Friday, April 10, 2015

Darn Nice People

Update: Dubbahdee and terri, neither of whom is notably liberal, both caution that something of my initial premise is wrong, or skewed. They do not see a contrast between personal Niceness and political/social meanness - and being unconscious of that - as confined to liberals or even especially liberal. At some later point I may take up definitions and explore that.  I am trying very hard not to think of Bethany's comment at all, because it looks promising and is distracting.  For the moment, I would comment that the conservatives I actually know, when they say terrible things, are usually of the blowhard variety. That carries its own type of social damage, as it clears out territory so that others elect not to speak, because they just don't want to get into it.  And yes, some of those people do very nice things for others and might fit someone's discussion of Nice People. 

But those aren't quite who I am referencing here. I don't think of them as Nice People, I think of them as Irritating People who have some good qualities.  Terri's description of some southern ladies may come closer to what I mean, but I am not sure of that either.  At present, I am just looking for strong statistical outliers that might be meaningful over a small sample.  I definitely have one in training and talent in the arts.  I know some conservatives in that group, but few. Many liberals. What that means I am refusing to entertain at present. I thought I had one in "parents did not own their own business," but the numbers aren't that high among my conservative friends either. If it holds up at 2:1 I may keep it as an indicator.  Most of my friends have more education than I do, and I'm not seeing a trend there either. I think one is going to show up around folks being attracted to more meditative and Eastern practices, but there may be some circularity in that. I keep trying out theories and running them down the list of my 80+ liberals and 100+ conservatives.  On nearly every question, I have to eliminate half my list because I simply don't know the answer to what their parents did for work or whether they had some childhood tragedy.  Jonathan Haidt uncovered some differences in moral decision-making that have held up to analysis.  I'm looking for weirder stuff than that.  We'll see.


It is easy enough to find critical analysis on conservative websites of why liberals act the way they do.  Some articles are simply wrong.  Some seem to attempt that mind-reading of others' motives I so heartily dislike. Then there are some which are extremely negative, so that any liberal reading it would be deeply offended for himself and for his friends, and reject out of hand – and yet contain considerable truth.  I can read some of those splenetic screeds yet still say I know people like that.  I know people just like that. Even more, I can read the writings and observe the behaviors of a great many public liberals and see these worst characteristics covered by only the thinnest disguises.  In that latter group, this is the majority. How do smart folks fall for this?

Yet most of the liberals I know are darn nice people. I can see the enabling of evil in what they think and what they say, and sometimes a type of evil peeks out from them as well.  But that would hardly be untrue of conservatives or libertarians also, would it? Enabling evil and evil peeking out are the human condition. 

The folks I see are helpful, they get along with others, often far better than prickly conservatives.  They are generous, they would visit you in hospital or jail, they would give a kind word when you were down*. I don’t believe for moment that their kindness is an act.  Parts of it may be self-serving, or self-deluding, or personal conflict avoidant or some other insincerity, but again – how is that different from all of us?  Are they worse, somehow?  More self-deceptive?

It goes farther than saying “they seem like nice people.”  It would be fairer to say “they seem like the nicest people.” Some liberals made death threats against the owners of a pizza shop.  But these are not those liberals.  I would be absolutely disbelieving if you heard such things had been traced to their phones – as I should be.  They wouldn’t do that.

I don’t think these are mere ironies.  I think the darn niceness is connected to the public dangerousness. I can list off a few theories I have read about that, including some of my own.  I likely will end up in one or more of those as my explanation. But for now I would like to go back to square one and just collect data.  I want to come to a personal explanation that does not just sound plausible and fits some known facts, but something I think is generally and deeply true.  It doesn’t have to be universal or airtight – people are various and slip the nets of description.  But I want to understand better.

