The Sunday Edition

Too much 'niceness' is bad for critical thinking — Michael's essay

We live in the age of nice. Niceness is everywhere. From the first "have a nice day" to the last "that's nice." The word follows us like a hungry cat.
Host Michael Enright examines the consequences of living in an age where being nice is a constant requirement. (Shutterstock)

I once had a city editor who could terrify a mad dog. 

His very demeanour was intimidating. When he stared at you for longer than five seconds, you knew you were in trouble.

He liked to comment in writing on stories you had written.

He sent me one that read: "My job compelled me to read the lede on your story; nothing can get me to read the rest of it."

Another time he wrote: "Mr. Enright, the typewriter repair guy is coming around. Have him put a comma key on yours."

He once suspended the most prolific writer on staff for non-production. Another time he wrote publicly that Newfoundland was one big Newfie joke.

He once yelled at me for going out for lunch: "What would have happened if Jesus Christ came riding up York Street on a horse and you were out to lunch?"

I didn't have the nerve to tell him to get a photographer.

In short, he was not a nice man. He was the annoying product of a newspaper culture that valued so-called toughness over collegiality.

He would never have fit in today's culture. He would be as out of place as an Orangeman with a Republican flag in a St. Pat's Day parade.

He would be condemned as a workplace harasser and probably be run out of town instantly. And with reason.

We live in the age of nice. Niceness is everywhere. From the first "have a nice day" to the last "that's nice." The word follows us like a hungry cat.

Its cousins "fine" and "super nice" are almost as ubiquitous.

Please don't misunderstand: acting in a nice way to a colleague, a friend, a family member is to act with good manners, goodwill and friendship.

It is not wimpish. It is praiseworthy. 

My nagging concern is that there is a bit too much nice around these days.

We are expected to be nice in all our behaviour.

Beyond that, nice is applied to all kinds of activities that are far from nice.

For instance, I've heard people at a funeral talk about how nice the service was. Or how nice the eulogy was.

The poor man drowned in a vat of mozzarella cheese and all we can say about his closing ceremony was nice?

Not "moving." Not "compelling." But nice?

We are letting nice get too close to our critical thinking about things, and a natural ongoing skepticism about those things.

Often it is used to cover incompetence. "Ralph's thick as two planks, but he's very nice."

It's almost as if a force field of nice can protect us from some of the harsher realities of life.

In a recent issue of Harper's, writer Christian Lorentzen examines how literary criticism has been infected with the nice virus.

"The basic imperatives of the book review — analysis and evaluation — are being abandoned in favour of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that."

He then asks a pertinent question: "What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?"

Some decades ago, criticism was full-blooded, angry, sometimes cruel. 

Theatre and film critic John Simon was called the "most poisonous pen on Broadway." He once called Kathleen Turner "a braying mantis."

In this country, the late Nathan Cohen, theatre critic of the Toronto Star, was considered an absolute ogre by some actors and directors.

But he helped Canadian theatre grow and thrive.

Edmund Wilson wrote of Agatha Christie's sixth novel; "Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?"

Others, like Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwicke, worried about the "mush of concession" much as Christian Lorentzen worries about  "journalists drunk on the gush."

What all these people had in common was the urgent mission to improve the craft, to act on behalf of the art and the people who take it seriously — and if that meant negative, even hurtful criticism, so be it.

Sometimes I think we are being niced to death.

And sometimes being nice is not nice in the long run at all.