Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity". Pope Francis/Pope Benedict

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Tyranny of Niceness

I had a conversation with a friend this week about homilies at our parish. I said that I had only felt it necessary to criticize our pastor's homily once in the past three years so I didn't think he was doing that badly. My friend said that when he didn't like the homily he remained silent but that when he did like it he always said so. The message was quite clear... encouraging someone was acceptable but disagreeing with them was not. Silence is preferable to disagreement. This is reinforced in many ways in our society. "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" we are told from an early age. Our society places a great value on the ability to hide one's feelings and convictions. Disagreeing with someone is almost the worst social faux pas there is.

Niceness is a form of cultural silencing, cultural because we learn it at our mother's knee, silencing because it makes us conceal our true feelings in favor of a mask of niceness. It grows out of a fear of rejection and judgement. When a child grows up with a steady diet of these things there are two reactions. One is to be nice, the good child, the obedient one in hopes of avoiding this rejection and judgement. The other is to be the black sheep, the outsider, the rebel who scorns rejection and judgement. Both of these children are disadvantaged as adults though perhaps the rebel has suffered less psychic damage.

Niceness is at odds with authenticity and honesty. Young children are not nice... often they will blurt out things that would cause adults to blush. They have not yet learned to edit themselves and they say exactly what they are thinking and feeling. There is no malice intended and most adults know this. However, were an adult to behave in the same way the reaction would be quite different. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that we must become like little children if we wish to enter the kingdom. Perhaps he is telling us that we should learn to be more authentic and honest with ourselves and those around us.

We do not seem to do well dealing with differences and disagreements. Polarization, cultural isolation and political correctness all contribute to this problem. Polarization demonizes people we disagree with. Cultural isolation avoids people we disagree with. Political correctness glosses over the differences. All are a way to avoid the problem. We have raised a generation who have no idea how to respectfully and charitably disagree. 

My friend did have a point, however.While niceness is one alternative to authenticity and honesty, there is another. The good child makes a virtue of pleasing those around him but the black sheep often makes a virtue of being as offensive as possible. Instead of avoiding rejection and judgement, he wears them as a badge of honor. In both cases. the innocence of the child is gone, replaced by anger and resentment. One internalizes it, suffering anxiety and depression, while the other spews it forth indiscriminately. Neither is being authentic and honest.

So, is it acceptable to criticize your pastor when he says something that you disagree with? I think my answer would have to be yes but this is an incomplete honesty at best. If this is all we have to offer then we run the risk of turning cynical, bad tempered and self righteous. Real honesty and authenticity needs to be tempered with charity and should seek to build up, not tear down.

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