The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

A while ago, tumblr user “iamateenagefeminist” compiled a list of non-oppressive insults, a public service that will never be forgotten. The people of tumblr wept with joy and appreciation (although it should be noted that the people of tumblr will literally weep over a drawing of an owl). The list is not perfect, and “ugly” should NOT be on there as it reinforces beauty hierarchies. Still, I was happy to find it, because I am always looking for more insults that don’t reinforce oppressive social structures.

But if you scroll through the reblogs you’ll see that not everyone was enamoured of the idea of creating this list at all. In particular, several people said that trying to find non-oppressive ways to insult other people is “missing the point” of social justice. Those people seem to think that being nice is a core part of social justice. But those people are wrong.

Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a “nicer” world. I am not suggesting niceness is bad or that we should not behave in a nice way towards others if we want to! I also do not equate niceness with cooperation or collaboration with others. Here’s all I am saying: the conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.

Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!). These people would hold a door for us if they saw us coming. Our enemies are not only the people holding “Fags Die God Laughs” signs, they are the nice people who just feel like marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense, it’s just how they feel! We once got a very nice comment on this site that we decided we could not publish because its content was “But how can I respect women when they dress like – sorry to say it, pardon my language – sluts?”. This is vile, disgusting misogyny and no amount of sugar coating and politeness can make it okay. Similarly, most of the people who run ex-gay therapy clinics are actually very nice and polite! They just want to save you! Nicely! Clearly, niceness means FUCK ALL.

On an even more serious note, nice people also DO horrible bad things on an individual level. In The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker, he explicitly says that people who intend to harm others often display niceness towards them in order to make them feel safe and let their guard down. This trick only works because we have been taught that niceness indicates goodness. What is more, according to De Becker, women have been socially conditioned to feel indebted to men who are “nice” to them, which is often exploited by abusers. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I suggest you pick up the book – it talks a lot about how socialisation of men and women makes it easier for men to abuse women.

How many more acts that reinforce kyriarchy have to be done nicely and politely before we stop giving people any credit for niceness? Does the niceness of these acts make them acceptable? It does not.

An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people. Being marginalised does not mean people are always nasty to you, it means you live in a world in which many aspects of the cultural, social and economic systems are stacked against people like you. Some very privileged people have had awful experiences in life, but it does not erase their privilege. That is because privilege is about groups of people being given different rights and opportunities by the law and by socio-cultural norms. Incidentally, that is why you can have some forms of privilege and not others, and it doesn’t make sense to try to “tally up” one’s privilege into a sum total and compare it against others’.

By the way, the first person who says “But then why are TV shows a social justice issue?” in the comments will have their head put on a pike as an example to others. Cultural narratives are part of what builds and reinforces social roles, and those determine what opportunities a person has – and the rights they can actually exercise, even if they have them in the law. If you don’t believe me and don’t want to accept this idea, you will now google “stereotype threat”, you will read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, you will watch this speech by Esther Duflo on women and development (which talks about stereotypes and outcomes), and THEN you may return to this blog.

The conflation of nice and good also creates an avenue of subtle control over marginalised people. After all, what is seen as “nice” is cultural and often even class-dependent, and therefore the “manners” that matter get to be defined by the dominant ethnic group and class. For example, the “tone” argument, the favourite derailing tactic of bigots everywhere, is quite clearly a demand that the oppressor be treated “nicely” at all times by the oppressed – and they get to define what “nice” treatment is. This works because the primacy of nice in our culture creates a useful tool – to control people and to delegitimise their anger. A stark example of this is the stereotype of the desirably meek and passive woman, which is often held over women’s heads if we step out of line. How much easier is it to hold on to social and cultural power when you make a rule that people who ask for an end to their own oppression have to ask for it nicely, never showing anger or any emotion at being systematically disenfranchised? (A lot easier.)

Furthermore, I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “tranny” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.

So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people. Calling a white person a racist fuckhead doesn’t do any of that. Yes, it’s not very nice. And how effective it is as a tactic is definitely up for debate (that’s a whole other blog post). But it’s not oppression.

Being good and being nice are totally unrelated. We need to get serious about debunking this myth, because the confusion between the two is obfuscating our message and handing our oppressors another tool with which to silence us. In some cases, this confusion is putting people (especially women) in real danger.

This social movement can’t achieve its goals if people think it’s essentially some kind of niceness revolution. And anyway, social justice is not about making the world a nicer place. It’s about taking back the rights and opportunities denied to us by law or by social and cultural norms – and breaking out of the toxic mindset that wants us to say please and thankyou when we do.


84 Comments on The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

  1. Shvere says:

    I enjoyed this post IMMENSELY. I am so unbelievably happy you wrote this. I feel like niceness gets used as a veil to hide all sorts of racist/sexist/other-ist bullshit these days – more so than previously perhaps when it wasn’t as taboo to be openly bigoted. I feel like the rise of political correctness has meant some of that bigotry has just started wearing the camo-fatigues of niceness.

    Also I am so incredibly pleased fuckhead is on the list of non-oppressive insults.

