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Meditations on Meanness
How mean should we be? How nice should we be? Probably more of both.
I could stand to be nicer. I am off-puttingly sarcastic and glib and I have an arctic-dry New England sense of humor that often doesn’t read well in most rooms. I can be harshly judgmental, often to grant myself some sense of superiority to counter my usual wallows of insecurity. This is not good. Unsurprisingly, I never fit in growing up. I always had the wrong haircut and the wrong shoes and shorts that were too long; I played no sports in my four years of middle school but once a week I demanded my mother bring me to school an hour early so that I could attend mathlete practice. I am probably mean because it is easier than being nicer, especially as I had to quickly learn that kindness is not the default treatment for freckle-faced girls in nine-inch Bermuda shorts and Keens. I kvetch about people that I find sanctimonious or pretentious or thoughtless or lacking in self-awareness, not coincidentally the very things I worry I am or the things I fear becoming.
I only keep the company of people nicer than I am. My glib disposition and perpetual fatalism are exhausting enough within my own head, and I don’t particularly care to indulge it in anyone else. Maybe this is selfish of me. I often worry that I am hoarding the world’s supply of kind and brilliant people and poisoning them with proximity to my ever-present gloominess.
But somehow, despite how tired I am of sarcasm and petty criticism, the world seems far too “nice”.
In an era of “girls-supporting-girls” and “let-people-enjoy-things”, having distinct tastes or opinions is tantamount to social suicide. There is no room for good-spirited teasing or critique or gossip or even interpersonal dislike. As much as I despise the phrase, these things are human nature. We possess the human range of emotions, which includes being annoyed or petty or mean-spirited—to pretend anyone is above it is not only moralistic but biologically false. When we don’t like someone or something, we scavenge to find a political or moral reason to critique them, instead of owning up to our honest truth: sometimes, you just find someone annoying.
Our crisis of niceness is both insufferable and detrimental to our artistic output; the films, art, and music we make are expected to promote pleasantness and punish everything else. We don’t see culture as a vehicle for artistic expression, but instead for moral expression, and as such our capacity for connoisseurship is at an all-time low. A film can be visually uninspired, a song can be derivative, a book can be poorly written, but as long as it espouses some rhetoric of universal justice it will be lauded as “important”. This is boring. It is uninspiring. If you even critique the mechanisms of the culture industry and its monopolized outputs (Marvel Movies, Taylor Swift, etc), you are deemed at best a hater and at worst a misogynist/racist/classist/homophobe depending on the day and the detractor.
It is a vague and meaningless form of pleasantry and niceness that does little more than create social codes of conduct concerning our language and discourse. It is Redbubble “Treat People With Kindness” stickers on MacBook Airs, it is a mass produced t-shirt with a slogan like You Matter <3 sold as mental health awareness. It feels suffocating, a cloying Yankee Candle atmosphere that gives nothing of substance yet demands a smile and a quiet wave.
We have confused pleasantness with kindness. Pleasantness is plasticine and sanitized, florescent lights over pastel bulletin boards. Kindness is human, old hardwood floors and fresh fruit.
Kindness is bringing your neighbors a bowl of chili, or sitting quietly with the people you love to reflect in the morning. Both actions somehow sparked mass outrage online and the individuals who shared their moments of quiet kindness were either called privileged or evil or any of the -ists that internet commentors love to toss around… classist, ableist, et cetera. The people who attempted to bring some joy into their own lives and the lives of others were called ugly and annoying in hundreds and thousands of replies within the same cultural space that insists that it is materially violent to say that you don’t like K-Pop or Taika Waititi.
We create mass hysteria over stranger-in-the-dark human trafficking myths (1, 2), we love stories about how our neighbors and community members are all untrustworthy and we must rely on Apple-branded tracking devices to keep ourselves safe. We hate to hear that people are happy because they have prioritized building connections and relationships. There is no space for real-life kindness or kindness as an action or practice.
In fact, our politically motivated penchant towards pleasantness is not a move away from meanness, but towards it. In the name of liberal, feel-good politics, the individual exists not as human being or community member, but as a physical manifestation of social and cultural politics. Because of this, if an individual does something off-putting or seemingly strange, it is okay to use their name or their image as the definitive example of wrongdoing. I still think about how the saga of West Elm Caleb perfectly encapsulated our relationship to meaningless feminisms, mass media culture, and human cruelty. First, a Tinder date does something that a girl does not like, he then becomes personally representative of misogyny and deserves to be torn down by the entire world. People realize this is bad, so the girl becomes representative of White Woman Entitlement and is subjected to endless actual misogyny.
A Twitter account with 2,600 followers tweets: “Woman buying a single banana at Whole Foods”. Attached is an image of a very normal looking woman (her unobscured face included) buying a banana. The tweet gets 7,000 likes. She was probably getting a snack. Maybe she was getting the missing ingredient for a recipe. Maybe she’s a sicko and a crazy freak who was buying a single banana for some sort of psychosexual ritual. Does it really matter?
I believe in gossip. I believe in talking about people behind their backs. I believe in complaining about bad movies and bad music. I think, like cigarettes and fast food, these are things best enjoyed without overindulgence or only when inebriated, but still largely harmless so long as they are kept in small, infrequent doses. I think it is possible to be mean without being cruel just as it is possible to be nice without being kind. Talking with your friends about someone you don’t like is meant to build bonds between the shit-talkers more than it is meant to tear down the shitted-on. Posting a picture of a stranger on the internet to make fun of—for doing something mundane or actively embarrassing—is meant to create an othering cruelty towards another person, reduce them to a spectacle. There is no communal bonding over this person’s shame, just a momentary sense of reassurance that viewers and commenters are not the Freak of the Day.
I smile at children. I ask baristas how their day is going or if they did anything fun over the weekend and I am genuinely interested in their answer. I like to send my friends surprise gifts and postcards. I’m also not above making fun of old high school classmates for tragic outfits within the confines of a private text message, or forming an inside joke about the condescending pattern-of-speech possessed by someone asking a self-important question at a book launch. I am aware that these things are not good, but I try to keep a good humor about the circle of petty jabs—if the teenage girls on the subway point and giggle at my terrible haircut, it is a deserved measure of karma for my own digressions.
I could still stand to be nicer.
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