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Nice versus Kind

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

Max Stearns

“Nice” and “kind” describe different people. I’ve long been troubled by “nice,” a ubiquitous, and somewhat lazy, ascription of characteristics to someone recently encountered and sufficiently significant to be a focus of inquiry. The problem isn’t merely that “nice” risks conveying something vacuous, even meaningless, about the person to whom it is so often innocuously applied. Rather, the problem is that the ascription simultaneously conveys laziness, or at least incuriosity, by the speaker concerning the target of inquiry, devoid of observing more closely, or delving more deeply, in an effort to come up with something, anything, that truly matters. Worse yet, when we probe just a bit, it’s evident that describing someone as “nice” is, well, not always nice.

Compare “kind,” an altogether different descriptor. If only as a starting point, kind invites further inquiry: “How so? To whom? What did you observe?” Although we might regard “nice” and “kind” as descriptive cousins, they aren’t. Their connotations are notably distinct.

Nice implies a desire to get along, or least appear to do so; to avoid conflict; to express, verbally or otherwise, settling sentiments. Nice is a warm blanket; a warm blanket, after all, is nice. Of course, blankets can also smother, or put out fires, even as not all fires warrant being extinguished. Kind conveys caring about someone or something, but always animate, such as animals, including pets, and certainly people. People can be passionate for a cause, not kind to it.

Being kind requires a sufficient level of engagement to ascertain another’s needs and then to identify the steps required to work toward meeting them. Kindness does not imply assuming wants and needs are synonymous. Like nice and kind, they aren’t. Different words mean different things, and being kind, say, to an addict doesn’t imply acquiescing in his next fix. Nice might imply avoiding the conflict, burying it beneath the surface, giving the appearance of resolution even if the conflict is truly unresolved. Being nice means targeting intensity for its own sake as the thing to be put down, not addressing its root causes, avoiding taking sides. Kind neither seeks nor averts conflict. Kind willingly acknowledges not all sides have equal merit, and that some lack merit entirely. Kind evaluates before deciding when, and whether, to choose a side or cause.

I am struck by the famous line, “cruel to be kind.” Originating in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it resurfaced as title and lyric to the 1970s Nick Lowe hit. Hamlet explains his apparent cruelty, after killing Polonius, and toward his mother, as necessary to avenge his father’s death. His cruelty exhibited kindness toward his father and ultimately toward his mother, focusing her on betrayal. Hamlet’s kindness doesn’t avoid his own demons, or punishment, yet it admonishes doing what’s right. Although Lowe’s lyrics leave us guessing at his lover’s insistence upon “the right measure” of pushing him down to lift him up, the video reveals the couple headed to the altar. We don’t learn why she insists on coupling cruelty with kindness, but the resolution implies a benign calibrated response to something problematic, for his own good.

On the radio today, I heard of a poll giving Biden a seven-point lead with those polled nonetheless predicting a Trump victory. The surface anomaly didn’t surprise me. Republicans historically under poll; Trump did so dramatically in 2016. He may be doing so again. I have no crystal ball, and I’m not particularly religious. Still I pray that November marks the end of the most vicious, heartless, and gratuitously cruel (so not to be kind) administration in modern history.

I try to remain optimistic. My hope is that come December, we look back upon the Trump administration and all it has wrought through the rearview mirror. And I wonder, years from now, what we’ll make of those who elevated nice over kind. I am not referring to Trump. He is profoundly neither. I am referring to those over the past few years who exhibited offense, even anger, when so many of us, instead, insistently elevated kind over nice, refusing to just let things go. How might we regard those who prioritized as a core value avoiding conflict, brushing disagreements beneath the carpet, not focusing family, friends, acquaintances, or others on the never-ending stream of insults, cruelty, and heartlessness that has defined an administration founded upon lies and dependent upon no more than blind allegiance, not to an ideology, but to a man whose predilections only ever favored one thing: loyalty to himself?

We should look back with open eyes, and with open hearts. To those committed to eradicating the harms this administration wrought, we should be welcoming, even inviting. And most of all, we should always be kind.

I welcome your comments.

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