It might be difficult to believe in the wake of the recent election, but if there is a guiding principle to today’s left-leaning bourgeoisie, it is niceness. The votes of this group depend largely on which party is seen as being nicer to those most in need. Being nice to minorities, women, the disabled, gay people, poor people and illegal immigrants is of paramount importance.
But what if niceness is not just vague but destructive? What if niceness is just an excuse for selfishness? What if being nice to groups seen as marginalized is actually hurting them?
These thoughts arise from an argument made by Peter Augustine Lawler, a professor of government at Berry College, in the new edition of National Affairs. Lawler sees the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton contest as in large part a tale of the brutish against the nice. Many a Clinton voter would enthusiastically agree. But while the dangers of brutish thinking are obvious, Lawler points out that there is also good reason for niceness to be rejected by Americans in large parts of the country.
Niceness isn’t really a virtue, Lawler says. It’s more of a cop-out, a moral shrug. “A nice person won’t fight for you,” he points out. “A nice person isn’t animated by love or honor or God. Niceness, if you think about it, is the most selfish of virtues, one, as Tocqueville noticed, rooted in a deep indifference to the well-being of others.” Trump’s lack of niceness, so horrifying to Clinton voters, registered to his acolytes as a willingness to fight for what’s good, particularly American jobs and American culture.
Niceness is paradoxically more selfish than undisguised selfishness to Lawler, because an openly selfish person at least signals to others what his intentions are. Niceness, however, means, “I let you do—and even affirm—whatever you do, because I don’t care what you do . . . Niceness, as Allan Bloom noticed, is the quality connected with flatness of soul.” Lawler goes on to remark that in an increasingly nice world, in which faking niceness becomes an important job skill, soldiers and police officers become part of the counterculture. Men, especially white men, especially working-class white men, are the ones who do the not-nice jobs in our country, are comfortable with brutishness, and see the global economy as a fierce struggle between “them” (the Chinese who are stealing our jobs, the Mexicans who are undercutting us on wages) and us.
The nice people, cocooned in wealthy coastal zip codes and doing service work that doesn’t require getting your hands dirty, don’t see any of this, but they’re happy to leave the struggling classes to their fates. For the upper echelons of society, this wasn’t always so; not long ago, in Britain for instance, the well-heeled felt a duty to lead, to provide cultural guidance. These were the aristocrats, and they ran the institutions—the church, the BBC—that were beacons for the aspirational. The bourgeoisie worked as one strongly to discourage socially destructive behavior such as raising children outside wedlock, drug or alcohol abuse, or idleness. Those who couldn’t speak proper English were encouraged to do so.
Today, in Britain as in America, the nice-ocracy simply shrugs as the struggling classes make terrible decisions. Who are we to impose our values on others, ask the nice-ocrats? Isn’t this or that regional patois just as good as standard English? If children in the poorer zip codes are getting a terrible education, the nice-ocrats don’t make a fuss. People are intelligent in their own ways, say the nice-ocrats. If testing doesn’t support this, we should cast doubt on the tests. Anyway, if the not-so-gifted people raise not-so-gifted children, there won’t be additional competition for those few spots on the best campuses. At Dartmouth, Yale and Princeton, there are more students from the top one-percent of the income scale than the bottom 60 percent. The nice-ocracy smiles and says, “Yes, but we voted for slightly higher taxes last time. Surely the poor unfortunates will see a bump in their welfare checks soon. Now excuse me, I have to take Emmett to his viola lesson and then his SAT tutor.”
Not-nice Trump voters sometimes speak dismissively of immigrants and others who refuse to learn English; nice Clinton voters are shocked that anyone could hold such cruel views. It isn’t nice to point out that some people don’t have very good command of grammar. Even teachers no longer make it a priority to teach others how to speak properly, as the English physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple points out in his 2008 book, Not With a Bang but a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline. To the nice people, “attempts to foist alleged grammatical ‘correctness’ on native speakers of an ‘incorrect’ dialect are nothing but the unacknowledged and oppressive exercise of social control—the means by which the elites deprive whole social classes and people of self-esteem.” Moreover, all forms of expression are equally valid, says the nice-ocrat, citing the work of the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, whose influential 1994 book, The Language Instinct, is a key text in niceness doctrine. So refusing to teach grammar is “both in accord with a correct understanding of the nature of language and is politically generous.” If people who can’t speak properly find themselves subsequently accruing little value in today’s job market, the nice-ocrat simply shrugs again.
Today’s elites, as Charles Murray has noted in his book, Coming Apart, a prescient study of the white working class from 2012, refuse to preach what they practice. They are well aware of the pro-social behavior that leads to success, but are too nice to encourage others to follow their lead. Indeed, they recoil in horror from the prospect of being thought “judgmental” toward others.
Dalrymple, who was born in 1949, is old enough to remember a time when the upper classes and the educational establishment encouraged the lower classes to acquire virtue. The lower classes took the challenge seriously. “Many ordinary English workingmen, who led lives of sometimes numbing toil and financial hardship, nevertheless devoted much of their spare time and tiny wages improving their lives by strenuous reading of good literature, of whose transcendent value they had no doubt,” he recalls. Fast forward to Pinker, who insists that the way the uneducated talk is just fine: he says we should ignore “trifling differences between the dialect of the mainstream and the dialect of other groups” so as not to be allied with the “hobgoblins of the schoolmarm.” Niceness means accepting people the way they are. And it means neglecting to motivate them to be what they might be.