  2. Great post, and interesting list, although I remember reading a discussion awhile back about how douche was oprressive because a douche is what a woman uses to clean her vagina. Also greasy fucker feels classist and a close cousin of the term redneck, as it’s makes me think of people who can’t afford shampoo or have to work jobs where their going to get greasy (mechanics, fast food workers etc.). Brat has ageist conotations. And considering the etymology of the term fucker, how far is it removed from slut shaming?

    Which makes me wonder if it is possible for any insult to not be opressive, in some manor or other? Or more to the point, the importance of context. For example is it oppressive if a woman calls a male polititician who supports sexist legislation a “cunt” or is it subversive?

    Oddly enough, this post strikes me as thematically close to the first post I wrote for my blog, in which I talked about the issues I had with political correctness, how it too often becomes political censorship. Not too mention how it can often be a moot point, given how easily bigots can adopt politically correct terminology.

    In any case, I have personal experience with nice, polite people who actually were, it turned out, lyeing, opressive assholes. Don’t want to go into the details here, but I totally get where this post is coming from. One of them did a rather nice favor for me once, only to blatently lie to my face about one of my friends. It’s really hard to describe in words, the frustration and confusion that results when this happens.

    • Connie Connie says:

      although I remember reading a discussion awhile back about how douche was oprressive because a douche is what a woman uses to clean her vagina.

      This is a bit tangential but douching is actually really unhealthy for vaginas. A friend of mine once said he liked the insult BECAUSE of that reason.

      As for the other insults – I mean, I think there is the possibility of them taking on oppressive meanings, if just by the culture of so many insults being oppressive in nature. It may also depend on where you’re living and how particular words are used locally. Like with many of these things I don’t think there are definitive answers for every case and it’s just a judgement call you have to make.

      • Sarah says:

        Yup, the reason I like “douche” and variants as an insult, particular for people who are being sexist, is because to me it means something useless and harmful to women.

      • Regarding douching, as usual, I come away from this blog a bit more edumacated than I was before.

        • Emily says:

          While it is harmful towards most women, I have heard that douching is necessary for trans* women after surgery, so you may need to take it with a grain of salt.

    • penny says:

      yeah – with risk of being overly clinical, i tend to get pretty sick of insults about asses, and with connotations various practices with them(i.e. happyass, jackass, assface. I actually love having my ass fucked, sniffed and licked – and i love sniffing, licking, sucking and sticking things in other peoples. I think arses are awesome and beautiful organs, and i don’t need to feel shamed about it!

      I get the need for non oppressive insults (seriously), but i think that the practice of linking people that we don’t like to things which are generally considered dirty or wrong is always going to end up offending people.

      Likewise, while i agree that idea that douching is a necessity is oppressive, i also don’t think its good to lump the shame of that onto those who already feel that oppression (because those are the people who are going to be hurt by these insults – its not like some patriarchal guy is going to be actually upset by this. Calling they patriarchal is probably going to upset them a lot more…

      • nchoirnmind says:

        likewise, bastard as an insult is a slur against anybody whose mom isn’t married to their dad, but it’s one I can’t seem to break the habit of using.

  3. Scott says:

    Great post, links two of my favorite things to read about on the internet – social justice, and mental biases/blind spots.

    This is definitely a blind spot I’ll have to watch out for in myself in future.

    Thanks!

  4. blinvisible says:

    I think the ‘culture valuing niceness actively preserves fucked up power structures’ line ought to be drawn out more explicitly.

    It’s not that you violate cultural norms because you ran out of other options, it is that those norms are part of the problem.

  5. Paul says:

    I’ve also heard “asshole” criticized as homophobic in its roots. Even “fucker” suggests slut-shaming, doesn’t it?

    I think that while this post is basically dead on, non-oppressive insults are really hard to come by.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Hmm, I like “fuckhead” and “jackass”, both of which I think are non-oppressive. Also the ladies at the hairpin website have been using “juicebox” as an insult for a while, which has a nice ring to it!

      • Joeymom says:

        Jackass is a nice, non-oppressive insult. Unless, of course, you are into Mule Rights.

        • penny says:

          I’m pretty sure that jackass is euphemistically used as a reference to anal sex…

          as a queer person, i get hurt. i know people want to use insults without being oppressive, but i don’t know if i’ve come across many. they just seem to get more obscure – but someone is usually the but of the joke, and its often not the person you’re trying to attack. why don’t we have any insults which refer to the practices or appearance of, for instance, heterosexual rich white boys? tbh i prefer fuck – if we’re going to be sex negative, at least make it universal

          • Rachael Rachael says:

            Hm, since jackass literally means male donkey, I would be surprised if it were used as a veiled euphemism for anal sex. That said, stranger linguistic things have happened.

            I also prefer to use “fuck” rather than “ass” – purely from linguistic aesthetics. But I take your point. I think we can and should cultivate insults referring to the practices or appearances of hetero rich white cisboys!