So who are they?  My examples will be drawn heavily from social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, APRN’s, other medical and MH professionals, mental health attorneys; family members past and present; denominational ministers, Christian vocation staff, and members of Christian churches; scattered others. They are older than average, because so am I. Some of those categories are almost entirely made up of liberals, in others they are the exception.  There may be value down the road in looking at those associations and percentages, but for now I am at a more basic level. Simpler data. Some of my examples are folks who are very liberal, sometimes they are slightly more ambiguous. When I sense that some vague liberalness quotient drops to 60-40 I stop counting them for research purposes. I have 61 on my list at the moment.  I’m hoping to get to 100 people I actually know reasonably well, because I’m going to have to cut some from the list as I realise I know only 1 teeny fact about their politics.

BTW, I am assembling my list of conservatives for a similar exercise.  But at first look, there's a lot more variety there, a lot fewer common factors.

Comment away, but no theories yet.  We've got enough of those.  One initial observation is that a lot of them have talent and training in the arts, including that unfortunate tendency to regard the arts as a bit holy, more elevated.  I'm looking for stuff like that for the present.

 * Actually, I don't really know that. Maybe when I look at them they won't turn out to be actually generous, favor-doing, and kind.


Texan99 said...

Can you see a difference in the spontaneous personal kindness to close acquaintance, among liberals and conservatives? I'd say the difference has more to do with their views on public policies having to do with strangers.

My rough view is that, if I'm going to run up against an unpleasant personal characteristic in a liberal, it will have to do with lack of rigor or responsibility: spoiling the kids, or inability to avoid repeated financial catastrophes--always the fault of the "system"--something like that. If I'm going to run up against an unpleasant characteristic in a conservative, it will have to do with undue impatience or rigidity: enforce the rules, and who cares about the human consequences, "he let himself in for it," that kind of thing.

A liberal and a conservative might both be drunks, but the liberal (speaking from a broad stereotypical perspective) will drink to escape the effects of the chaos in his life, while a conservative will drink to escape the emotional deadness from too much rulemongering.

bs king said...

@Texan99- Hypocrisy is the most likely unpleasant conservative characteristic I can think of, but it relates to your suggestions because you have to set rules in order to be hypocritical. Of course liberals can be hypocrites in plenty of areas, but when it comes to sex and money, conservatives have more rules and more opportunities for hypocrisy.

Anyway, I think you see a lot of nice liberals because of the fundamental positive attitude about human nature it takes to be a liberal. In a recent debate about NSA surveillance* I realized how much of my argument was predicated on "people with power will do bad things with it, and since we know that we have to prepare for it". The response I get is "yeah, but they probably are using it for good and most people aren't like that." Anticipating the bad behavior of others does not make you a warm and fuzzy person. Believing the best of everyone does. Which one of those view points actually works out in a system of government is a debate that dictates where you fall on the political spectrum.**

*if you haven't seen John Oliver's interview with Edward Snowden, you should. Interesting long form look at the Patriot Act and surveillance, no matter what your opinion on Snowden, the Patriot Act, or John Oliver.

**Provided your the sort of person who thinks your political stances through. Obviously there's plenty on both sides that were just born in to it.

jaed said...

Some liberals made death threats against the owners of a pizza shop. But these are not those liberals. I would be absolutely disbelieving if you heard such things had been traced to their phones – as I should be. They wouldn’t do that.

I find myself again calling Facebook to mind. They wouldn't do that themselves. They wouldn't make a direct threat, send a nasty email or make a phone call. If someone harmed the pizza-shop owners physically, they would be appalled, and their shock would be genuine. (Assuming we have the same sort of person in mind, and I think we do.)

But would they repost such a threat on Facebook, with approving commentary, assuming they didn't think it was a literal threat? Would they nod in agreement if a less-nice someone at work spoke crudely about the need to "[redacted] those Christers"? In other words, do they countenance behavior that is definitely not nice, letting it pass without remonstrance, and even nodding along with it, even if they'd never say these things themselves?

