When did Nice become Bad? Skepticism to Cynicism

“Being nice does not make you correct.” This statement was recently lobbed at me and is one I absolutely agree with. Niceness has little to no real bearing on whether an assertion is actually correct. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s try the following: “Being a jerk does not make you correct.” Asking which is a better approach is the wrong question. There isn’t a specific propriety of conversational behavior that is a panacea to all our conversational woes. Each conversation—indeed, every person you have ever conversed with—is different. Certainly there will be plenty of topical similarities between various people, especially when discussing issues of religion, atheism, skepticism, et cetera. What varies in this scenario are the participants. Different people with differing perspectives, approaches and personalities. So why is it that suddenly the concept of being nice is viewed poorly as you approach a discussion right out of the conversational gate? I don’t have to respect or agree with their belief/idea in order to be nice to someone. So, what gives?

The reciprocal “golden rule” is something that might immediately come to mind. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” This idea translates in the the conversational sphere between two people of differing views—treat people with a modicum of humanity and respect, and you may get it in return. It is also noteworthy to realize that words have the ability to cause as much psychological sway as a fist has physical sway to dislocating a jaw. But, that’s not always the biggest issue at play. The problem many of us face is framing the dialogue in such a way that can strip the humanity from someone because they don’t agree with you. Again, this isn’t about whether you are correct or not, because you very well could be. It simply is a reminder to think back to the golden rule – a reminder of how you initially present yourself and your argument. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t/can’t change the framing of your argument later, however. I’m simply arguing for leading with a modicum of courtesy when you begin a discussion. I would even go so far to say that framing your position and yourself in a jerk-ish manner from the start won’t bode well with providing as much information to others with whom you are attempting open dialogue.  It also won’t do well for those who are your target audience either. This is completely different than accommodating a person’s position. Let’s also get this out of the way now and cement this before it gets carried away: being nice does not mean that you accommodate an idea to which you disagree. One can disagree with someone, yet remain respectful to them or at least attempt to do so. Being nice or respectful has nothing to do with giving preferential treatment to someone either, especially when one treats others, regardless of belief, in a respectful manner equally. The difficulty is when so many personally identify their idea/belief as themselves. The best option, I’ve found, is to remind them that attacking their idea or belief does not mean that you are attacking them as a person. For all you know, they could be swell and nice people, but just do good things for the wrong reasons.

No two arguments are ever quite the same. My method of framing is to remain malleable based on the intent, content, and nature of the argument. However, I will always initially strive to be nice with others, and attempt to keep the dialogue as open as possible. Which leads me to the final stretch of this article and part of the title, skepticism to cynicism.  Skepticism is not cynicism. A skeptic strives to question the veracity of claims without evidence. A cynic leads with distrust and contempt. A skeptic consistently examines the value of information they have. A cynic habitually looks on the dark side of things. Being skeptical of religious claims, pseudoscientific claims, or any manner of superstition, is not being cynical. I am not necessarily leading with distrust or disparaging the motives of a person before they are even given. I know what you are thinking, that my knowledge of a topic influences my decision. Of course, why wouldn’t it? I have acquired knowledge, and I can utilize that knowledge to the benefit of the discussion. But, this is a far cry from contempt or distrust of someone who thinks they mean well, even if they are wrong. I just prefer to not act like a jerk about it.

I’m going to be nice, because that’s who I am. Being nice to someone with whom I disagree does not mean I am accommodating their belief. Being nice to someone with whom I disagree does not mean I am giving preferential treatment. One of the biggest struggles we atheists face is gaining acceptance and understanding. What happens when atheists remove the stigma and misconceptions surrounding them? What happens when I can start demonstrating that I am good without the belief in a god? Well, I think that’s when people will start questioning their own beliefs independently. That all starts with a simple smile, hopefully a hug, and the words “Hello, I’m an atheist.”

4 Replies to “When did Nice become Bad? Skepticism to Cynicism”

  1. “What gives” is the other side of the equation: I don’t have to be nice to someone to respect or agree with her or his beliefs.

    In fact, sometimes “being nice” isn’t very nice at all.

    But niceness may help a person feel validated, listened to. Put more tersely, it’s a form of manipulation. Does that make it bad, or worthless? Hardly. But if niceness is a means to an end, the it’s the intended end that needs to be judged.

    Niceness is only as honest as it is deep. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s without sincerity; even the most genuine niceness doesn’t mean a thing if it’s with the expectation of niceness in return—or anything, for that matter.

    Reciprocity and *the expectation* of reciprocity are not the same thing.

