Thursday, November 10, 2005

Nice People

I intent to write an article in praise of nice people. But the reader may wish to know first who are the people that I consider nice. To get at their essential quality may perhaps be a little difficult, so I will begin by enumerating certain types who come under the heading. Maiden aunts are invariably nice, especially, of course, when they are rich; ministers of religion are nice, except those rare cases in which they elope to South Africa with a member of the choir after pretending to commit suicide. Young girls, I regret to say, are seldom nice nowadays. When I was young most of them were quite nice -- that is to say, they shared their mother's opinions, not only about topics, but what is more remarkable, about individuals, even young men; they said, "Yes, Mamma," and, "No, Mamma" at the appropriate moments; they loved their father because it was their duty to do so, and their mother because she preserved them from the slightest hint of wrongdoing. When they became engaged to be married they fell in love with decorous moderation; being married, they recognized it as a duty to love their husbands but gave other women to understand that it was a duty they performed with great difficulty. They behaved nicely to their parents-in-law, while making it clear that any less dutiful person would not have done so; they did not speak spitefully about other women but pursed up their lips in such a way as to let it be seen what they might have said but for their angelic charitableness. This type is what is called a pure and noble woman. The type, alas, now hardly exists except among the old.

Mercifully the survivors still have great power: they control education, where they endeavor, not without success, to preserve a Victorian standard of hypocrisy; they control legislation on what are called "moral issues", and have thereby created and endowed the great profession of bootlegging; they ensure that the young men who write for the newspapers shall express the opinions of the nice old ladies rather than their own, thereby enlarging the scope of the young men's style and the variety of their psychological imagination. They keep alive innumerable pleasures which otherwise would be quickly ended by a surfeit; for example, the pleasure of hearing bad language on a stage, or of seeing there a slightly larger amount of bare skin than is customary. Above all, they keep alive the pleasures of the hunt. In a homogeneous country population, such as that of the English shire, people are condemmed to hunt foxes; this is expensive and sometimes even dangerous. Moreover, the fox cannot explain very clearly how much he dislikes being hunted. In all these respects the hunting of human beings is better sport, but, if it were not for the nice people, it would be difficult to hunt human beings with a good conscience. Those whom the nice people condemn are fair game; at their call of "Tallyho" the hunt assembles, and the victim is pursued to prison or death. It is especially good sport when the victim is a woman, since it gratifies the jealousy of the women and the sadism of the men. I know at this moment a foreign woman living in England, in happy though extra-legal union with a man whom she loves and who loves her; unfortunately, her political opinions are not so conservative as could be wished, though they are merely opinions, about which she does nothing. The nice people, however, have used this excuse to set Scotland Yard upon their scent, and she is to be sent back to her native country to strave. In England, as in America, the foreigner is a morally degrading influence, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to the police for the care which they take to see that only exceptionally virtuous foreigners are allowed to reside among us.

It must not be supposed that all nice people are women, though, of course, it is much commoner for a woman to be nice than for a man. Apart from ministers of religion, there are many other nice men. For example: those who have made large fortunes and have now retired from business to spend their fortunes on charity; magistrates are also almost invariably nice men. It cannot, however, be said that all supporters of law and order are nice men. When I was young, I remember hearing it advanced by a nice woman, as an argument against capital punishment, that the hangman could hardly be a nice man. I have never known any hangmen personally, so I have not been able to test this argument empirically. I knew a lady, however, who met the hangman in the train without knowing who he was, and when she offered him a rug, the weather being cold, he said, "Ah, Madam, you wouldn't do that if you knew who I am," which seems to show that he was a nice man after all. This, however, must have been exceptional. The hangman in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, who is emphatically not a nice man, is probably more typical.

