Being nice might be killing you body, Frederick Marx writes, and probably your soul.
How? By turning them into parrots of themselves. By making them afraid to be authentic.
A lot of men sit on deep reservoirs of anger and grief and fear, and yes joy too, unable to give voice to these inner realities because they’re hermetically sealed by niceness. Yes, even expressing joy can be a no-no. How many times have you shut down your own exuberance, your own playfulness, because it was “inappropriate?” It wouldn’t be nice? I’ve done it plenty. I’ve also worked with a lot of men who’ve shut down many or all of their feelings. They become their own worst self-censors, their own worst repressors. They’ve internalized lessons that it’s not only inappropriate to express these feelings it’s impermissible, not allowed, verboten.
How sad is that? The prohibitions against men being real run deep. First there are the cultural ones. Want to show some fear in public? Good luck. Sadness? Forget it. People will shame you fast and hard. Not to mention the mass media. A few years ago there was a baseball player (whose name I’ve forgotten) inducted into the Hall of Fame. He cried when he accepted his award. The media savaged him. It was brutal.
The messages come fast and hard about what’s permissible for men and what isn’t. It starts with our parents and peers when we’re really young. “Don’t cry!” “Suck it up!” “Don’t be a baby!” “What are you afraid of, Pussy!” “Act your age!” “Mind your manners! “Be nice!” It’s a wonder any of us reach middle age with any of our true feelings still discernable.
Some argue that without prohibitions on emotions people would not become socialized, men would not become civilized. Bullshit. It’s not socialization it’s social control. It’s turning us into automatons. Why? Because the simple truth is that when we’re not accessing all of our rich human feelings, and not putting them to constructive use, we’re allowing ourselves to be constricted and controlled by others.
Take fear. As a motivator fear is one of the greatest of them all. You think politicians don’t know that? Elections have become fear-invoking contests with the winners invoking the most dread. First they summon it – making you afraid, for example, that terrorists lurk behind every corner. Then they assuage the fear they themselves have created – “I’ll take care of you. I’ll protect you. I’ll keep you safe.” How? More police. More military. Better X-ray machines at airports. Fewer civil liberties… Nonsense.
When you’re aware that you’re feeling fear and aware of who’s inciting you to feel that way you can’t be manipulated. You can’t be controlled. You are self-empowered.
The same is true for sadness or anger or any other strong emotion. As long as you’re skilled in recognizing the emergence of these feelings and unwilling to be shamed out of feeling or expressing them you’re empowering yourself. You can rip off the Nice Guy veneer and be true to yourself, totally authentic.
Am I advocating savagery? A world unsocialized and “free?” A return to some idealized vision of the past where men grunt and beat their chests and express their feelings in one word exclamations? No. What I’m advocating is a different approach to socialization. One that allows and encourages our natural tendencies as human beings to do well by each other and flourish.
So let’s stop shaming and repressing boys when they express their authentic feelings. When we do that WE are the forces of social control. Besides making these boys grow into men vulnerable to gross manipulations by others it will also lead to them being at war with themselves. When they’re at war with themselves, cut off from all that’s authentic within, however dark and scary that may be, then depression, addiction, violence against themselves or others, real sociopathology, are the common results.
In graduate school I once set off an argument with two friends when I railed against the expression “Awww!” As in “Awww! Look at those kitties… those puppies… that baby…” I repulsed and I think terrified my female friend–a psychologist. She probably saw me as a sociopath. Maybe it’s no surprise that she’s no longer my friend, nor is her husband.
What I tried to express was this: I reject the use of the expression when it’s inauthentic. There are times when I hear that expression and I think they’re faking it. They’re saying it because it’s expected of them in the moment. It’s a social obligation. They’re not being real.
How can you tell? Certainly it’s not easy. Certainly projection is going to figure into those judgments on plenty of occasions. So I suppose a quick litmus test might start with the simple question, “Do you really mean that?”
But there’s another facet of “Awww!” I object to. It has to do with the commoditization of our human expressions. I have little doubt that early in its existence in the culture the expression “Awww!” was authentic. Someone, somewhere, started using it to express loving kindness. But it’s entirely possible, even probable, that it was later adopted and exploited by marketers to sell a product. It was repackaged and sold back to consumers as “authentic human expression” in the form of kiddie boots, or doggie toys, or kitten blankets… anything cute and cuddly.
As with fear, sentiments of affection and admiration are constantly cheapened and exploited, used as a means of manipulation by popular media. It too is a simple form of social control. Look at TV and movies! Please don’t tell me people aren’t affected by that, taught to use expressions first by the popular culture, taught to put them to use as “authentic” expressions whether they are truly heartfelt or not.
But let’s be clear. Not being nice does not mean being cruel or uncaring or ungracious. It means being real. Mean is not the opposite of nice, passion is. Nice means being denuded of real feelings, it means being turned into a zombie – a once fully human being now residing some distance from the surface of his skin. It’s impossible to be nice when you’re passionate. You can be gentle, you can be caring, you can be considerate. But you can’t be nice. Nice means cool to the point of frozen. Passion means heat.
Even civil doesn’t mean nice. It’s true we live in a very uncivil age, where people hardly know how to intelligently discuss and explore differences. The media is only the most glaring example. Tried pulling out into a busy intersection where oncoming traffic doesn’t have to stop? Letting someone in is not being nice it’s being civil. It may even be compassionate. Agreeing to disagree is not being nice it’s being respectful.
So men don’t be nice! Be real, be fiery, be alive!
photo by D Sharon Pruitt / Flickr