You're not good you're not bad you're just nice
I'm not good I'm not bad I'm just right
I'm the witch
You're the world."
-- the Witch, from the musical "Into the Woods"
This stanza comes while the giant's wife is on a rampage through the town in "Into the Woods". She is hunting for Jack, who killed her husband. The witch wants to give Jack to her so she'll leave the rest of them alone. The townspeople refuse.
It's a powerful stanza, made more powerful by being delivered by the very talented Bernadette Peters. I first heard it in 1991; it is the first time I clearly remember hearing niceness disparaged.
"Nice" is not "doing the right thing". "Nice" is being pleasant and agreeable toward the people who are around you. Sacrificing your neighbor to the giantess is not nice, even if he did respond to her husband's threat to kill him by robbing her house and killing her husband.
On the other hand, is it the right thing to do, either?
Since then, decrying "niceness" has felt like a thinkpiece staple. Nice is getting along with people even when they're wrong. Nice is caving to peer pressure. Nice lacks self-confidence. Nice is for children. "Nice guys" aren't nice at all, they're entitled and manipulative. Nice is weak. "Nice", as a label, is an insult.
Nice is feminine-coded.
"Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice".
I aspire to kindness. "Kind" is not the same as "nice". Kindness is warmth, friendship, and compassion. Nice is pleasant and agreeable. Nice is Kindness's maligned younger cousin, accused of superficiality and fakery. Kindness can be cruel, but niceness never can.
I have long regarded this as an important distinction. When I talk about my aspirations, I am careful to say "kind" and not "nice". But as I get older, the distinction feels increasingly like splitting hairs.
The truth is, I don't think it is a kindness to tell a young artist "it's too hard to make a living in art, you're not that good and probably never will be, just focus on getting a regular job instead." It is not kindness to give unsolicited criticism to an author of their work, no matter how weak it is or how much I dislike it. Perhaps the former would be happier if they had a steady job and no dreams. Perhaps the latter would write better books with my advice.
Perhaps it's not my call to make.
I write fantasy novels and I can spin a million hypotheticals where the "right thing" is cruel or harsh or alienating. But in my actual life, interacting with actual people, I am hard pressed to think of a time where a situation was improved because someone decided to be mean. It's happened, I'm sure. I just don't remember it.
I do remember that one woman I worked with as a teaching assistant, who told me that all my co-workers hated me and wanted me to stop talking to them because I was clueless and rude, but they wouldn't tell me so because it wasn't "nice".
I am sure she thought she was doing the right thing.
I have many regrets in my life, but "I was too nice" has never been one of them. This is no doubt in part because niceness has never come easily to me. I don't mean to deride anyone who feels that they need to be less nice because people take advantage of them. I'm not going to say you're wrong if you think you have to take a stand against evil even if that means being unkind to some people doing the wrong thing. You do what you have to do.
I just think I'm done with making fun of niceness. Being pleasant and agreeable is hard work, too, and it makes the lives of the people around one a little bit better. I'm not going to sneer at that as "merely nice". The pleasant, agreeable, nice people of the world are not the ones making it a worse place to live. Quite the opposite, really.