I do not think, however, that we ought to agree with the nice woman I quoted a moment ago in condemming capital punishment merely because the hangman is not likely to be nice. To be a nice person, it is necessary to be protected from crude contact with reality, and those who do the protecting cannot be expected to share the niceness that they preserve. Imagine, for example, a wreck on a liner which is transporting a number of colored laborers; the first-class female passengeres, all of whom are presumably nice women, will be saved first; but in order that this may happen, there must be men who keep the colored laborers from swamping the boat, and it is unlikely that these men will be able to succeed by nice methods. The women who have been saved, as soon as they are safe, will begin to feel sorry for the poor laborers who were drowned, but their tender hearts are rendered possible only by the rough men who defended them.

In general, nice people leave the policing of the world to hirelings because they feel the work to be not such as a person who is nice would wish to undertake. There is, however, one department which they do not delegate -- namely, the department of backbiting and scandal. People can be placed in a hierarchy of niceness by the power of their tongues. If A talks against B, and B talks against A, it will generally be agreed by the society in which they live that one of them is exercising a public duty, while the other is actuated by spite; the one who is exercising the public duty is the one who is the nicer of the two. Thus, for example, a headmistress in a school is nicer than an assistant mistress, but a lady who is on the school board is nicer than either. Well-directed tittle-tattle may easily cause its victim to lose his or her livelihood, and even when this extreme result is not achieved, it may turn a person into a pariah. It is, therefore, a great force for good, and we ought to be thankful that it is the nice people who wield it.

The chief characteristics of nice people is the laudable practice of improvement upon reality. God made the world, but nice people feel that they could have done the job better. There are many things in the Divine handiwork which, while it would be blasphemous to wish them otherwise, it would be by no means nice to mention. Divines have held that if our first parents had not eaten the apple the human race would have been replenished by some innocent mode of vegetation, as Gibbon calls it. The Divine plan in this respect is certainly mysterious. It is all very well to regard it, as the aforesaid divines do, in the light of a punishment of sin, but the trouble with this view is that while it may be a punishment for the nice people, the others, alas, find it quite pleasant. It would seem, therefore, as if the punishment had been made to fall in the wrong quarter. One of the main purposes of the nice people is to redress no doubt this unintended injustice. They endeavor to secure that the biologically ordained mode of vegetation shall be practiced either furtively or frigidly, and that those who practice it furtively shall, when found out, be in the power of the nice people, owing to the damage that may be done to them by scandal. They endeavor to ensure also that as little as possible shall be known on the subjectin a decent way; they try to get the censor to forbid books and plays which represent the matter otherwise than as an occasion for sniggering nastiness; in this they are successful wherever and in so far as they control the laws and the police. It is not known why the Lord made the human body as he did, since one must suppose that omnipotence could have made it such as would not have shocked the nice people. Perhaps, however, there was a good reason. There has been in England, ever since the rise of the textile industry in Lancashire, a close alliance between missionaries and the cotton trade, for missionaries teach the savages to cover up the human body and thereby increase the demand for cotton goods. If there had been nothing shameful about the human body, the textile trade would have lost this source of profit. This instance shows that we need never be afraid lest the spread of virtue should diminish our profits.

Whoever invented the phrase "the naked truth" had perceived an important connection. Nakedness is shocking to all right-minded people, and so is truth. It metters little with what department you are connected; you will soon find that rtuth is such as nice people will not admit into their consciousness. Whenever it has been my ill fortune to be present in court during the hearing of a case about which I had some first-hand knowledge, I have been struck by the fact that no crude truth is allowed to penetrate within those august portals. The truth that gets into a law court is not the naked truth but the truth in court dress, with all its less decent portions concealed. I do not say that this applies to the trial of straightforward crimes, such as murder or theft, but it applies to all those into which an element of prejudice enters, such as political trials, or trials for obscenity. I believe that in this respect England is worse than America, for England has brought to perfection the almost invisible and half-conscious control of everything unpleasant by means of feelings of decency. If you wish to mention in a law court any unassimilable fact, you will find that it is contrary to the laws of evidence to do so, and that not only the judge and the opposing counsel but also cousel on your side will prevent the said fact from coming out.