          • Dalillama says:

            Jackass, as an insult, derives from jackass, a donkey or mule. It implies that the person is stubborn, stupid, unhelpful, clumsy, and/or aggressive, all traits known in those animals. I’ve never heard it used to refer to anal sex, and I can’t find any references to such a use. I’d say it’s fair game.

  6. Miriam says:

    This is brilliant! I shall share it widely.

  7. AMM says:

    Privileged people are able to be “nice” because they’ve got other people to do their dirty work of enforcing their privilege for them, so they don’t have to struggle to maintain their position.

    Struggling, especially struggling against those who want to take advantage of you, is inherently not-nice, and if you don’t have a power structure to do it for you — that is, if you don’t have privilege — you have to do it yourself. And be seen as “not nice.”

    (Of course, projecting an aura of niceness can sometimes fool people into thinking you must have a power structure behind you, even if they can’t see it.)

    • LDS says:

      totally! this is spot on. the whole “you can’t be angry” thing is definitely a way to keep people pushed down. oppression naturally makes people who are pushed down angry! anger arises when a person is violated. i’d say oppression pretty much fucking qualifies for that lol!

    • Dalillama says:

      This made me think of a line from ‘The Big Sleep’ which rather encapuuslates that:
      “But Eddie Mars wouldn’t do that, would he, Silver-Wig? He never killed anybody. He just hires it done.” For those not familiar, a gangster’s wife is claiming that her husband is a nice man, who would never kill anyone.

  8. We are an individualistic society. We value the individual and thus completely blame the individual for any wrongdoings or failures. While each individual’s experience may differ, we can’t ignore the systemic oppression that privileges some and disadvantages others, and the effect it can have on individual lives. But because each individual’s experience may differ, we cannot assume as someone’s experiences or motivations based on what we perceive to be their identity or know to be their identity. I guess what I’m saying is oppression and privilege is fucking complicated on the interpersonal level, and a lot of that is masked in politeness.

  9. Connie Connie says:

    Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people.

    I think this is also the wrong idea that many people have outside social justice circles too. People get really hung up over the issue of “offense” and whether something is “offensive” as a purely emotional state, and then compare it to something like a person being offended at another person swearing (in a non-marginalising way).

    I use the word “offensive” very rarely for that reason – I tend to stick to “hurtful” or “marginalising” because I think it better expresses when something is detrimental to an identity or a community of people. These words are also more useful as an ally who is not personally “hurt” by the remarks, but can point out how they can be hurtful to others.

    And in reality I rarely experience “hurt feelings” over my marginalisation. I experience frustration, anger and sadness over the state of the system and culture, but “hurt feelings” implies some sort of pre-existing relationship between me and the person making a bigoted remark, like I care what they personally think of me. I care what privileged people think of me on a systematic level (since that’s how marginalisation occurs), but individually I have a problem with a remark that perpetuates the kyriarchy and it shouldn’t matter whether my emotions are involved or not.

  10. Connie Connie says:

    I also want to add that a while back I came up with my own mix n’ match list of creative insults as well:

    Column A: douche, fuck, shit, crap, ass (arse), jerk, piss, turd. Column B: face, wad, bag, nozzle, biscuit, butt, fart, bucket

    So far douchenozzle gets used the most, but personally I’m proud of some of the more exotic ones like “pissbiscuit”.

  11. Tsipi says:

    Rachael, I mean this in a totally non-stalking non-harassing way…

    But every time I read one of your posts I fall a little more in love with you.

    Reblogging this.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Aw, thanks! :)

      • Tsipi says:

        I sent a message to your contact page regarding another re-blogging I want to do but haven’t received a response. I’d like my local feminist and queer communities to have access to this article, so I translated it into Hebrew and want to post it on the site of the Israeli Association for Feminist and Gender Studies.

        http://www.gendersite.org.il/

        Do I have your permission, and if so, what credits/statements would you like other than a link back?

        • Rachael Rachael says:

          I’m so sorry about the lag with our contact page – that one was on me. You absolutely have my permission to post this on the site of the Israeli Association for Feminist and Gender Studies. The only credit needed is just to say it was written by Rachael at Social Justice League and throw us a link back. :)

  12. Alex says:

    I’m fond of epithets that insult either intelligence (avoiding anything referencing the actually mentally disabled) or maturity. “Moron”, “idiot”, “fool”, “nitwit”, “twerp”, “baby”, and so on are all classics, and they all sound fantastic when spat at someone who deserves them.

    Otherwise, I’ll skip the one-word name-calling and simply explicate in detail what I think of their attitude, behavior or ability to form a cogent argument.

    Anyhow — wonderful, wonderful blog post. I just tied into it with someone last week about the dreaded “tone argument”, and this is a perfect articulation of my thoughts on the subject.

    • Connie Connie says:

      I would steer clear of insults about intelligence because most of them do come from an ableist background (FWD did an ableist word profiles for both moron and idiot). There is also an article on the site about intelligence being an ableist concept although I don’t agree 100% with the article or its conclusions (for example, I think we can acknowledge someone being more intelligent than someone else without making judgement calls about anyone’s worth as a human being – the same way that we aim for “fat” to merely be used as a descriptor), it’s something you might want to keep in mind when using intelligence as an insult.