    Altruism and niceness are often confused, and while the sociological complexity of why that is would probably take a lifetime to study and understand, it can’t be merely coincidental that Western societies have, for over 1,000 years, revolved around the Christian control mechanism of guilt, and with it, fault and blame, all of which instill the competitive drive to prove oneself “right” and the other “wrong,” truth be damned.

    In the context of such a tradition, niceness is often offered in all sincerity, but also with the hope of avoiding conflict by not violating the *expectation* of niceness.

    And suddenly it makes perfect sense why the first thing most Western parents teach their children as soon as they learn to speak is to be honest, and the second, to withhold the truth when it might upset someone.

    “Be nice.” > “Be honest.”

    This is where ethics cross over into *meta*ethics.

    The *expectation* is that if I’m nice to you, you *should* be nice to me. It’s a very tiny leap from that expectation to the ethical presumption that being nice is “right” and “good.”

    But metaethics aren’t about good and bad. We still have laws, for example, criminalizing adultery all over the US; but we don’t enforce them because, while it may be nearly universally considered bad to betray one’s spouse, it’s distasteful in our modern society for the government to imprison someone for it.

    Honesty may be considered “the best policy,” at least openly; but terseness, bluntness, rudeness, even cruelty—all of which may be completely honest—are nearly universally looked upon as bad taste.

    But does distastefulness convert telling the truth into something “bad?”

    I don’t think so.

    Genuine altruism cuts both ways: Do not unto others as you would not have them do to you. (That’s Confuses’s version of The Golden Rule, which predates Christ’s by 500 years.)

    What is the responsibility of someone who is too honest to be nice in a situation where niceness would be dishonest? Should that person simply “suck it up” and put on a happy face for the benefit of another—even though it’s fake?

    If so, why? Merely because it’s expected of her?

    Once again, we arrive at the question of purpose.

    If you would not have someone put on false airs to keep you calm or listening, then by what right does someone else expect such a thing of you?

    At the same time—just as this article astutely points out—when the answer is correct but bitter, then what is correct may be of no effect at all.

    Except, perhaps, in memory.

    I know that when it comes to my own values, I’d rather lose an argument than lose a friend; but on the same token, I’d rather lose a friend than lose myself.

    1. I iono if you are the same Joe Ammel I’ve seen post up on a religion group I’ve seen before. I’ll try not to be mean and I’ll be honest and bc of you and how you acted and treated people that don’t believe what you believe it made me never respond. I never once felt like you said anything nice with a couple dozen posts I read. It made me think, ok I proly don’t believe in God but why do people have to act like him? That’s right I’m not like him and that’s ok. You with some other people the only reason why I never wanted to respond. Iono, maybe you had your reasons, but you were always attacking people, many times for just for no reason I think.

      I tried to read a lot of what you said. I’m not the smartest person but sounding smart with a stupid idea is still a stupid idea. I did finish it and it seems like you are talking about something else. It kind of makes me sad. Bc it seems like you missed everything Jozef said about cynicism and skepticism. It seems that you are a good cynic, but not a good skeptic. And, that makes sense from the stuff I saw ‘n see you write. Before you go off attacking me, let me correct you. There is no “What gives” unless you were being polite or nice for manipulative reasons. You said some nonsense that being nice is manipulation? WUT? Ok, I think Jozef is talking about not being a dickhead. That’s being nice. I think you think that walking up to someone and saying “Hi, I’m an atheist” that’s being nice, or just not being a asshole. You aren’t saying something to manipulate them. So, the nice that I read here is like Jim Jeffries “don’t be a cunt.” You can be a asshole, and still be correct. Or you can not be an asshole and also be correct. I think I remember Jozef saying that you can re-write your argument to better fit the dynamic conversation or something, so you don’t always have to be nice too if the argument changes. I just see that you decide to be a jerk from the start. Its like the difference of you going up to someone and sayin that they are dumb for beliving in religion. When you could walk up to them and say you are an atheist instead. You seem to think that being nice is on the other side of being a jerk. There is no manipulation for walking up and saying you are an atheist. Thats like being nice without manipulation and I know lots of people that are nice with out manipulating anyone. they just aren’t being a dickhead. There is no “What gives” if you always want to act like a cynical jerk. That’s just who you are, then that’s who you are. I’m prolly not as nice to or a lot of other people. I’m a bit cynical and i’m getting better. I wanna be a better skeptic not a cynic But I know not everyone is like me. I just don’t always repeat being a bitch from the start.

