There is nothing inherently wrong with being nice: let’s get that out of the way first. There is also something good, indeed obligatory, about engaging in civil, rational discourse, all other things being equal. The latter is sadly in short supply nowadays. But if there’s nothing inherently wrong about niceness, there is nothing inherently right about it either. Practical wisdom discerns when it is the time and the place to be nice. It also helps us perceive when it isn’t.
Ellen DeGeneres portrays, on the small screen, a genuinely nice person, and there no solid evidence, at least as far as I can see, that she isn’t a nice person in real life as well. It’s was refreshing to see her nice personality get some exposure in the 1990s, an era drenched in ironic cynicism and icy sarcasm. (David Foster Wallace’s essay “In Unibus Pluram” is the ur-text of criticism of that empty decade. Despite all its confusions and overstatement, the essay captures the Zeitgeist of the Clinton era beautifully.) An added bonus is that DeGeneres is lesbian, and in a decade where LGBTQ reality was still being denied, her presentation of LGBTQ people as not just human but friendly and likeable was a very, very welcome event. So, credit where credit is due.
Ms. DeGeneres is a friend to former President George W. Bush. They were recently photographed together at a Dallas Cowboys game, and Social Media went berserk. Her friendship with a patron of the homophobic Defense of Marriage act, and his taking the helm of the Iraq War in 2003, seemed beyond the pale to many. It looked like a stark betrayal of her standing as an exemplary, iconic LGBTQ advocate. One, Justin Charity, complained that “DeGeneres betrays her political significance as an openly gay entertainer and a prominent LGBTQ advocate through her friendship with Bush.” Another, Laura Bradley, opined in Vanity Fair
“When one person has historically believed other people should not have the same basic rights as another, it’s hard to treat these differences as benign — especially when that person once exercised their power to help make their beliefs a reality,”
Ellen defended herself and her friendship with George W. Bush on her television show, and put this segment up on her Twitter account. Click here for the clip.
Constance Grady, in an article in Vox, summarized Ms. DeGeneres’s position thus:
“I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have,” Ellen said, during a segment that ran nearly four minutes long. She noted that while she personally is anti-fur, plenty of her friends wear furs.
“Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them,” Ellen concluded. “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean, ‘Be kind to everyone, it doesn’t matter.’”
I want to ruminate for a moment on that final moral maxim: Be kind to everyone, it doesn’t matter. I suspect that Ms. DeGeneres is confusing four traits of character: Politeness, Kindness, Civility, and Niceness. The first three are moral virtues — i.e., habitual human conduct and feeling that defines human excellence and which lead to human flourishing, for oneself and others. The fourth does not. “Niceness” may (or may not) be a trait that is nice to have. But it’s not a virtue. It isn’t always good.
One ought to be polite to everyone. You might have never met the person behind you when you are walking through a doorway. The person might be a saint or a rat bastard: still, you ought to hold open the door for her or him. Likewise with kindness, which is a matter of recognizing the humanity and dignity of everyone and treating them accordingly, again whether you like them or not. For Christians like myself, this virtue is amplified into the duty to love not only your neighbors, but your enemies. Were Donald Trump hit by a car on Fifth Avenue, the command to love one’s enemies would bind me to call 911 and get him to a hospital, whether or not he deserves to be behind bars, as I deem him to be. Kindness in this sense — an unwillingness to shit on people because it puts you at an advantage or makes you feel good because you detest them — is indispensable to being a person of good character. The same holds for civility, which is a virtue of rational discourse: absent evidence to the contrary, assume no ill-will on the part of your argumentative adversaries, and respond to their criticisms with good reasons rather than insane ranting, even if they themselves are prone to the latter.
None of this, however, seems to be at issue in Ms. DeGeneres’s self-defense. She is not being kind to George W. Bush: she is being nice. And sometimes being nice is acting contrary to the virtues of civility and kindness, if not politeness. Sometimes “nice” names a vice.
“Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”, the old cliché goes. There’s a lot of truth to it. Ms. DeGeneres was on point when she said that one can and ought to remain friends with those with whom one has serious political and moral disagreements. This is a sign of civility and kindness/friendliness when the differences are matters of belief. But belief is one thing, character is another. Character is a function not of belief but of habitual action, or conduct. If you conduct yourself in accord with what is dishonorable, what is cruel, or what is thoughtless, your character is not virtuous, and your friendliness toward that person is put in question. Bad conduct may be a function of weakness of will, or culpable ignorance, or outright malice, but for whatever reason a person’s character is defective, one ought to be at least wary of being nice to that person. They probably do not deserve it.