      • Alex says:

        I think there need to be (if there aren’t already) some better names for those who aren’t involuntarily lacking intelligence, but who are willfully ignorant — my problem is with anti-intellectuals, not with people who simply don’t (for whatever reason) possess a certain level of intellect.

        • Connie Connie says:

          I understand what you’re saying, but I foresee potentially classist implications of the divide between who is educated/uneducated (although so-called educated people can often be the most ignorant). Unfortunately “wilfully ignorant” is probably the best we have (or adding “ignorant” to the front of another insult).

          • Alex says:

            Thanks for the article referral, by the way. ‘Ableist’ is a bit of a new term for me. Good food for thought, that.

          • Connie Connie says:

            No worries! FWD is a great resource and I think pretty beginner-friendly when it comes to issues about ableism.

  13. Heidi says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m so sick of being told we have to play nice with the people oppressing us. That somehow, magically, if we curtsy and use pretty words they’ll suddenly see the error of their ways. You know? I’m not begging ANYone to treat me like a fucking human being. Now social networking the shit out of this post! <3

  14. This post was shared by a disability advocate friend. We’ve been having conversations in and around the autism community about the differences you’re talking about, with some asking for civility and others asking for justice. Your post explains it perfectly.

    • M. Klein says:

      The problem of niceness versus justice is especially hard within the autistic community, mainly because many of us have gotten social skills therapy which placed emphasis on manners, civility, compliance, and basically just maintaining niceness in all communication. What with a lot of autistic people’s “rule-bound” tendencies (including mine), the result is we may not feel secure in our right to express anger/uncivil sentiments, since we weren’t taught by our concerned parents and well-meaning special ed teachers that we had that right. Of course, everyone has the right to nix politeness at times; it would be great if social therapy included a more thorough discussion of when those times are.
      I definitely don’t speak for everyone, but this has been my experience, anyway.

      • Rachael Rachael says:

        This is such an important contribution to this discussion. I wish I had thought about this when I wrote the article. Thank you for your comment, and for taking the time to educate me and everyone here.

  15. Suz says:

    Awesome post!

  16. A says:

    Great post! I wanted to add as well that being ‘nice’ is often actually a choice that a person has to make at their own expense. Often standing up for oneself requires actions which might seem ‘mean’ but the alternative which often goes unacknowledged is to be ‘mean’ to yourself by failing to protect your own space/self worth/whatever it may be.

    This can also happen in the context of not wanting to be personally ‘mean’ to someone, and therefore allowing your own systemic oppression. A good example of this is of a woman being hit on in a shared space, in which rather than being ‘mean’, rejecting the advances and potentially hurting someone’s feelings, she leaves the space (or stops riding that bus or going to that coffee shop etc), often failing to realize that someone was in fact hurt in that transaction: herself!

    Learning to take care of ourselves even at the cost of being ‘mean’ has to start being seen as a small step toward fighting oppression!

  17. Catbus says:

    I disagree with the author: Being good and being nice are indeed related. The missing link is kindness. Politeness is the form of kindness without the substance, while pursuit of justice without politeness is the substance without the form. Injustice and insult are both unkind because they disrespect the basic dignity and humanity of the target. You can’t successfully fight for justice without placing the needs of the marginalized front and center — and you also can’t successfully fight for justice without somehow persuading the privileged to consider and respect the needs of the marginalized, and that requires the ability to show empathy for the privileged as well as the marginalized, even as you make no bones about your wanting to eliminate the difference in privilege. Dignity is not zero-sum. Ideally, we want the marginalized to enjoy all the same basic rights and dignity that the privileged possess, not to reduce the privileged to the level of the marginalized. The only thing justice threatens to take away from the privileged is that which they have unjustly acquired at the expense of the marginalized, and which they have no excuse for claiming entitlement to. It is not unkind to say you intend to do something about that, unless you turn it into an attack on the person rather than an attack against the unjust privilege. You can say, “I respect you, I support your rights and your dignity — and I’m not going to let you treat anybody else like a nobody, period.”

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Thanks for your comment, you raised some interesting ideas. I do not object to you putting niceness and goodness under the umbrella of kindness, but all the same, I’m not sure that’s a useful way to think about it. While you agreed that they can exist without each other, you’re trying to tie them up together – and that’s precisely what is leading us into the traps I discussed. Thinking that they go together makes us that much less likely to recognise when a person is being nice or polite while also trying to destroy us, or being polite in order to take advantage of us. (Or indeed when a rude person is actually helping us, or telling us something important.)

      What’s more, as some of the commenters have pointed out, what is perceived as mean by the oppressor is often simply the oppressed protecting themselves. In these cases, politeness and self-preservation are indeed mutually exclusive. If someone says “I am afraid I simply can’t respect the personhood of women who dress in a sexually provocative manner!” and you say “Well but have you *tried* not being a misogynistic jerk?”, which remark has done more harm? The first is obviously worse, as it reinforces misogyny. The second does less harm, as it simply hurts one person’s feelings. And it may well be a net good for society, as it defends public space from misogyny, and sends a clear signal to all who hear it that this bullshit is misogynistic and will not be tolerated.

