Thursday, 31 May 2007


Nice is one of those words that completely depends on context, isn’t it? Most people think of being nice as a good thing, but with the right intonation, and appropriately placed pauses in the cadence of the delivery, being called nice can be a huge insult. The word itself is innocuous—it hedges bets, it fails to take a stand, and sits on the fence. It is very, very, civilized.

And I say that because I’m thinking about Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. I first read that small book, when I was about 19. I was in the back of the car with my family, travelling the 12 hours back from Georgia to Louisiana to see my grandparents for Christmas. As I sat cramped, seatbelt cutting into me, needing to pee, I read Freud’s thoughts about how we have to do things that are against our natural instincts, in order to live a safe and, ultimately, better life. I found a lot of truth in that.

Freud points out that it is all a balance—a balance between our instinctive drives and our need to be social creatures, ultimately leading us to living on a fence, and maybe therefore, to being nice. So, I wonder if the way that we are nice to each other—I wonder, is this as context sensitive as the word itself? Can our nice actions be just as cutting as they can be kind?

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