I do not know George W. Bush personally, as Ms. DeGeneres does. He seems, at least here outside the orbit of the famous and powerful, to lack self-esteem and go along with substitute father-figures who reinforce his waning self-confidence by telling him what the strong thing to do is. A lot of these vicarious fathers, however, were people of manifestly bad character, to put it way too mildly. The Right-wing Evangelicals who convinced Bush that Gays and Lesbians did not deserve the protections of civil marriage because they, or what they did, was intrinsically disordered or wicked were one such morally questionable group of paternal substitutes. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who never saw a war they did not like, and who saw nothing amiss with cobbling together a pretext for war in Iraq on false premises, were another. Put bluntly, they are war criminals. This may qualify and mitigate Bush’s embrace of evildoing, but it does not eliminate it. He deliberately and intentionally followed their lead. It is hard not to conclude, then, that Bush’s character is anything but virtuous. And no one is obliged to be “nice” to people of defective character. In fact, one might be obliged to confront or reject them.
It’s bad enough that George W. Bush gave comfort and support to anti-LGBTQ bigots, and helped push their legislative agenda. As someone who has a stake in this issue, I would find it very hard to be civil to him, no less “nice”. But his making common cause with LGBTQ-phobes pales in comparison with his complicity with war criminals, and his tacit consent to take ownership of such crimes. (“I am the decider.”) The 2003 Iraq war, which never really ended and for which there is no end in sight, was a war built on lies, a war that claimed the lives of countless Iraqis and a significant number of American troops. It is a war that shattered the political structures of the Middle East, and is a proximate cause of the horrors that are overtaking Syria as I write this. To sit and smile in the presence of a person like this, without holding him to account — without the administration of astringent doses of “tough love” — is to implicitly condone his conduct and character, or at the very least to suggest that it doesn’t matter much. As if to say: “Architects of mass murder are jes’ folks too. Be nice, please.”
I do not wish to suggest that George W. Bush is worthy of hatred. As a Christian in the Episcopalian tradition, that simply is not an option for me. But “love of neighbor” is not the same thing as “being nice toward everybody.” I may be enjoined by my faith to love my enemies, but that does nothing to erase the fact that they are and remain enemies. Enemies deserve my respect and regard, and as a Christian my love. They do not deserve my support or friendship or cheerfulness.
Is this going too far? Am I capitulating to the vile culture of contempt which I loathe whenever I encounter it on Twitter or Facebook etc.? I do not think so. Exhibiting the virtues of kindness, politeness, and civility, which I try to do but usually fail in some degree to accomplish, does not mean that one must exhibit them at all times and places in the exact same way. Civility is great, and we certainly could use more of it. But if one’s “conversation partner” is abusive and unwilling to meet reasons with reasons, to remain engaged is not being civil but being stupid: one might as well argue with the wall. (“It is like mud wrestling with a pig: you get dirty, you always lose, and the pig likes it.”) Kindness is fine, especially toward one whose beliefs are at odds with one’s own: it is hard but nonetheless dutiful to be kind to someone whose convictions drive you up the wall. But if your counterpart’s conduct deliberately reflects what you take to be their vile beliefs, then you are doing him or her no favors by being agreeable. Sometimes, as the song goes, it is cruel to be kind.
It could be argued that I don’t understand the circles in which Bush and DeGeneres move: that they intersect, that the morally mixed company is hard to avoid, and if one is in Hollywood or Wall Street or Washington D.C. it makes sense to do what the natives do. After all, there is that famous picture of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton pal-ing around at a tennis tournament. At first glance it warms the heart: aww, they are politically at loggerheads but they like each other, they really like each other! But do not be fooled. If the picture reveals anything, it reveals the lack of moral gravitas at every level of American society, but especially the rot at the top. Those responsible for war crimes, for torture, for unnecessary death and destruction, are not good folk to hang with. To the extent that you do so, that you think of yourself as a member of that club, you are part of the problem.
“Show me who your friends are . . .” is one cliché; another is “if you want a friend in Washington D.C. (or Silicon Valley, or Wall Street, etc. and so forth), get a dog.” It may be impossible to perfect one’s character if one ingratiates oneself among those who live in such locales. (One of the more refreshing aspects of the freshman Congressional “squad” is that they seem allergic to such ingratiation. Time will tell.)
It may only be hard, and not impossible, to keep one’s integrity in the corridors of power. But it is hard, an uphill slog all the way. And one sure way to corrupt one’s quest for moral integrity is to feel obliged to be nice to everybody, whoever they are, and whatever circles they move in. Nice is not necessarily good. In fact it usually isn’t. One hopes Ms. DeGeneres will learn this lesson and drop the obsequiousness disguised as good cheer. But that certainly won’t earn her more friends in celebrity fantasy-land.