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Why Niceness Weakens Our Witness


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All of this is reminding me of a book I was planning to buy called Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. https://www.amazon.com/Against-Empathy-Case-Rational-Compassion/dp/0062339338 . I had been intrigued by it but ultimately decided not to buy it, but this conversation has reignited my interest and I might get it now.

The gist is that empathy, which we view as a basis for moral decision-making in the modern age, is actually "capricious and irrational." We're more inclined to feel empathy for those we view as allies than for those we view as enemies, and anger and rage are just as likely to be fruits of empathy as compassion or kindness. Empathy compels one to primarily self-serving and factionalistic acts of goodness: you come to affiliate with a certain group or identity and your acceptance of empathy as a guide will effectively turn you into a soldier for that group or identity, upholding your fellows but dealing mercilessly (ironically enough) with your enemies. Bloom advocates as an alternative "rational compassion" which has not been fleshed out well in the summaries and reviews, so I can't comment much on it. Perhaps the book's own description will do that job. 

This seems like it fits into the conversation we're having here, though. I think "niceness", however we define it, whether milquetoast face-saving or performative kindness, takes its cues from empathy. We put ourselves in other people's shoes and follow the Golden Rule. However, we can perhaps put ourselves in their shoes too much ,abandoning our knowledge entirely as we assume for ourselves what we assume to be their opinions. Christ's admonitions to "love thy neighbor as thyself" and "as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" are not commands to treat people with absolute empathy but to treat people according to the divine principles which we endorse. If we, with our knowledge of divine law, would want to be corrected if we were to err, then we are commanded to do the same for our brethren. Rationality merges with empathy in order to provide a stronger, more centered form of compassion. 

Edited by OGHoosier
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4 minutes ago, CV75 said:

Thank you. Let me see if I'm getting this: As a 3-year-old, I learned the word “game” (an invention, words and language not being naturally-occurring) and understood it to mean “board games” without having been provided a verbal definition from my mother, but by getting a demonstration through the activity. I created an intuitive recognition or interpretation in my mind so that if someone asked me what a game was, I could tell them or define it as “Chutes and Ladders” or “a fun thing we do,” or even “eager or willing to do something new or challenging like hunting wild mammals or birds for sport or food.”

Yes, that's much closer to how we learn how to create meaning for words, though I would say we "describe" it rather than "define" it in those ways. Our experiences dictate the semantic content we create in our heads for different words. If you ask a person in San Antonio to describe a "boot" as precisely as they can, they'll most likely describe a cowboy boot, but if you ask someone on the streets of London, they'll either describe an army boot or maybe the trunk of a car. Some more recent dictionaries are even trying to incorporate this more into their definitions by listing representative examples of a category after the definition in order to better reflect the prototypes instead of just reducing it to boundaries. 

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So, would it be correct to say that natural communication is the non-verbal exchange between two people (which entails understanding), and that language and symbols are the invented, artificial representation of the non-verbal that typically accompanies the natural experience and becomes second nature? Both use physical means to affect the five senses which prompt the experience and understanding.

I would say that's accurate, though I wouldn't call it a non-verbal "exchange," because it's the verbal (or written) stuff that's actually being exchanged. The person writing, saying, or signing some linguistic expression is taking concepts in their head and encoding them according to those linguistic conventions and patterns their experiences have given them. This encoding is always a rough approximation and never, ever comprehensive and 100% coextensive with the concepts in their head. The concepts in our heads are concepts and not linguistic expressions. The person hearing, reading, or viewing has to take the linguistic expression and then decode it according to their own experiences with linguistic conventions and patterns, which will never fully match those of the other person. Communication is never about complete, full, and perfect alignment between the encoded and decoded concepts, it's always and only about being good enough for whatever purpose the communication is taking place (and it is often not good enough). 

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1 hour ago, MustardSeed said:

Gently I would add that girls have extra pressure in the world to be "nice" as I described earlier.  I reject this notion, but I am but one.  It's not always apparent to others when a woman is being nice.  She has been trained her whole life to suppress her self for the benefit of others so that she will be likable.  

I brought this up earlier and I'm wondering if it could be why more women seem to be understanding the female author's point in her use of the word "nice" than men.