      I also think it is dangerous to classify both oppression and meanness as “unkind” or “disrespecting someone’s dignity” – you don’t want to imply that these things are equal moral bads. Oppression is clearly a much worse moral bad than rudeness. But bigots and oppressors don’t understand that, and that makes them confused about what they did, and it also shields them from self-reflection. That’s why it is helpful to separate them.

      Now, I’m really not discussing whether being nice is an effective tactic, or more effective than being mean, which is what most of your comment addresses. We may have to do another post on that. To be honest I’m not sure either way. :)

      • Catbus says:

        I don’t believe in trying to rank moral “bads.” I have an obligation not to do harmful things, regardless of the degree. I also don’t get to decide who is more or less deserving of disrespectful treatment; that’s where oppression comes from in the first place. Sure, there’s a moral calculus on the left that perceives “punching up” as less objectionable as “punching down” (counterposed against the right-wing bully’s view that “punching down” is the natural order of things and “punching up” a violation of it), but if you have a choice between defending your own (or others’) rights and dignity in a way that brings more negativity into the world and doing so in a way that doesn’t, I believe the latter is the only objectively right choice. (Unlike many progressives, I am not a moral relativist. Relativism — the idea that morality is defined in whole or in part by circumstance or cultural convention — is another source of oppression.)

        • Connie Connie says:

          I don’t think you need to be a moral relativist to rank harmful behaviours from least to most harmful. In some cases you probably can’t rank morality (ie. which is why people in SJ circles warn against oppression Olympics), but in other cases like say, theft and murder, you definitely can. I am not entirely sure what point you are trying to make here.

          Your statement about “punching up” kind of misses the point Rachael is making – that of self-protection and self-care. I’ve heard oppression put this way: Imagine someone accidentally steps on my foot really hard. The other person is obliged to apologise whether they meant to step on my foot or not. I, on the other hand, am not bound to niceties because holy fuck, that person just stepped on my foot real hard and it fucking hurts.

          Maybe in some cases my foot won’t hurt that much and I can phrase my exclamation nicely. But in other cases I will swear loudly at the person in question and there’s no obligation for me to be “nice” about it, because someone has just stepped on my foot and I’m more worried about my hurt foot than their feelings.

          In a similar way I’m not particularly concerned about the person who says something bigoted, but the people who have been hurt by the bigotry. And often that person is me.

        • Rachael Rachael says:

          I think Connie got in before me, so I’ll just add that I strongly object to you using the term “disrespectful treatment” to refer to both rudeness and oppression. We absolutely cannot afford to conflate those two things under one heading, as though they are part of one phenomenon that is the root of all the problems. Oppression is not only about who gets “respectful” or “disrespectful” treatment from their fellow humans. Oppression is about being denied rights and opportunities, in the law and in social, cultural and economic spheres. Sometimes this denial is done with the utmost “care” and “respect” as the oppressor sees it.

          The conflation of justice and politeness leads to all the problems I discussed in the post. If you disagree that it leads to those problems, or that those problems are real, then we can talk about that. But so far you haven’t offered any compelling rebuttal.

          • Catbus says:

            In a way, they are part of one phenomenon that is the root of all the problems: lack of empathy. The primary difference between the oppressor’s lack of empathy and the victim’s is who has the greater power. I agree that oppression is about being denied rights and opportunities; I disagree that this is the only harm to be avoided.

            I never disputed your observation about “niceness without goodness.” That’s real, no question. And the “Why can’t you just be nice?” argument against resistance to oppression is a real problem. However, that problem is exacerbated not just by the oppressor’s emphasis of the form of respect over the substance of it but by the oppressee’s sense that, because he’s oppressed, because the oppressor has treated him like a nobody, that he in turn has the right to disregard the dignity of the oppressor. And maybe we think he should have that right — but it doesn’t help. You don’t reregain your rights and dignity by “nicely” acquiescing to oppression, but neither do you regain them by lashing out at the oppressor. You regain them by lashing out at the injustice. There’s a difference. Condemn the deed, condemn the system, but respect the person. Failure to do that is the cause of every situation in which victims who successfully revolt become oppressors themselves.

            In short, do everything you can to reduce the harm perpetrated against you, and also do everything you can to reduce the harm you cause others.

        • Aparna says:

          @Catbus. I would like to add that sometimes being rude or using swear words and stuff like that is confused with badness.
          You have people and situations where people don’t think your protests are valid (in fact they don’t pay attention to your problem) because they think you are swearing, which makes you bad and hence your comments invalid.
          It becomes worse, when girls who use swear words/insults are considered fair game by eve teasers/harassers, when being nice is equated with dressing “modestly” and if you don’t dress so, if you don’t keep your voice low, then you don’t have any right to protest against molestation (is that the word?) or rape. That’s the line taken by certain political parties in my country, even police officers.
          Equating using harsh words with harrassment and rape, not to mention injustice! I cannot tell you how much it hurts.

