(Trigger warning: Starts light, ends with discussion of rape.)

When I was a child growing up in England, my mother pointed out to me that the word “nice” is an insult there.


“How was the party?”
“It was… nice.”

That means the party was a dull affair, completely devoid of anything memorable. While no one was poisoned or defenestrated, no one truly enjoyed themselves either.

The British character is to generally speak no ill of anything; see this Language Log entry for further examples, where it explicitly defines “quite good” as “a bit disappointing.”

Exhibit 2 is this food item:

a photograph of a 'Nice biscuit'

This is a Nice biscuit (which, since it’s named after the French city, should be pronounced as “niece,” but when I was a boy we always pronounced it to rhyme with “ice”). It’s not terrible, but, as Jasper Fforde wrote (on the page where I borrowed that picture from):

…the Nice biscuit is important as it’s the threshold biscuit. Everything above is edible and quite nice, and everything below it is animal feed. It’s the last biscuit that you’ll eat on a tray, and without that mean smattering of sugar, exotic stippled edge and ‘Nice’ logo, it actually would be animal feed.

Of all the biscuits (which is to say, cookies) available, and given a limited number of calories one can consume in a day, why would one eat a biscuit that was only a hairline above nasty, instead of something amazing like a lemon savannah, little schoolboy, or a Jaffa cake?

Thirdly, consider this horrific story from the Seattle Times of 50-year-old Mark W. Mullan, an apparent third-strike DUI offender, who drove his pickup into a crowd of pedestrians, killing two and injuring many. According to his sister-in-law in that story, Mullan is a kids’ baseball coach, and “a nice guy.”

That phrase jumped out at me in that story because lately I’ve been seeing quite a bit about not-so-nice-guys who act nice. There’s a long history of this kind of “But he’s a nice guy!” defense. We seem to expect that people who can perform genuinely cruel or evil acts should act rudely and selfishly. (It’s almost a cliché.)

And more recently, there are Nice Guys, the ones who don’t get dates and are constantly told that they’re good “friend” material, and who end up getting twisted up about it. Two well-articulated examples:

David Futrelle: “One reason so-called Nice Guys™ seem so creepy to so many people is that it’s easy to see the rage and the bitterness and the weird sort of self-hating entitlement that is so often lurking underneath – and sometimes not that far underneath – the ‘nice guy’ exterior.” (The “Nice Guy” Who Raped and Strangled a Young Irish Woman)

Chelsea Fagan: “But what makes these Nice Guys so quick to subvert that pain of unrequited love — whether from one individual or from a thousand societal directions — into a palpable hatred for women?” (The Difference Between A Nice Guy And A “Nice Guy”)

The recent Steubenville rape case (and the revolting media coverage that underplayed the suffering of the rape victim and overplayed the ruined lives of the perpetrators) was an inspiration for two remarkable essays by women I follow on FriendFeed. Both essays are important to read:

Jenica: “Young American women are taught to live in fear, to live in a state of heightened anxiety, because they are inherently victims. Because if it happens — if you’re sexually assaulted — you’ll be expected to explain all the ways that you did everything you could to prevent it, and if you didn’t do all of those things, well, then. You bear responsibility for what happened to you, even though you are not the one who made the choice to attack another human being. Even though you were the one who was attacked.” (How about we not put all the responsibility for rape on women?)

Monique Judge: “Women are made responsible for the actions of men who ‘just couldn’t control
themselves’ in the face of the temptress in front of them. We teach women things that they should do to prevent rape, but do we teach our men not to rape? (Rape Culture — see also the published column, “Woman fired for speaking up against sexism“)

I’m speaking now to fellow men: It’s time to put a stop to condoning sexism. It’s time to stop doing nothing. It’s time to educate our sons on proper values and ways of treating women, to make it impossible for them to be the kind of man who would assault or rape. It’s time to stop being nice.

“Nice” is far from good enough. Nice is what got us into turning the other way, not speaking up, when we saw behavior that was questionable. To avoid confrontation, we let other men be jackasses at technical conferences. We wrung our hands over perpetrators who deserve no mercy and no sorrow.

I have not ever aspired to be “a nice guy.” Instead, I work to be a good man.

And I want every man to do the same.

2 Responses to “Nice-ism”

  1. Marli Says:

    Thank you for writing this. As a woman my arguments (with men) against this kind of thinking are generally scornfully dismissed. As a victim of multiple sexual molestations by strangers (most while I was a juvenile) and one date rape (this was how I “lost my virginity” at the age of 15), I have trouble with the statements that so often surround report of a rape or molestation. I never told anyone about any of the incidents while I was a child. I didn’t scream for help the times I was molested as a child because I was so terrified I could barely breathe and my throat seized up – it was not possible to scream or even speak. When I was raped I didn’t fight because he was so much bigger and stronger than me and there was no one around. I felt there was nothing I could do at that point to stop what was happening and I did not want to be beaten as well. I just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. The one time I was molested (by a stranger, in public) as an adult, was at a science-fiction convention. Where I was on staff and knew all the guys working convention security personally. I ran to the first con security guy I spotted and asked him to contact the hotel security to detain the men who molested me. He dithered then called the security captain. Who showed up and suggested that the problem was the way I was dressed (I was completely covered from the neck down, but my hall costume was form-fitting). I was so angry because my main concern was for all the younger girls at the con who probably wouldn’t be able to shake it off the way I had, the way I had not been able to when I was younger. Eventually hotel security was notified and leapt into quick action trying to locate my assailants – who had by now left the hotel property. To this day it is really hard for me to listen to any of the “reasonable” arguments about how we don’t have a rape culture, sexual assault isn’t that common, or how the victim invited the assault or didn’t “fight hard enough”. And, I am ashamed to acknowledge, men are not the only ones who perpetuate this thinking. And women are not the only ones who suffer for it. Males can also be sexually assaulted and those victims are not taken seriously enough either. Men trying to forge new relationships with women are often treated with suspicion even if their intentions and conduct are fine, because it is hard to tell at a glance who the good men are. I firmly believe that the people making excuses for rape, molestation, sexual objectification of women, etc. have *ever* truly been put in fear for their safety, or they couldn’t possibly be so dismissive of the problem. And it shatters my heart how these “good and moral” people cling so obsessively to that lack of empathy and feel justified in doing so.

  2. Stephen Says:

    Bravo, Marli. Thank you for this comment.

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