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1 hour ago, Dan McClellan said:

It's not an esoteric idea, it's scientific fact. The purpose it serves is to point out that asserting semantic boundaries around words is a rhetorical exercise, not an analytical one. Very few words develop or are used with reference to semantic boundaries. Dictionaries exist in order to give a rough outline as a starting point for people who don't understand a word. They do not adjudicate meaning, they are not thorough or comprehensive, and the underlying conceptual substructure is often distorting. "The masses" do not use dictionary definitions to communicate, they use the same cognitive processes that all humans use. In light of that, to say "Jesus was kind, but he was not nice" is a rhetorical exercise, and one that serves the broader rhetorical exercise of asserting a very specific conceptualization of "niceness." I personally find it silly, because the two words are synonyms in prototypical usage and the value of this specific conceptualization of niceness as an idol has limited usefulness or significance outside of the very specific contexts the author addresses.

I get that you find the use of not nice but kind silly.  I personally do not because it meshes with my personal experiences, where being taught to be "nice" has had a huge significance in a wide array of contexts, both religious and secular.

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29 minutes ago, OGHoosier said:

If we, with our knowledge of divine law, would want to be corrected if we were to err, then we are commanded to do the same for our brethren. Rationality merges with empathy in order to provide a stronger, more centered form of compassion. 

Right.  And not only to correct but also to educate/teach/share what I know when it looks to me like others do not know what I know or are not mentioning something which I think would be a good thing to mention.  Just because I am a nice guy that way.

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23 minutes ago, bluebell said:

I brought this up earlier and I'm wondering if it could be why more women seem to be understanding the female author's point in her use of the word "nice" than men.

Yes, I think it might be more common norm, especially in adult-to-adult interactions, for women to be expected to operate within niceness at all times, whereas it is understood that men may more likely be required to not be nice sometimes.

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1 hour ago, Dan McClellan said:

Seems to me "'nice' evil" is precisely the context of the book from which the OP is excerpted. 

I see that, but that's where I diverge. The author seems to be speaking about niceness only as shallow. I identify niceness as also limited, but then also as an important good. It is important to be nice, polite, and civil as a default. It communicates to others the intent to be kind. But niceness can also be false. Kindness can be sweetness and outrage. The moral is: it is important to be nice, but when one cannot be nice, it is essential to be kind.

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for some reason I'm hearing the song from Huey Luis and the News called The Power of Love but while thinking of the power of Words.

Words do have power.  They remind me of the babe.  The babe with the power.  The power of the babe.

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13 minutes ago, Ahab said:

for some reason I'm hearing the song from Huey Luis and the News called The Power of Love but while thinking of the power of Words.

Funny, because I was thinking of the comments by@Dan McClellan and @mfbukowski about the meaning of words, and I thought to myself, "I guess Depeche Mode was right all along: Words are meaningless / And forgettable." ;) 

 

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10 minutes ago, Amulek said:

Funny, because I was thinking of the comments by@Dan McClellan and @mfbukowski about the meaning of words, and I thought to myself, "I guess Depeche Mode was right all along: Words are meaningless / And forgettable." ;) 

 

I hope you know which of those persons is right now.  Words are not meaningless even though meaningless is a word and words have power even when someone has forgotten some words or what words can do or represent.

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37 minutes ago, Amulek said:

Words are meaningless / And forgettable." ;) 

...and "very unnecessary".

They can only do harm...says the lyricist (he must be some kind of jerk to harm us all with his words!).  

Words suggesting the words are meaningless and unnecessary is, like, making my brain hurt!

One wonders why Depeche Mode didn't become an instrumental group after this song.

Ah well, thanks for the pleasant jaunt down memory lane!

 

Edited by pogi
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1 hour ago, Meadowchik said:

Yes, I think it might be more common norm, especially in adult-to-adult interactions, for women to be expected to operate within niceness at all times, whereas it is understood that men may more likely be required to not be nice sometimes.

There is definitely truth to that.  Social expectations and pressures are different for men and women.  Women are expected more than men to be nice, physically attractive, involved parents, etc.  And there are also social expectations and pressures on men which are different from women.   In many ways our cultural expectations are messed up, and I can understand how the expectations might cause one to feel resistance to the pressure.  I just hope that in our efforts to combat ridiculous social norms we don't end up throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

There is nothing wrong with being nice (when it is genuine and with boundaries), just as there is nothing wrong with being physically attractive, or an involved parent...

The problem I see with the article is that the author didn't attempt to distinguish between good and healthy qualities of being genuinely nice and the superficial, manipulative nonsense side.  Christ was nice in many ways.  I hope we don't eschew niceness and turn it into a four letter word, because in general, being nice is good and praiseworthy. 

Just to echo Dan:

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Clearly the author is constructing a larger rhetorical point about how "niceness" is manipulated to serve our personal interests, which I think is a good point to make, but it is going to demand ignoring the most salient sense of the word in order to promote this very specific conceptualization the author wants to promote. 