I am also vaguely reminded of the behavior of, say, an old-school bigoted Southern lady... kind, generous, with beautiful manners, and when the talk turns to desegregation, capable of saying the ugliest things in the most gentle manner. (I realize I'm threatening to get into theorizing here and you told us not to do that. But I'm wondering whether the comparison might not lead to enlightening questions. Someone can be a wonderful human being but still possess a deep animus and no self-awareness about it. Such a person can shock you with the most jaw-dropping utterances... because you're not prepared for them to harbor such thoughts. Is there such a pattern in this group?)

DCE said...

There are three observations I can make about my liberal friends, acquaintances, and a few family members:

1. Too many of them appear to have little knowledge about economics, at least in regards where the money comes from to pay for all of the social programs. More often than not I have heard them state something along the lines of "We can just cut the defense budget to pay for it all" or "We can raise taxes on all the greedy corporations and 1%-ers" without understanding the either the magnitude of what they're proposing or the consequences of doing so.

2. Sometimes their urge to "Do something!" overrides logic. It's one thing to propose solutions or fixes to problems, real or imagined, but another when those fixes or solutions create far worse consequences than doing nothing. Call it a 'feelings over facts' blind spot. (I have observed this in my younger sister, someone who is otherwise a very intelligent woman.)

3. I find quite a few of my liberal friends/family/acquaintances have little understanding of history. They may know dates and places, but not what actually led to various events and failures in Western civilization. This blindspot has led more than a few of them to suggest solutions to problems that have been tried before and failed miserably. And on a couple of occasions one or more has said "We won't make the same mistakes", something that sends shivers down my spine as history shows otherwise. George Santayana was smarter than most people give him credit for.

JMSmith said...

Thanks for the nod in your post on river names. In North America, many of the loveliest toponyms are the names of rivers, or of the states that take their names from rivers. I think this is because the rivers were among the first of the geographic features to need a name, so Native American names were often adopted. Because we no longer understand, or even barely understand, the Native American languages, these toponyms are no longer tethered to their prosaic literal meanings, but are free to rise to the level of pure music and poetry. Some day, when the English language has evolved (or been supplanted), names like Big Creek and Long Branch will likely sound as musical and romantic as Genesee, Chattahoochee, or Connecticut.

Setting aside the cynical liberals for whom the movement is just a racket, I think the remainder divides into two classes, the sweet liberals and the angry liberals. The sweet liberals are the ones you describe as "darn nice people," and I don't think there's much need to dig deeper than that. These are, indeed, very nice people for whom niceness is a supreme virtue, not to mention a social panacea. So they are generous, warm, and tolerant. Indeed, to a conservative, they are generous, warm, and tolerant to a fault. Most of the people in my family are sweet liberals who wouldn't shoot a rabid dog.

Sweet liberals work hard to think the best of everyone, but they do admit that the world is blighted with "mean people" who are stingy, cold and censorious. Because sweet liberals are so very nice, however, they are extremely reluctant to point to any particular person and say that he is mean. I find it almost impossible to convince the sweet liberals in my family that I'm not nearly as nice as they are. They will say that "deep down" I'm really nicer than I seem, when the truth is exactly the opposite.

Angry liberals are not naturally nice, but they have the normal human capacity to be nice when it is advantageous. When it suites them, they can be as nasty as they come. This is because their goal is not to put everyone at their ease, like the sweet liberal, but to dismantle received opinions piece by piece. They abolish rules and institutions by relaxing them out of existence. To express this in theological terms, the sweet liberal advocates latitudinarianism in the hope that people will stop bickering and the angry liberal advocates latitudinarianism in the hope that people will stop believing.

Texan99 said...

It's always pleasant when someone is instinctively nice when there's no compelling immediate reason not to be. The real question for me, though, is what "nice" means when something important is on the line. Too much liberalism involves being nice about other people's sacrifices, or nice about hypothetical situations unlikely to arise in one's own life. Somehow when one's own children are threatened, or one's own retirement funding is in jeopardy, one's core beliefs about niceness and sharing become more real and more obvious. Hence the old joke about a conservative being a liberal who was just mugged, and a liberal being a conservative who was just arrested.

