can do both. But I would argue that even tact is not the same as nice-ness. I would put tact more in there with diplomatic skill, using the right level of forcefulness in the right situation at the right time. This does not necessarily exclude not-to-nice-ness.

    I think of Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” as one of those tactful (but not really that nice) things to say. Of course, whether this had anything in particular to do with the USSR’s demise is quite debatable, but a completely different thing…

    I would say as a corollary to Chesterton that quarrels, in fact, avoid the argument, and this is the worst part of it.


    Posted 12 Dec 2004 at 1:38 am
  2. h2 wrote:

    We do often place a higher premium on tact than we do on truth.

    Unfortunately, those who seem capable of civil disagreement (argument-like, not quarrel-like) appear to be the minority, and all to often we avoid the legitimate arguments for fear of the quarrels.

    Posted 10 Dec 2004 at 8:20 am
  3. Funky Dung wrote:


    As I reflect on the two years that have passed since the writing of this post, I can’t help but wonder if sometimes, perhaps even often, you give the impression of quarreling when you mean to be arguing. Your presentation can be a bit caustic. 😉

    Posted 12 Jan 2007 at 8:10 am
  4. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    An argument is only profitable or edifying among people who are amenable to being convinced of the truth. For those who are not, stronger medicine is required. It is nevertheless charitable to deliver that medicine.

    Posted 12 Jan 2007 at 9:08 am
  5. Funky Dung wrote:

    Perhaps, but there’s something to be said for good bedside manners. 😉

    Posted 12 Jan 2007 at 10:41 am

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