          People need to know that using swear words/rude words, insults (the non-oppressive ones) does not really mean that they are bad. Just means they are being emotional, most of the time when they have a right to be.

        • M. Klein says:

          “I don’t believe in ranking moral bads”?
          I frankly don’t understand that statement. Ranking moral bads is the reason that a person spends less time in jail for robbing someone than for killing someone. That’s an extreme example, but it is a form of ranking moral bads. Some deeds are reasoned by most to be “worse” than others. It’s important to examine and question the reasoning, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying to reason those issues out altogether. I agree with some other commenters that it should go back to which deeds seem to do more, worse, and longer-lasting damage to the community. That has its own set of issues, of course, but it’s a place to start.

    • WD says:

      Hi Catbus, in response to this and your 3rd post, I think that the author agrees that the effectiveness of responding to bigoted jerks with personal attacks is up for debate.

      The point of the article is to remind oppressees that you do not need to be 100% polite in calling out someone who is 100% wrong – especially if the alternative is saying nothing at all. This is something I whole-heartedly agree with.

      Ultimately, I want to get my point across. If I find myself diluting my message and finding excuses to not speak up in order to make sure I am 100% in the right, I am only doing myself a disservice. While I agree with you on a theoretical level, in practice, holding such a mindset is not helpful – which I believe is what the author is trying to point out.

  18. Word to everything you said. Thanks for writing this.

  19. K says:

    LOL how did you miss out class under your list of oppresive heirarchies in the first paragraph. We live in capitalism ffs.

    Without class analysis, to keep critiques of power firmly entrenched in a class perspective, you will come up with well meaning but ultimately flawed liberalism.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Yes, I should have included class. Good spot.

      However, capitalism is not the principle author of classism. The world had much more extreme classism than we have now long before we ever had capitalism (if you really need an example of this I’d be surprised, but in any case, England like virtually every nation was much more classist in 1700 than it is now). In fact, we have less classism now that we live in a capitalist society – this is partially due to social factors and partially due to capitalism being way better for the poor than feudalism is, which is faint praise but true nonetheless.

      It is certainly true that our society is classist now. But it is not clear how classism and capitalism interact. After all, there is a big difference between an unequal distribution of wealth, and the oppression of those who have less wealth. There is nothing in the ethos of capitalism that implies that relatively poorer people are stupid, or lazy, or worthless, or should as a result have their bodily autonomy taken away from them – these things are due to classism.

      In general, I dispute the common idea that capitalism necessarily exacerbates classism, and other forms of oppression, compared with other ways of organising the economy (communism, feudalism etc). Historically, both within and between nations, capitalism is associated with less sexism, classism, racism etc, although of course it’s not clear how capitalism itself affects those things and it could well just be a timing coincidence. I will make a separate post about this quite soon so it might be best if we hold off on this discussion for the moment and move it to that post, when it goes up.

  20. Kavi says:

    I’m very happy with this article, and in fact, I think I’ll forward it to administration at my high school. Maybe they can learn something about the environment they’re trying to create there before my cousin graduates.
    This is a very good article and I hope that it and others like it can make even the smallest difference.

  21. Steve C says:

    I like the spirit of the original post, but Rachael confuses sufficiency with necessity and so the evidence she offers in defense of her central claim does not actually support that claim.

    Here’s what I mean:

    That it’s possible to be both morally bad and very polite does not prove that politeness and morality aren’t related – it only shows that politeness isn’t *sufficient* by itself for a person to be moral.

    The rest of her examples work the same way. She supports the claim that politeness is not sufficient for morality – not the claim that politeness is not necessary for morality, or that morality and politeness aren’t related – which seem to be her stated views.

    I just published a somewhat careful response to this article on my own blog.

    I really enjoyed reading it and I think this is an important topic – thanks!

    • M. Klein says:

      Interesting point. My only (tentative) argument would be that we should look at the term “related.” From a purely statistical point of view, if politeness and morality exist at about the same rate when one is not present as when both are present, they are not related; that is, if politeness is just as likely to exist, or exists in the same quantity (yes, i know they’re not the same) when morality is not present as it does when it is, then politeness and morality are not related. Obviously, this takes a lot of research to prove, especially since we can’t exactly measure units of politeness or morality, but my general experience, and that of others, is that politeness exists frequently when morality does not. I cannot speak as firmly as to whether morality frequently exists when politeness does not, but this also seems to be the case. So, I think i have to agree with Rachael.

  22. sg says:

    I think that “oppression is not primarily about hurt feelings”, because as you say it’s about rights and opportunities.

    Hurt feelings are in there too though. When I hear someone — who I know is not going to assault me, and doesn’t otherwise have power over me — say “faggot” or “that’s gay”, that hurts me emotionally.

    An instance of hurt feelings is not sufficient to label something oppression, of course. These instances are part of a lifelong pattern which happens to me because other people like me were already being oppressed for sexual orientation before I was born. But I just wanted to note that hurt feelings from microaggressions happen to be part of what makes it oppressive.