      I think you’ll probably go off on me like you have everyone else before. I dun care. I just think that what you said was complicated and very very stupid. If being an asshole is being you, and you dun wanna lose yourself, then you should not be surprised if you lose a friend.

      1. Amy, I don’t know why you think I’m going to attack you. If you’ve perceived everything of mine you’ve ever read as a personal attack, then I guess that makes sense. Or maybe you think I’m going to give as good as I get, and that’s why you couched your criticism in personal judgments of my character? Sure, I get sensitive about that. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. But like I said, the other side of the Golden Rule is to *not* treat others as you *don’t* want to be treated.

        I expect criticism, even very harsh criticism, and I expect it to be well-reasoned. Name-calling is not. The behavior I most regret is when I stooped to the level of returning name-calling or otherwise simple verbal abuse when I got it, not just because that’s “not nice,” but because it’s not a meaningful way to help anyone or myself. If one’s intent is to learn and to help others learn, especially about objective reality, and not just simple opinions like “that’s good and that’s bad,” then niceness doesn’t matter *to that end*.

        That isn’t to say niceness doesn’t matter *at all*. It matters to a person’s emotions. That’s all I mean by calling it “manipulation.” Speech, itself, is manipulation. Art is manipulation through imagery. The word doesn’t always mean someone is “being manipulative,” and I’m certainly not accusing anyone of that in my comments.

        My point is that “nice” doesn’t make “right” any more than “right” makes “nice.” I can’t help it—no one can help it—if we live in a society that decides someone is wrong just because we don’t like him or her. That’s a fantastic way to never learn anything new. 600 people voted to murder Socrates just because they didn’t like being questioned by him all the time, and he drank poison voluntarily just to teach them a lesson they refused to learn from him while he was alive: “I don’t like him” doesn’t mean “he’s wrong.”

        And people usually don’t like someone who points out what they don’t want to see or says what they don’t want to hear. That is *not* a good reason to refuse to listen to anyone; killing the messenger doesn’t make the message go away. (There is no greater history lesson we can learn from Christianity than that.)

        If you think being nice is right, then I suggest you read your own post over again, and this time presume I’m *not* someone you want to launch a “preemptive defense” against. Was anything *you* wrote “nice?”

        You also said you didn’t understand what I wrote, but dismiss it as “very very stupid.” That’s okay, if it works for you. I don’t need everyone to agree with me. But the person you’re hurting by judging what you don’t understand is you.

        Call me names all you like, that happens all the time on the Internet, it won’t change what is and is not true. I know myself and what I want, what I value, and I value knowledge far more than popularity.

        And that includes passing knowledge on. If something I said, even poorly, even if it was dismissed and I was attacked for saying it, helps one person learn something new or think in a new way, then it was worth saying.

        That’s what I mean when I say that I’d rather lose a friend than lose myself: friendship to me isn’t genuine unless it’s based on common values, and values are meaningless unless they’re for a better reason than merely getting what you want from someone else—and that includes getting them to be nice to you.

        Call it an attack and dismiss offhand it if you wish, but the first impression you just made on me is of someone who’s only nice to get the response she wants from others.

        I don’t consider than “niceness” worth showing, or worth seeking.

  2. Maybe I should just stop over-intellectualizing this, put it simply, and then walk away:

    “Asking which is a better approach is the wrong question.”


    “The reciprocal ‘golden rule’ … come[s] to mind.”


    “[W]ords have the ability to cause as much psychological [impact] as … dislocating a jaw.”


    “The problem … is framing the dialogue in such a way that [it] can strip the humanity from someone….”


    “[F]raming your position and yourself in a jerk-ish manner [discourages] … open dialogue.”


    “One of the biggest struggles we atheists face is gaining acceptance and understanding.”


    “[Religious] people will start questioning their own beliefs independently…” if only we all would be as nice as Jozef.

    In other words, Jozef led with the concession that whether “being nice” is the best approach to dialogue is not the right question, and then spent the rest of his article answering that exact question.

    As the voice of the meanies, I’ve done my best to provide the other half of his analysis, but also address the topic he hinted at but then left hanging: the truth.

    Of course, I freely admit that it’s entirely my presumption that anyone else cares about the truth, let alone that it’s the purpose of dialogue. I might well be wrong about that, considering Jozef abandoned that topic by his fifth sentence.

    If the KCAC simply wants to present one-sided lectures on the virtues of being “nice,” while marginalizing anyone who might want to hear something other than bald assertions in support of that presumed conclusion, then I’m more than happy to silently leave my pew and let them preach on in peace.

    Damn. Sorry. There I go being honest—er, I mean, a jerk again.

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