Sam L. said...

They're nice until their hot button gets punched.

Dubbahdee said...

I'm not sure whether you think niceness is a virtue in this case, or a problem.

Your underlying assumption seems to be that niceness in liberals is really just a mask that hides something insidious beneath. ("the darn niceness is connected to the public dangerousness") Is this is your hypothesis that you are seeking to prove? Good luck dodging that pesky confirmation bias.

I think you cut closer to the bone when you say, "I don’t believe for moment that their kindness is an act. Parts of it may be self-serving, or self-deluding, or personal conflict avoidant or some other insincerity, but again – how is that different from all of us?"

I see it this way in religious terms, where the so-called legalist and the antinomian are in fact two expressions of the same problem. Both are reacting to their perception of the "Law." The former reacts by doubling down on their efforts. The latter by abandoning their effort to keep the law -- becoming their own law. But they are both essentially legalists in fact, feeling enslaved to a law the did not make.

So it is possible (likely?)that those who are "nice" and those who are whatever the opposite of nice is, both do so out of reaction to the same force. If this is true, then when your study confirms some underlying cause for niceness in liberals (as if this is a singular quality of liberals) the finding will be pretty useless.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

My context is nice people who say or write things that are objectively insulting and mean, but do not see the meanness and insult of them. In fact, when you point out to them that their comment is a bit horrifying they get irritated and delete or unfriend you.

A couple of them are people we both know well, and know as Nice People. So the contradiction is just something I can't get my head around. Rightist irritating people will see themselves a Decent People or Reasonable People, but will often allow that they aren't always Nice - and explain to you why, usually in irritating fashion. But this seems not the case on the left. There is something interesting at play here.

But at the moment. I'm still just gathering data, rejecting any theories why this is. Conservative explanations are just as likely to be self-serving.

terri said...

I don't agree that liberals are more prone than conservatives to being "nice" and then saying horrible things with no self-awareness.

Go live in the South for a while and meet the nicest, sweetest, conservative ladies who would do anything for people in their families, churches and communities, and then be surprised by the horribly racist or judgmental things they occasionally throw out.

Or maybe have a conservative family relation who would bend over backwards to help you and others in any way they could, and then be shocked by the sheer level of vitriol that will spill out over some political idea that really is pretty far removed from their own personal lives.

Trying to pin this human foible on liberals alone is chasing the wind.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri, you could be right. This may simply be a product of the people I know and the way my life is situated. My experience is very limited, and the people I know may not be representative of the country at large.

However, among the people I know, it's no contest. It's not close. The evil things conservatives say are different. And it puzzles me and I want to understand what is happening here.

Dubbahdee said...

"The evil things conservatives say are different"

Speaking stylistically (not referring to the level of power) Sauron was a conservative. Saruman was a liberal.

At least, according to your schematic.

Dubbahdee said...

Case Study: "Emma" by Jane Austen.

Was she a "nice" liberal, or a "decent" conservative?


Styles of self-justification are like styles of Kung Fu. Are you Shaolin, or Taijiquan?

Ralph said...

DCE, these three things are also what I have experienced with my liberal friends.

Points 1 and 3 wouldn't be so bad if point 2 wasn't where liberals spend so much of their time. Just doing something seems haphazard to conservatives.

I would guess that liberals' stereotype more, the various rights groups gravitate to liberal politics. It would also fit with points 1 and 3. "Everybody knows, agrees, etc. that women, men, economists, etc." Consensus is important to liberals. Liberals don't like conflict or arguing; if everybody just does what some smart person says, everything will be fine. They pick a one size fits all solution, make multiple exceptions, and don't see the irony.

Liberals don't seem to have the same self regulation on speaking their mind that conservatives do, especially where you don't know the other's politics.