 

Edited by pogi
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2 hours ago, bluebell said:

I brought this up earlier and I'm wondering if it could be why more women seem to be understanding the female author's point in her use of the word "nice" than men.

One of the reasons why, yes.  Not the only reason, though, as you probably realize.  Another reason some don't agree with the author's point is because some think of nice in some other way than she does, or did. Which is common when using words.

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20 minutes ago, pogi said:

There is definitely truth to that.  Social expectations and pressures are different for men and women.  Women are expected more than men to be nice, physically attractive, involved parents, etc.  And there are also social expectations and pressures on men which are different from women.   In many ways our cultural expectations are messed up, and I can understand how the expectations might cause one to feel resistance to the pressure.  I just hope that in our efforts to combat ridiculous social norms we don't end up throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

There is nothing wrong with being nice (when it is genuine and with boundaries), just as there is nothing wrong with being physically attractive, or an involved parent...

The problem I see with the article is that the author didn't attempt to distinguish between good and healthy qualities of being genuinely nice and the superficial, manipulative nonsense side.  Christ was nice in many ways.  I hope we don't eschew niceness and turn it into a four letter word, because in general, being nice is good and praiseworthy. 

Just to echo Dan:

 

I agree. Niceness and kindness should be the default. Not being nice should trigger an internal warning to be extra darn sure we're still being kind.

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2 hours ago, pogi said:

You are nice MustardSeed.  No offense! :)

I think that nice is whatever people make of it, I can see how superficial niceties can be what you describe, but does being nice have to be empty?  What you describe is a pseudo nice, a facade, and misses the virtue in the word.  Kindness can be just as empty and manipulative and without boundaries if we let it, so to with just about every virtue there is.  It can be a facade without boundaries, or it can be genuine and virtuous.      

When I hear the word "nice", I think of, "whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." 

Can anyone deny that it would be "nice" to be treated that way?

I hope that we don't allow the pseudo side of things to distract us from the genuine.  And of course there should be boundaries with everything. 

 

I recognize the semantics issue here.  I delineate the two for the purpose of helping other people "see themselves" in my explanation of where NICE can be problematic. Often, people are terrified that if they set boundaries, they will become "mean".  I always explain that if someone has always been nice, and suddenly they start setting boundaries, they will be inevitably accused of being mean.  This terrifies people.  So I say, let's toss nice, and replace it with kind.  Kind has boundaries, nice doesn't.


For whatever reason, this resonates with folks, and gives them permission to set healthy boundaries (such as, "no thank you, but I really appreciate the kind invitation."  or, "This is such a lovely presentation.  I wonder if I can replace this soup with one that has less salt?  Thank you so much." )

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19 minutes ago, Damien the Leper said:

I want to hug you for using the term "mansplaining".

They usually want to smack me. So let me explain, when I as a 19 year founding member of FM, make an attempt to describe that experience and see a response that condenses it to "frustration" followed by an explanation of what FM intends to do, it does trigger that response. Mansplaining has never been a helpful response in these parts but sometimes that frustration of mine gets the best of me. 

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17 minutes ago, MustardSeed said:

I recognize the semantics issue here.  I delineate the two for the purpose of helping other people "see themselves" in my explanation of where NICE can be problematic. Often, people are terrified that if they set boundaries, they will become "mean".  I always explain that if someone has always been nice, and suddenly they start setting boundaries, they will be inevitably accused of being mean.  This terrifies people.  So I say, let's toss nice, and replace it with kind.  Kind has boundaries, nice doesn't.


For whatever reason, this resonates with folks, and gives them permission to set healthy boundaries (such as, "no thank you, but I really appreciate the kind invitation."  or, "This is such a lovely presentation.  I wonder if I can replace this soup with one that has less salt?  Thank you so much." )

Or one of my favorites... It was a pleasure talking with you.

The key word is was.  Pretty nice, huh.

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3 hours ago, Dan McClellan said:

Yes, that's much closer to how we learn how to create meaning for words, though I would say we "describe" it rather than "define" it in those ways. Our experiences dictate the semantic content we create in our heads for different words. If you ask a person in San Antonio to describe a "boot" as precisely as they can, they'll most likely describe a cowboy boot, but if you ask someone on the streets of London, they'll either describe an army boot or maybe the trunk of a car. Some more recent dictionaries are even trying to incorporate this more into their definitions by listing representative examples of a category after the definition in order to better reflect the prototypes instead of just reducing it to boundaries. 