  23. anatsuno says:

    djdghfdsj how am I finding this only now?

    Great post, yes, thank you!

    I meant to add (though it might have been said already; I haven’t read all the comments yet!) that niceness should not be confused or conflated with kindness –

    Like, you explain very clearly that some people equate the ‘meanness’ of using a racist slur and the ‘meanness’ of pointing out someone is racist but that’s wrongheaded – which, yes! – but also, telling someone they don’t want to hear & that might hurt them doesn’t have to be characterized as mean, for one, and even if it is, it doesn’t follow from then than *not* pointing things out (the “nice”, polite, non-confrontational thing to do), for example, would be the opposite of mean, aka kind. Being nice is not being kind, and sometimes telling someone something that is confrontational and might hurt *is* the kind thing to do. I know this post started from a place where kindness isn’t really assumed in the picture (situations in which insults are required, etc), but still.

    To sum up, the revolution will not be polite, nice != good, and nice != kind either.

    I try to be kind, but I’m rarely nice in the American sense of demure, non-confrontational politeness. /ramble

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      I completely agree that kindness is a different thing to politeness/civility. Good idea to draw out the nuance there!

  24. Patrick P. says:

    This was a joy to read. Glad I got forwarded an excerpt from it and clicked the link to read the rest — I now have a new favorite blog!

  25. This is one of those articles that is so perfect, I was grinning from ear to ear, I printed it out and will carry it with me every time I get into this argument with people…which…has been frequently! You explain the situation so clearly and I really appreciate it. And no, I’m not just saying that to be nice! Thank you! This is important.
    Warmly, Dr D.

  26. Emptyell says:

    Connie,

    What about adding “sleeze” to column A?

  27. Joe says:

    One distinction I think it’s important to draw is that between being rude and being confrontational. We absolutely *should* be confrontational in the face of injustice/oppression — both to remind bystanders what injustice/oppression actually looks like and to remind oppressive people that they’re going to be fought against rather than let slide. Rudeness is a different kettle of fish. Confronting injustice *is not rude* in and of itself, but if it’s done with gratuitous rudeness it opens the door to all the old derailments as well as the occasional person who is legitimately put off rather than just derailing. Sure, it happens — my immediate reaction if I hear a racist joke is likely to be “knock that shit off” or something equally not-nice, but better to strive for something emphatic but not-rude like “knock that racism off right now!”

  28. Wonderbra says:

    sg – I don’t think that’s what Rachel meant about “hurt feelings”.

    You have every right to declare that insults like “faggot” contribute to oppression.

    However, if you call out whoever’s insulting you, by saying “You’re a homophobe”, that person does not have the right to reply
    with “I am not, that’s not nice! You’re oppressing me now, and I’m hurt”

    Oppressors derail with “that’s not nice” and “I’m not going to support [cause] anymore because you’re mean and hurtful”

    They honestly believe that “You’re sexist/racist/ableist/homophobic” is worse than [$slur], because society burdens the marginalised, with the attitude that truthfully laying out *why* a word/action/attitude is oppressive is as bad as actual oppression!

  29. rebecca says:

    Ugly has been removed (she got more than one contact about that, and she was awesomely open to it). This might be worth an ETA here?

  30. dan_brodribb says:

    I really enjoyed this article so thank you for writing. I value social harmony and not hurting feelings a lot, and I thought that’s where people were coming from as well. When you put it in the context of systemic oppression, I get it a little more.

    I’m also grateful for Catbus’ points because they’re very much in line with where I would like to be as a human being and thought Catbus did a wonderful job of articulating them.

    Thanks for the great read and greater discussion

  31. Blaguro says:

    Ahhh, so many things to say on this. We’ve all been guilty of mouth off BS at someone at some point.

    What we need to be advocating is tact, not niceness. Tact is about speaking the truth in love. It means avoiding being an insensitive jerk, but also saying what you mean. Once upon a time, manners were a form of tact, but niceness came along and stole them.

  32. Ken says:

    This is very well (I won’t say nicely) done. Can kindness or empathy (but not pity!) serve as an alternate to goodness?

  33. Jackson says:

    Your argument seems to be that it’s OK for you to abuse people who don’t share your opinions, but it’s not OK for them to abuse you. I can’t say I agree.

  34. audrey says:

    I read this post months ago and felt like a bunch of things I’d been trying to figure out clicked into place. This post, along with a lot of follow-up conversations with other excellent social justice-oriented folks, has made my life better, in that I feel much better about calling people on their shit.

  35. I am a little confused says:

    Just insulting the bad people won’t really make a revolution, it’ll just probably make them feel bad but continue doing it anyway. I personally think that the revolution SHOULD be polite, but not kind, as in you’ll tell them about it, make them learn why these things are bad, and then make them stop doing that. Calling someone racist will just make them go “Pfft, no I’m not” and continue doing that anyway. You can say that how many times you want and it still won’t change their opinion.