The same sort of reality pervades politics, owing to the feelings of nice people. If you attempt to persuade any nice person that a politician of his own party is an ordinary mortal no better than the mass of mankind, he will indignantly repudiate the suggestion. Consequently it is necessary to politicians to appear immaculate. At most times the politicians of all parties tacitly combine to prevent anything damaging to the profession from getting known, for difference of party usually does less to divide politicians than identity of profession does to unite them. In this way the nice people are able to preserve their fancy picture of the nation's great men, and school children can be made to believe that eminence is to be achieved only by the highest virtue. There are, it is true, exceptional times when politics become really bitter, and at all times there are politicians who are not considered sufficiently respectable to belong to the informal trade-union. Parnell, for example, was first unsuccessfully accused of co-operation with murderers and then successfully convicted of an offense against morality, such as, of course, none of his accusers would have dreamed of committing. In our own day Communists in Europe and extreme Radicals and labor agitators in America are outside the pale; no large body of nice people admires them, and if the offend against the conventional code they can expect no mercy. In this way the immovable moral convictions of nice people become linked with the defense of property, and thus once more prove their inestimable worth.

Nice people very properly suspect pleasure wherever they see it. They know that he who increaseth wisdom increaseth sorrow, and they infer that he that increaseth sorrow increaseth wisdom. They therefore feel that in spreading sorrow they are spreading wisdom; since wisdom is more precious than rubies, they are justified in feeling that they are conferring a great benefit in so doing. They will, for example, make a public playground for children in order to persuade themselves that they are philanthropic and then impose so many regulations upon its use that no child can be as happy there as in the streets. They will do their best to prevent playgrounds, theaters, etc., from being open on a Sunday, because that is the day when they might be enjoyed. Young women in their employment are prevented so far as possible from talking with young men. The nicest people I have known carried this attitude into the bosom of the family and made their children play only instructive games. This degree of niceness, however, I regret to say, is becoming less common than it was. In the old days children were taught that

One stroke of His almighty rod
Can send young sinners quick to Hell,
and it was understood that this was likely to happen if children became boisterous or indulged in any activity such as was not calculated to fit them for the ministry. The education based upon this point of view is set forth in The Fairchild Family, an invaluable work on how to produce nice people. I know few parents, however, in the present day who live up to this standard. It has become sadly common to wish children to enjoy themselves, and it is to be feared that those who have been educated on these lax principles will not display adequate horror of pleasure when they grow up.

The day of nice poeple, I fear, is nearly over; two things are killing it. The first is the belief that there is no harm in being happy, provided no one else is the worse for it; the second is the dislike of humbug, a dislike which is quite as much ├Žsthetic as moral. Both these results were encouraged by the War, when the nice people in all countries were securely in control, and in the name of the highest morality induced the young people to slaughter one another. When it was all over the survivors began to wonder whether lies and misery inspired by hatred constituted the highest virtue. I am afraid it may be some time before they can again be induced to accept this fundamental doctrine of every lofty ethic.

The essence of nice people is that they hate life as manifested in tendencies to co-operation, and in the boisterousness of children, and above all in sex, with the thought of which they are obsessed. In a word, nice people are those who have nasty minds.

Bertrand Russell


Anonymous said...

Hi there. Do you know if ''Nice People'' was a Russell's lecture? If so, can you provide some details about the place and the time he did it? Also, do you know when it was first published and why?
Any information would be really helpful

Quixie said...

Thanks for commenting.

I'm sorry to say that I do not know where it was first published. The essay is part of a compilation of various lectures and articles by Russell called "Why I Am Not a Christian." Some of the articles refer to the original publications they appeared in. This particular essay does not, which makes me deduce that it was probably a lecture (I think the opening sentence reinforces that impression as well).

All I know is that it was published originally in 1931.

Sorry I can't help more.