I would say that's accurate, though I wouldn't call it a non-verbal "exchange," because it's the verbal (or written) stuff that's actually being exchanged. The person writing, saying, or signing some linguistic expression is taking concepts in their head and encoding them according to those linguistic conventions and patterns their experiences have given them. This encoding is always a rough approximation and never, ever comprehensive and 100% coextensive with the concepts in their head. The concepts in our heads are concepts and not linguistic expressions. The person hearing, reading, or viewing has to take the linguistic expression and then decode it according to their own experiences with linguistic conventions and patterns, which will never fully match those of the other person. Communication is never about complete, full, and perfect alignment between the encoded and decoded concepts, it's always and only about being good enough for whatever purpose the communication is taking place (and it is often not good enough). 

Thank you again. Yes, “describe” is a better word for that than “define”, and we still use words with definitions to describe. A child gesturing to a board game or dice to describe “game” is using the gesture as a word, which I take from your point is a form of signing and thus verbal.

By “natural communication / non-verbal exchange” I was referring to things other than that which are verbal/written and expressed through writing/saying/signing, such as unintentional facial expressions, body movements, pheromones, vocalizations, etc. – except those that might also count as forms of signing. I understand a lot of that can be intentional, using learned patterns and conventions. But going back (even earlier) to the mother-child communication, some communication seems to be chemical or instinctual, at least initially.

How do people naturally communicate (i.e., communicate without using symbols that have definitions)? Does that level of communication refer only the neurological processes that manage the symbols being exchanged (so that we are effectively communicating only within ourselves)?

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Watching part 2 with Kwaku and Shawn. At the very end, Shawn asks him if he had to choose which would matter the most, would it be "love" or "doctrine". Guess what, Kwaku chose "love" over "doctrine". And shares the example of an LDS guy who dies and was a womanizer, not nice, a jerk and selfish. And a Hindu guy who dies but was a good man, good to his wife and family and loved others. Kwaku mentions you should show the love first, and not theology because it can prove divisive. So show the love first to those who are different than you and that will bring them to the fold first. Where is that Kwaku, I hope he comes back. ;) I say this in jest, but believe this belongs in this thread and the other one about his FM videos. Watch at the 59:00 mark to see what he says. 

 

Edited by Tacenda
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1 hour ago, MustardSeed said:

For whatever reason, this resonates with folks, and gives them permission to set healthy boundaries (such as, "no thank you, but I really appreciate the kind invitation." 

I'm not sure I understand it, but if it allows some people to be nice/kind while maintaining boundaries, more power to em'!

To me, it is just as nice to say "no thank you, but I really appreciate the kind invitation", as it is kind.

1 hour ago, MustardSeed said:

Kind has boundaries, nice doesn't.

I'm not sure I agree with this.  People have/make their own boundaries.  Being kind and nice work within those boundaries that we make for ourselves, not the other way around.  Being kind can be just as boundary-less, so can serving others (in neglect of self), etc.  Being nice is without boundaries only to the extent that the person is without boundaries.  

Edited by pogi
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2 minutes ago, Tacenda said:

... show the love first to those who are different than you and that will bring them to the fold first.

A Christ centered message.  Everyone is different than each one of us.  I like that message.

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2 hours ago, Ahab said:

The babe with the power

For me this is the essence of what we call "Christmas".  God becomes human and IS the power of the Word, while demonstrating unspeakable humility, directly linked to the humility manifested in his death march.   It is a humility which voluntarily surrenders the power of the Word, and that is why it is "unspeakble".   It "surpasseth all understanding".

It is my personal belief that this is the moment when the transcendent Word voluntarily surrenders transcendence and becomes immanent, that He may fully become as we are, so that we can become as He is.

The babe with the power?  Yes, but the story instantiates the omnipotent power of love itself.

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4 minutes ago, mfbukowski said:

For me this is the essence of what we call "Christmas".  God becomes human and IS the power of the Word, while demonstrating unspeakable humility, directly linked to the humility manifested in his death march.   It is a humility which voluntarily surrenders the power of the Word, and that is why it is "unspeakble".   It "surpasseth all understanding".

It is my personal belief that this is the moment when the transcendent Word voluntarily surrenders transcendence and becomes immanent, that He may fully become as we are, so that we can become as He is.

The babe with the power?  Yes, but the story instantiates the omnipotent power of love itself.

... or to align with the thoughts I was expressing, the omnipotent power of the Word itself.

By the way, you got me again on another word.  I had to look up the word instantiates 

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