    P.S. This is just me, but it REALLY hurts me when I try to ask POC about racism and they say “You can’t help us because you’ll never understand us. You’re white.”. So both POC and racists ignore my efforts to help them.

    • Connie Connie says:

      Your arguments have been covered before in Derailing for Dummies.

      A POC may choose to educate a white person, but it is not their “duty” to do so, and certainly if they chose to do so, they wouldn’t do it 24/7. And the problem with racism (and every kind of marginalisation) is that it occurs all the time. So sometimes I’m well-rested, I’m not rushing to get anywhere, I’m feeling pretty emotionally on top of things, and maybe I will stop and choose to educate. But more often the racism occurs suddenly, and maybe it’s late, maybe I want to get home, maybe I’ve had the shittest day ever. In those cases, I might very well call that person a racist jerkwad – because my life does not actually revolve around educating privileged people about their racism, and that implicit assumption from your comment merely supports the existing framework of oppression.

      However, pragmatically speaking, yes, people do need to be educated about their privilege and obviously need to be educated by people with the knowledge to do so, which often happens to be those marginalised groups. This is why this website and countless others exist. We have created this website as a space to engage in educational dialogue so we can attend to comments whenever we choose to and feel up to the task of educating. We take time to write long posts and reasoned responses to comments because we do want to change people’s opinions. But that doesn’t mean we have a duty to be “nice” about it or that we need to be “nice” during all conversations about privilege.

      The fact that you’re conflating POC with racists in your last paragraph is just… beyond insulting really, and highly passive-aggressive. It’s concerning that in a conversation about racism, you’re focusing on your “hurt” as a white person rather than the “hurt” of the POC. And in some cases, it’s true you may not be able to understand OR help. Although there are similarities between areas of marginalisation, to claim that you understand racism in the same way as a POC as a white person is insulting because you absolutely can’t. This applies to all areas of marginalisation. You can certainly empathise and stand in solidarity, but there are some things that you may not be able to understand because you haven’t lived as a POC.

      And in some actions, you may not actually be able to help, and even if you are, POC might not want you to help. Given that white people already hold most prominent positions, POC might actually want another POC to be assisting instead of a white ally. To think you can somehow, I don’t know, lead all POC to freedom or something smacks of white saviour complex.

      For further information I will point you to this 101 post and this post on how to be a good ally.

  36. Theander says:

    I both agree and disagree with this.
    It is just as important to be nice as it is important to be good. Social harm can come in a variety of manners and emotional harm is something too. However, no one should demand you to be nice to them (and thus use it as a control mechanism), and politeness as a means of communication should not be used to veil threats or anything (which is why I disagree with the use of insults at all, oppressive or otherwise, though I agree with being non-oppressive, they are separate issues just as niceness and goodness are separate).
    However, aside from that, this article raises a number of good and important points, such as how ‘niceness’ is manipulated or abused, which is why no one should demand niceness, if it exists, it should be given.

  37. whindsoull says:

    Rude revolutionaries don’t win over the populace. If you’re talking to someone who’s flagrantly a terrible person, and is intentionally re-enforcing social discrimination, then sure…insult away. But yelling “fuck the patriarchy” at nearby strangers when you hear them default to masculine pronouns doesn’t make your movement any friends.

    Typically, when I get accused of using a “tone” argument, I’m not making an argument at all; I’m really just saying, “You’re being rude, and this conversation has become unpleasant. Please be more civil, or I’m not interested in talking to you any more.”

    Let me put it this way: Everybody has “that friend.” The one who lacks a filter between brain and mouth, shoves his opinion into everything, and says whatever comes to mind, often offending those around him. However, he likes to describe himself as “honest” and “frank,” and as someone who “tells it like it is,” dubiously spinning his lack of social etiquette into a virtue. Well….we, as revolutionaries, need to carefully avoid being that guy. That guy kills movements as fast as conversations.

    • Connie Connie says:

      Typically, when I get accused of using a “tone” argument, I’m not making an argument at all; I’m really just saying, “You’re being rude, and this conversation has become unpleasant. Please be more civil, or I’m not interested in talking to you any more.”

      That’s still derailing. If you want out of a conversation, that’s your own prerogative, but by responding to substantive argument with “You’re being rude” doesn’t actually address the argument itself. The tone of an argument might make you less willing to engage with that argument emotionally but if you can already acknowledge that, then the choice is on you whether or not you want to engage. If you want to engage, then you push past that. If you don’t, then don’t. “I’d engage with this if you were nicer” is attempting to absolve yourself of personality responsibility in these conversations.

      Additionally, people usually start getting “rude” when they’ve already exhausted their supply of social niceties and civilly-worded rational arguments, and the person in question is Just Not Getting It.

      The additional implication is that marginalised people always need to be “nice” to their oppressors – who are usually the ones being bigoted. Marginalised people are not activists 24/7 and it is not their job to be. When a bigoted person has said something hurtful, it is not a marginalised person’s responsibility to suppress their anger and turn the event into a “teaching moment” for the bigot.


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