by Zoë Pollock
Jacob Silverman recently accused online literary communities of being too nice, using author Emma Straub as his case in point. Michelle Dean weighed in and Straub refused to back down. In a fascinating take on the whole debate, Edward Champion points out that "nice" used to be an insult:
The word originated from the Latin nescius for "ignorant." By the late 14th century, nice people were fussy or fastidious types: snobs who deliberated over a restaurant menu for twenty minutes. By the turn of the century, a nice person was someone with delicate sensibilities. In the 16th century, a nice person was someone who was very careful or precise. The proverb "more nice than wise" preserves some of these original meanings. Then in 1769, "nice" altered into something that was agreeable or delightful. In 1830, "nice" involved being kind and thoughtful.
He thinks the sentiment is overrated:
"God damn it, you’ve got to be nice" sounds porous and gutless next to Kurt Vonnegut’s "God damn it, you’ve got to be kind." And it reveals the inherent deceit of nice. If you’re "being nice" to someone, you’re not being honest. You’re humoring a person you don’t want to be with and I don’t think I can trust you. Especially when you’re flattering a person one minute and talking shit about that same person when they leave the room. But if you’re "being kind" to someone, you are legitimately trying to understand where another person is coming from and you are willing to change your mind.
And there's something utterly wonderful about a pitch-perfect hit job.
(Hat tip: Frank Wilson)