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Being Nice and the Damage Done

I consider myself a student of communication. I have found that the the methods of communication we are taught are not always the healthiest, or most successful. On example of that is that the the subject of the harm in being nice/polite has come up in several settings over the last few weeks.

Rencetly I attended a skills practice session with Long Island Nonviolent Communication (NVC) Susan Tibke, a co-founder of LI NVC, led the practice session. She had selection of books displayed related to NVC. I particularly remember her praising the book Don’t be Nice, Be Real. It came up again when I received an email from her telling me that the book’s author Kelly Bryson who is going be interviewed on an open conference call on Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 12 noon eastern time. Bryson has used NVC to work out differences with street gangs in San Diego, combined groups of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East.

The second instance of the danger of politeness is the speech Susan McKeon-Steinman gave outside the
Central Islip court house. She was there in relation to her arrest at the Smith Haven Mall for reading the names of the US soldiers killed in Iraq. McKeon told a story from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a main pillar of the Civil Rights Movement. They would sing Malvina Reynolds song It isn’t nice to block the doorway in answer to those who criticized their methods.1 McKeon also sang the song for us. (According to the website about songwriter Reynolds, the “original version of the song was banned from the radio in Japan–in Japanese, but not in English!” ) Here is the first verse and chorus:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway
It isn’t nice to go to jail
There are nicer ways to do it
But the nice ways always fail
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice
You told us once, you told us twice
But if that is Freedom’s price
We don’t mind.

The third instance where of the problem with niceness arrived in the mail yesterday in my new issue of Yes! magazine.2 It contains a one page commentary titled Be Kind, Not Nice by Akaya Windwood of the Rockwood Leadership Program. Windwood described the difference between niceness and kindness:

Niceness is often filled with falseness — it is a way to not tell the truth, or to obscure it. . . . While niceness may be a strategy that gets us through an immediate situation, it is not effective in the long run as a way to come together to solve the myriad difficulties facing our communities, both local and global.

It is crucial that we hold ourselves and each other accountable, and we can do that with hearts of kindness. . . . Kindness allows us to say the hardest of things while preserving the dignity of those around us. It allows us to take the big risk of letting people know what is on our minds in a way that is unclouded and respectful.

See also:

1Malvina Reynolds song reminds me a passage from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

And Frederick Douglas’ 1857 speech:

. . . The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. . . .

2And I don’t feel like linking to the supposedly non-corporate Yes! magazine right now for only giving a platform to the the 3 corporate presidential candidates in their issue focussed on transitioning to a post-superpower country, and nothing to the non-corporate candidates like the Green Party candidates who are actually envisioning such a world. It’s really sad when corporate MTV gives better coverage.

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