For my column this issue, I’ve been asked to do something a little out of character. Instead of the usual naval gazing, angsty martyrdom that typically paints my diaries a deep, tinkling piano-coloured blue, I am supposed to dissect for you an important cultural debate.
It’s a debate which, as it happens, the Hardly
editors have been wrestling over of late, likely over patio lemonades and sepia-toned photo-shoots; it’s a variant on the age-old Darwin deceit about “nice guys.” You know the one. That maxim where the creeps win, and the sweater-vested ones come last.
Though today, thank God, there’s a bit of a twist.
Today I’m not comparing nice guys to bad. There will be no pro-machismo arguments about the merits of un-wimpiness, or vice versa. Instead, I’m pointing an 1890’s microscope (a fuzzy, rusty one) at the chasm, allegedly a big one, between nice guys and good.
I’ll start with a few little words in italics that have been shuddering through me all day as I contemplated this story.
I am not a nice man.
I do not tip cab drivers enough. I barely remember anyone’s birthday, especially those of girlfriends. I take the last piece of lasagna without shyly-yet-knowingly asking the table’s permission. And I don’t floss.
But I am, I think, a good one.
At least, I hope I am.
Ask yourself right now who you’d rather spend your life with, or have as a best friend, a brother, or a father. A good guy, or a nice guy?
You don’t need to text me, I know how you answered. No doubt, you said, “Give me the good guy.” Ask a hundred people, I am sure they’d say the same. The unscientific fact is there’s a deep-down reaction, a chemistry that happens in the guts, when I ask people this question. There’s something inherently wrong about “nice”—and there’s something equally alchemistic, and warm and oozy, about “good.”
Isn’t that something? What is it about these seemingly related terms—linguistically, I’d say they are 1st cousins—that is so sparse and vastly different when you hold them up to the light?
In my research, and that is to say a few stolen minutes of contemplation and dotted note-pad keeping, I’ve come up with exactly one good Matthew Arnold-quality touchstone; just one concrete example that, when observed, we can safely say will stand as the test of truth.
Here it is: Batman vs. Superman.
Sorry in advance, but trust me, there’s truth here. We’ll start with the Dark Knight.
Batman ain’t a nice guy. Just imagine, for a second, his voice. That demonic, tobacco-filtered grunt. A menacing, fatigué-de-vie that is so wholesomely un-nice, it could make Mr. Dressup say the F-word.
Bruce drives a gas-guzzling Bentley, is a chronic heartbreaker, and lives alone; he’s friendless and unable to relate to even the most charming deer tick. Not the make-up of a nice guy. In fact, it’s kind of a grim and brutal constitution.
Superman, conversely, is a sunny do-gooder. Clark wears Buddy Holly glasses, is in love with a gal, and heck, didn’t he grow up in Kansas—the pristine, Brylcreem-parted hometown at the end of the yellow brick road?
Batman doesn’t have to do what he does. He does it from a principle—to rid the world of the same acid that tore his family apart. Superman, well, yeah he keeps the world safe, but he’s an alien, who only does what he does because he’s not born like the rest of us. Where are the heroics in that?
The point is, if you compare the two—these symbols of Good and Nice—you get a pretty clear picture of why we react so differently to each of them. We love the idea of good because, deep down, we know it takes courage. It takes guts, and bruises, and human cleverness to do something that is bigger than all the stormy badness out there. Even when a person is given the perfect life—a mansion on a hill in a metropolitan suburb—that person is only loveable when they do things that are hard and completely unexpected.
But nice is different. Nice is easy. Nice is natural and it is alien. It feels like a facade. Nice is thin lipped and winking, and somehow, we just can’t give it any credit. This is why it’s the nice guy who finishes last. Even when neck and neck with the bad ones, it’s the nice guy who doesn’t rank first because there’s no commitment to it. Like Dostoevsky said, and I’ll paraphrase: nice is boring, and bad is what makes novels beautiful.
Simply put, nice is “nice,” it’s a shrug of the shoulders. That’s it. One time I had a girlfriend who I told I loved. When she asked me why, I told her it was because she was “nice.” Instantly we knew the relationship was doomed. It was a sobering moment. Nice is entirely undesirable—so it’s about time we stopped looking for nice.
The good ones might seem bad at first. They might not do nice things and that might seem awful. No capes over puddles, no grandma visits, no clean, legible hand-writing—they might not even shave. They’ll have a few faults. Yes. For sure. They’ll have a few bad parts.
But that’s just human. That’s the litmus test to know you’ve got a certified Sapien on your hands.
Put them in action. Give them a struggle, something deep and meaningful, and they put nice to shame.
The problem with these gut-guided columns is that, in the end, I never feel like I’ve given enough proof to really match the big idea percolating in me from the start. Ideally, I could chop out a few great examples and we could all walk away knowing one thing for certain. Or else, you’d have a few good rebuttals where I strayed from the path.
So I wonder: Am I alone in this instinctive feeling? Does everyone look at nice in the same way as me? Is it really that big of a difference?
Just now, in search for a few concrete points to finish off with, I Googled the etymology for both words and I was serendipitously stunned with the results. Nice is a compounding of two words. Starting with the “enn” syllable, related to the “un- , no-” negative-meaning prefixes we find everywhere in Latin languages: nil, never, nada. And the second half, the “-ce” from the word for knowledge. If you speak Spanish, or French, you’d recognize this as “se” or “sais,” respectively.
This is amazing. Nice, etymologically speaking, means “not knowing.” Nice is ignorance, is heedlessness; it is an empty vessel. When they say “ignorance is bliss” they mean it’s “nice” too.
And good? The same source tells me: “Virtuous, desirable, valid, considerable.” Good is big, good is “God” with a long “oh”.
We value the hero. The person who suffers and understands life, and through it all, comes out with that essential learning. Scriptwriters call it a turning point, and it’s part of the formula that turns hearts gooey everywhere.
But, there’s no knowledge, no human, no scrapes or cuts, when it comes to nice.
That is it. That is why nice will never do.
Final word of advice dear reader: Look for the good ones. They’ll be the ones with a few scars.